Rolf Breuer, who took Deutsche Bank global, dies at 86

Rolf Breuer, the former Deutsche Bank AG chief executive officer who presided over the 1999 purchase of Bankers Trust Corp. and sparked a decade-long legal battle with a German media entrepreneur, has died. He was 86.

He died on Wednesday in the presence of his family, following a long illness, Deutsche Bank said in an emailed statement.   

Breuer led Deutsche Bank from 1997 to 2002, a period when it was Europe’s largest bank by assets. He was the bank’s first CEO to come from the investment-banking side rather than from traditional client or lending businesses.

The purchase of New York-based Bankers Trust for $9 billion, the biggest of a US bank by a foreign company at the time, was a landmark for century-old Deutsche Bank, supercharging an expansion that had begun a decade earlier with the purchase of UK merchant bank Morgan Grenfell. 

“Rolf Breuer’s importance for Deutsche Bank cannot be overestimated,” Supervisory Board Chairman Alexander Wynaendts said. “My thoughts are with his wife and family.”

The combination with Bankers Trust created the world’s largest financial services company, with assets of €795 billion (about $817 billion at the time). Before the purchase, Deutsche Bank’s investment-banking arm had focused on advising clients on mergers and stock sales out of Europe. Now it would compete on a global stage.

Breuer also publicly acknowledged that Deutsche Bank had played a part in the Nazi Holocaust by helping finance the construction of the Auschwitz death camp.

After the financial crisis, subsequent Deutsche Bank CEOs would reverse its aggressive growth of the 1990s and 2000s. Expansion and takeovers had left the bank with multiple fiefdoms and competing centers of power.

Breuer was succeeded as CEO by Josef Ackermann in 2002. He served as supervisory board chairman until 2006, when he resigned amid legal peril over a comment he had made.

The comment had come in a Bloomberg Television interview in 2002, where he was asked about the creditworthiness of Munich-based Kirch Group, a client of Deutsche Bank that had more than $5 billion in debt. Breuer said “everything that you can read and hear” is that “the financial sector isn’t prepared to provide further” loans or equity to Kirch, once Germany’s second-largest media company.

When Kirch Group filed for insolvency two months later, its founder, Leo Kirch, blamed Breuer. He unleashed a cascade of litigation against Deutsche Bank, seeking billions in damages. The bank settled the civil cases for €925 million in 2014.

In 2015, Breuer, Ackermann and three other former executives, including co-CEO Juergen Fitschen, were ordered to stand trial on allegations that they lied to judges during the dispute. All five men were acquitted the following year. 

Rolf-Ernst Breuer was born on Nov. 3, 1937, in Bonn. After completing high school, he started a vocational training at Deutsche Bank. He studied law in Munich and Lausanne, Switzerland, before gaining his doctorate from the University of Bonn.

Breuer worked at a Deutsche Bank branch in Karlsruhe until 1969 before moving to its headquarters in Frankfurt and working in the trading unit. He joined the management board in the mid-1980s. –BLOOMBERG