Ernst Busemann, Lawyer and businessman

The first Chairman of the Management Board of Degussa 1930-39

Degussa

* 1876, Köln-Deutz

† 1939, Frankfurt am Main

After obtaining his diploma at the grammar school in his hometown of Cologne, Busemann began a three-year apprenticeship at the Koblenz-based Bankhaus Seligman, starting in 1895. As a sideline the young man also studied for a law degree, and received his doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Göttingen only six months after completing his apprenticeship.

In 1903 Ernst Busemann became private secretary to Wilhelm Merton, the cofounder of the Frankfurter Metallgesellschaft AG, and for more than ten years starting 1904 headed the Usine de Désargentation in Hoboken, Belgium. Founded in 1887, this silver separating works was owned in equal part by the Metallgesellschaft and the Deutsche Gold- und Silber-Scheideanstalt (Degussa AG since 1980 and predecessor of Evonik’s Chemicals Business Area). When the facilities were expropriated during the First World War and placed under Belgian administration, Busemann returned to Germany where he became head of the Kriegsmetall AG in Berlin, which, as was the case with other companies too, had been set up by the War Ministry to manage raw materials.

A New Kind of Entrepreneur

Back in 1916 Deutsche Gold- und Silber-Scheideanstalt had already secured the services of Busemann for the post-war years. In 1919, when he joined its Management Board, Ernst Busemann was 43 years old. He was held in high regard by industry and banking circles. Busemann was a new type of entrepreneur who – unlike those of the older generation–considered that the main focus of his work lay not just in developing production technology and sales. He believed strongly that Degussa, of which not much of the global company remained intact after 1918, must not revert to the business policy of the pre-war years.

In light of economic uncertainties, increasing production abroad and the markets closing off, Degussa would be able to regain its former glory only if it succeeded in expanding its existing factories and acquiring new ones in particular. Procuring the money necessary for the reconstruction of the businesses was accomplished by taking loans on the capital market, which despite inflationary currency devaluation was very "fluid," and also by way of significant capital increases in the inflation years up to 1923.

His management board colleagues acknowledged Busemann’s achievements for Degussa in the difficult years immediately following the First World War. "His strength lies in the way in which he is able to identify the economic and especially financial connections of the businesses early on, and exploit these with great skill," wrote Fritz Roessler years later. "As a result he managed to achieve the extraordinary during the inflationary period, by correctly assessing the situation earlier than others (...)." When the post of Chairman of the Management Board was introduced at Degussa in 1930, it was only natural that Busemann should be appointed to hold it.

"Don’t Pander to the capital market"

Busemann, the financial wizard, did not share the confidence in the development of German industry in the second half of the twenties, and warned: "don’t pander to the capital market". While many German industrial companies took advantage of what had meanwhile become a broad range of credit offers from the United States, and England too, in order to remedy damage caused by the war, Busemann steered Degussa towards self-financing, and he did well to do so. As he wrote in 1934: "The Refinery considered it right to use the profits in reserve to seek out new fields that match its facilities and experience (...). The restriction on the distribution of profits, financing new acquisitions from within the company, refraining from capital increases – all these measures involve curtailing shareholder rights to some degree so as to benefit (...) the company’s own financial capabilities. The inner reserves and financial independence serve in the first instance as a protective barrier for the staff, which will stand it in good stead when times are tough."

Despite everything, however, Degussa remained vulnerable, a situation that became especially evident when at the beginning of the thirties it was obliged to enlist the participation of I.G. Farbenindustrie AG, its chief competitor, in some of its projects (e.g. Degesch, Österreichische Chemische Werke). However, of even greater significance was the establishment of a “controlled market economy” starting in 1933, with the official state goals being "aryanization", autarchy and armament.

Busemann believed the company would be unable to circumvent these directives if it wanted to continue to operate successfully. Even if he never joined the NSDAP, he nevertheless steered a course of cooperation with the regime. In 1937 his motto was: “There’s no point in swimming against the current.” As a result of this tactical foresight on the part of the Management Board Chairman, but also due to some fortuitous coincidences, Degussa managed to prevent the NSDAP obtaining the indirect control it was aiming to achieve through party members at management and employee levels.

Aficionado of the Simple Life

In his private capacity Ernst Busemann loved music and a simple lifestyle. He took a particular interest in the history of the cities in which he had lived. He enjoyed taking long walks and hiking great distances. He frequently made his business visits on foot as well, and at one time he walked the stretch from Frankfurt to Darmstadt to visit the Merck company.

Ernst Busemann died of an incurable illness during the night of October 29–30, 1939, at the age of 62. His successor in office was Hermann Schlosser.

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