By Siobhan O’Leary
When representatives of Eichborn Verlag and Aufbau Verlag held a press conference in Berlin in January to announce their intended collaboration and Eichborn’s anticipated move from Frankfurt to Berlin, it seemed that the two large German independent houses still stood a chance of living happily ever after. At least they were similar enough in terms of size, turnover, program and structure.
In the months that followed, however, Aufbau owner Matthias Koch took over as Eichborn’s majority shareholder (75.67%) and, in one of his first moves in the role, handed off pink slips to 35 of Eichborn’s 48 employees. Though Eichborn’s headquarters has been more or less shrouded in silence since then, a formal objection to the layoffs on the part of its employee organization led by spokesman Claus Mirlach further stoked the tension between the two sides.
Koch’s subsequent announcement that he plans to continue talks with other potential partners has caused additional confusion and insecurity. How essential is Eichborn to this equation? Is there a reason why it is being all but run into the ground? Does Aufbau have other potential collaborations up its sleeve? And does Eichborn have a Plan B or is its reputation damaged beyond repair at this point?
At the end of April, Koch responded with a formal statement maintaining his commitment to expanding collaboration between the two companies and noting that, to his knowledge, Eichborn has no other alternative but to move forward with this partnership. It’s no secret that Eichborn has been mired in financial woes, with turnover slumping by 12.3% to 11.4 million euros in 2010. He added, “Eichborn AG’s employee organization has objected to the terminations and thus potentially delayed the move [to Berlin]. However, I am and shall remain the majority shareholder.” Koch also drew attention to both publishers’ strong fall programs and reiterated that both sides would be best served by continuing to publish independent programs under one umbrella.
From the beginning, Koch made it clear that his goal was to set up Eichborn as an editorially independent entity in Aufbau’s relatively new and sprawling office space in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. Support departments, like accounting and marketing, would be consolidated. The top two floors of Aufbau’s home were reserved for a bookstore, theater and gallery, and presumably for some of the Eichborn staff. Despite rumors to the contrary and the significant layoffs already confirmed, Aufbau spokeswoman Annette Kusche told buchreport that Koch continues to have every intention of bringing as many members of Eichborn’s core team to Berlin as possible.
Aufbau is still slated to take over sales for Eichborn as of June 1st and the tentative plan is for Eichborn’s remaining 13 employees, primarily editorial staff, to move to Aufbau’s Berlin headquarters as of July 1st. It is still not out of the question that some of the employees who were let go might be offered positions with Aufbau or Aufbau Media.
Eichborn’s forthcoming shareholders’ meeting at the beginning of June should serve as a litmus test for Koch and for the viability of the merger going forward.