March 29, 2007 8:19 pm

SAP shares fall after research chief quits

SAP shares fell to a near two-year low in the course of Thursday trading, after the world’s biggest maker of software for companies lost its star product developer and prepared for succession at the top of the group without him.

The departure of 38-year-old technology head Shai Agassi extended a run of bad news, which includes missed targets in two recent quarters, investor doubts about a new product and a lawsuit from rival Oracle alleging theft.

But the shares managed to make up early losses as investors seemed to realise the likely elevation of sales chief Léo Apotheker to sole chief executive in two years’ time might be no bad thing, given a vital new product launch.

SAP stock fell as much as 2 per cent to €32.83 per share, near a closing low of €32.80 recorded on May 23 2005, but they rallied to close only 0.5 per cent lower. However, SAP was still the loser among German blue chip stocks.

Hasso Plattner, SAP chairman, said Mr Agassi’s “personal career timeline” had jarred with SAP’s plan to make him and Mr Apotheker co-chief executives after the departure of Henning Kagermann in the spring of 2009.

People who know SAP said the US-based ex-software entrepreneur was not willing to spend years in tandem with Mr Apotheker, an SAP veteran fifteen years his senior, before someday – maybe – taking sole control.

Mr Agassi said he would concentrate on public policy issues such as the environment. But SAP will retain him as “special consultant” to Mr Plattner – a move clearly designed to stop Mr Agassi working for competitors.

His departure also led to a reorganisation of SAP’s top management, with Mr Apotheker being named deputy chief executive and Mr Kagermann taking over research from Mr Agassi, who will leave on April 1.

Although Mr Plattner refused to say whether Mr Apotheker would actually succeed Mr Kagermann, further organisational changes show the influence the new deputy chief executive will wield at SAP headquarters in Walldorf.

Half of a new 10-member executive council will report directly to Mr Apotheker. One of these, Hans-Peter Klaey, is in charge of SAP’s efforts to sell to small companies after coming to dominate the big company sector.

SAP says a key to success in this sector is a new internet service “hosted” on its computers but investors have balked at an investment of €400m ($534m) and worry about nimble rivals. Its shares have fallen 25 per cent in a year.

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