SAP, the world’s biggest business software group, is open to an acquisition by US technology groups, according to its chairman.

Hasso Plattner, supervisory board chief at the German group, said in an interview with FT Deutschland, the FT’s sister paper: “There are only three potential buyers: IBM, Microsoft and Google. I don’t see anyone else. If shareholders think that a combination, and not independence, is better, then it will happen.”

Mr Plattner, who holds 12 per cent of the company, said he would have to act in the interest of all shareholders, not just himself.

He is the only one of the four SAP co-founders still holding a position within the group.

“You have to be emotionless,” Mr Plattner said.

Asked about the widely speculated merger scenario involving IBM, Plattner said: “I do not want to invent rumours because there are no talks. However, I do not want to say that I dislike IBM so much that I could not imagine such a scenario at all.”

But he could not imagine talks with Oracle, SAP’s arch rival.

A takeover of SAP would be a stretch for most companies, given its market capitalisation of more than €50bn ($64bn) and the fact that it is in the middle of a period of immense organic growth.

Two years ago, observers were surprised when Microsoft approached SAP with a bid and worries of long-winded EU competition probes brought talks to an early end.

Mr Plattner said many European IT companies had been unable to compete with American rivals in the past because they were too nationally minded and had focused on small markets.

Bull in France and Olivetti in Italy were number ones in their domestic markets until being overrun by US groups.

“We would long have needed an ‘IT-Airbus’,” Plattner said in analogy with the construction of aircraft where Germany, France, Spain and the UK had bundled their forces to compete with Boeing.

Last week, SAP gave Henning Kagermann, its chief executive, an incentive to renew his contract as chief executive next year by flagging unprecedented bonuses for senior staff.

The supervisory board plans to pay out €300m to hundreds of employees if SAP’s share price doubles by 2010, with one-third of the sum reserved for the chief executive and the six other executive directors.

Mr Kagermann took over in the aftermath of the tech-bubble bursting and has led SAP to stellar sales and profit growth. He has yet to say whether he will renew a contract that ends in 2007.

A vital part of his success is melding technology and marketing expertise, throwing up the question of whether SAP would be able to find a replacement with a similar balancing influence on the executive board.

A decision could come as late as next spring, with Mr Kagermann’s deliberations coinciding with a debate in Germany on whether executives should sign three-year rather than five-year contracts.

Mr Plattner told shareholders at last week’s annual meeting the bonuses would help SAP realise “very ambitious” goals to double sales in the next five years.

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