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Former Beluga manager accused of stealing orphan school donations

Former owner of the bankrupt Beluga shipping firm Niels Stolberg has been accused of funnelling money donated to rebuild a school in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami in Asia into his company’s coffers as he battled to keep it afloat.

Former Beluga manager accused of stealing orphan school donations
Photo: DPA

The Financial Times Deutschland reported on Wednesday that the Bremen public prosecutor had launched an investigation against Stolberg for suspected fraud regarding the €500,000 school donation.

The paper said Beluga ran into massive money problems last year and went bust in the summer. Stolberg is already being investigated for suspected falsification of the company’s accounts to the tune of more than €100 million.

It is thought he simply invented massive chunks of turnover, while also putting part of his personal fortune into the company in an attempt to make its books seem halfway healthy, the paper said.

He persuaded the American investor Oaktree Capital Management to invest in the company in 2010, but within a few months the Americans confronted him about irregularities and forced him out of the company.

Oaktree is now suing Stolberg for €120 million in damages, while the latest allegations will only further damage his ruined reputation according to the FTD.

He founded the school in Thailand following the tsunami, supposedly in order to help orphaned children there. The television programme NDR1 reported recently that money collected for it during the fundraising effort was moved the next day into the company’s accounts.

The Local/hc

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SPACE

Meet the small German space mission that aims to improve life on earth

Holding its own against aerospace giants like pan-European Airbus Space or French-Italian Thales Alenia, Bremen-based minnow OHB has carved out a space as a national champion in satellite building.

Meet the small German space mission that aims to improve life on earth
Two satellites are manufactured in Bremen. Photo: DPA

Its latest coup was claiming a hefty slice of business from contracts signed in early July by the European Space Agency (ESA) as it builds up its Earth observation programme known as Copernicus.

Among the six new satellites, an OHB-built orbiter will keep an eye on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions stemming from human activity over the coming decades.

The aim: offering policymakers the data they need to find ways of reducing greenhouse gas output.

“Some space missions are mostly relevant to science. At OHB, we like projects that help people in their everyday lives,” chief executive Marco Fuchs told AFP.

Thales Alenia may have secured the lion's share of ESA orders this time around, but OHB is “ideally positioned” to play a role in “permanent observation of the Earth in environmental, climate and security terms”, Fuchs said.

READ ALSO: 10 breathtaking views of Germany from space

Germany's aerospace sector claimed around 30 percent of the “Copernicus 2.0” business, or €800 million.

That shows it is “well equipped to be competitive internationally”, believes Thomas Jarzombek, a lawmaker who tracks aerospace issues for Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party.

The sector has also been abuzz in recent months as Germany signalled ambitions to significantly ramp up the industry.

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier raised hopes when he voiced support in October for a proposal from industry federation BDI to develop a space mission launch centre in Germany.

Family first

OHB's success with Copernicus was in part down to the laurels it earned working on Galileo, the ESA's other flagship programme offering satellite navigation to match the American GPS system.

The Bremen-based company with its 2,800 workers built around 20 of the satellites in the network.

Snatching that contract from under the nose of Airbus subsidiary Astrium in 2010 rocketed aerospace also-ran OHB into the ranks of top manufacturers.

When businesswoman Christa Fuchs bought the small company known as Otto Hydraulik Bremen in 1982, it had been repairing ships since its founding a quarter of a century before.

The satellites play a role in monitoring carbon emissions. Photo: obs/©OHB SE

But her husband, aerospace engineer Manfred Fuchs, joined the firm a few years later and piloted it off in a new direction — handing the controls over to his son Marco, a former corporate lawyer, in 2000.

The family holds 70 percent of the firm to this day, with the rest traded on the stock market and valued at a total €740 million.

The coronavirus pandemic has had an impact on OHB, prompting the company to give up on paying out a dividend to shareholders this year as well as performance-related bonuses or pay rises to staff.

But it is pressing on with new projects, including developing its own rocket at a site in the Bavarian city of Augsburg to deliver small satellites into orbit.

'Try something new'

Typical of Germany's industrial backbone of successful small and medium-sized firms, OHB has resisted plans of French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire to bolt it together with France's Arianegroup and Italy's Avio.

“Merging Arianegroup and OHB would not improve the EU's space industry,” CEO Fuchs insists.

OHB itself has meanwhile set its sights on other related projects.

READ ALSO: Meet the Germans who want to move to Mars

Marco Fuchs argues that “the EU should try something new… in the telecommunications space”.

“Europe needs its own network of versatile satellites, like those being built by competitors like Project Starlink of Space X or Kuiper by Blue Origin,” he said.

Billionaire Elon Musk's Starlink programme and Amazon mogul Jeff Bezos' Kuiper aim to deliver connectivity to the remotest locations on land and sea.

Fuchs' plans may well fit the EU's ambitions.

European Commissioner Thierry Breton recently told France's Le Figaro daily that he would “very soon” propose plans for the EU to become more independent in broadband internet.

By Jean-Philippe Lacour

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