DIRK SCHEKERKA was the quintessential “Hamburger Kaufmann” – somebody who trades, above all, on his reputation. An absolute man of his word, he was always fair and transparent in his dealings, and this gave him a huge advantage in the German Mittelstand (a market often suspicious of financial investors). In this community, his reputation was unmatched.
For Dirk, this open approach was very much a strategic choice and contrasted with an often playful quality. In an industry full of clever people, he was considered brilliant by those around him, and was “quite capable of outsmarting the most seasoned negotiators.” And yet he never used this to gain an unfair advantage.
Dirk embodied many such contrasts. He enjoyed the finer things in life, but only if he could share them. He was relentless in his pursuit of success, but would then take little recognition for himself. His son Moritz notes aphoristically, “Ganz oder gar nicht, aber nicht verbissen!“ It was all or nothing, but not to a fault.
Dirk was a precocious child, a very bright and responsible youth, and from an early age he developed a love of motor cars. His first car was a green Karman Ghia, Volkswagen’s sports’ coupé, which he ‘drove into the ground’.
He studied economics in Hamburg and gained an apprenticeship at Hamburger Sparkasse, Haspa in 1984, before landing his first M&A roles, at lower mid-market boutiques HFG Angermann and Steffens Alvano & Partner. He was quickly given the responsibility to source his own deals. This meant he was back on the road, driving around Germany, meeting vendors and potential acquirers.
It was during this period he decided to visit every Michelin-starred restaurant in the country, and thus began a lifelong culinary adventure and encyclopaedic knowledge of food and, especially, wine, which became the stuff of local legend. In a typical incident, his colleague Stefan Maser recalls how, when holidaying in a small village in Croatia, Stefan met a sommelier who knew Dirk.
Dirk began his private equity career with Granville Baird’s small Germany-based team in 1998, where he was responsible for its highly successful investment into Mobile.de, which developed into the country’s leading used-car platform. He had a brief stint at Auctus Capital Partners at its founding, before finally landing at Barclays Private Equity (Equistone’s forerunner) in 2002. His early deals included Wessel, Stamptech and FEP, the latter returning five-times money. All these deals were sourced through Dirk’s own network.
In 2006 he led Equistone’s investment into TUJA, which returned, in just one year, Equistone’s second largest ever capital gain at that time (and a 243% IRR). “Ten years later, we would still laugh and reminisce of that wonderful ride – the pure unadulterated fun of the deal, and those 15 months working with its truly two-of-a-kind founders,” recalls Oskar Schilcher.
There were other successes to come. Sunrise Medical, completed in 2012, was a major contributor to Fund IV’s performance. His most recent deal, Omnicare, is an early star in Fund VI. In all, Dirk was involved in 17 transactions in his 19 years at Equistone.
The respect and affection that his German, Swiss and Dutch colleagues hold for him is palpable and this extends right across the firm. Steve O’Hare, who took over the UK country-head role at around the same time Dirk took on the DACH/NL region, said, “I valued him hugely as a colleague and as a human being. He had a very calm and considered ear, very succinct quiet advice and had a massive twinkle in his eye for fun, once the work had finished.”
Indeed, sometimes the twinkle emerged just before the work had finished… He was known to depart from a contentious negotiation in vocal frustration, only to be found outside with a glass of beer in hand, five minutes later. Marc Arens remembers his job interview for Equistone in the summer of 2005. It was the one he will never forget. “We met in a bar. We had lots of beers.” Dirk also had social stamina. With his wife, Jana, he would frequently be the last on the dance floor, a Negroni in hand. And when alone, he would create his own music on his guitar or banjo.
Above all, Dirk’s enthusiasm was a defining feature. He had an entrepreneurial, optimistic spirit, and he believed in people, recognising their talents, and supporting their aspirations. This was as true of his Equistone colleagues, and management teams, as of his own four children. During his four-year tenure as head of DACH/NL, the team’s deal executives have grown in stature and experience, while his ethos contributed to a positive and collaborative culture that will surely be one of his most enduring professional legacies.
All he asked and expected was the necessary effort, and that’s what he gave. And he could be brutally determined, such as becoming an accomplished skier as an adult, despite suffering many fractures and a broken shoulder.
Certainly, he could have been a hard negotiator if he wished – but this wasn’t necessary. With him in the room, management presentations would frequently go way off script, turning into thrilling discussions of all that could be made of a business. Again and again, after such encounters, CEOs and their teams would exert whatever influence they could to ensure that Equistone would be the next owner of the business. And they, like his in-house colleagues, loved working with him to fulfil these ideas.
Years later, everybody who did business with Dirk (even in situations when things didn’t go to plan), would remember him as an unusually good business partner. Dirk is now gone, but the potential that he saw, and helped to realise, lives on. ☐
This article appeared in PLATFORM 05, Summer 2021