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When Oliver Finsterwalder began working as a tax consultant for German media giant Dieter von Holtzbrinck in 2008, he couldn’t have imagined where the role would eventually take him.
“He had just retired from publishing,” Finsterwalder recalls. “I was put in charge of wealth management and all his tax issues. From the first moment of working with him, it was a great pleasure. We forged a working relationship based on trust.”
As von Holtzbrinck worked to establish DvH Medien by clawing back media groups he’d previously owned, Finsterwalder found himself on the front line.
“I supported the acquisition process, and after that was done I would, in some way, become an outsourced CFO,” he says. “I was still a tax consultant, but as he became more and more my main client and one of my main sparring partners outside the business, I was allowed to make a deeper dive into the media business.”
Eventually, von Holtzbrinck made Finsterwalder an offer.
“He asked if I’d take charge of the company and its crew,” Finsterwalder says. “It wasn’t how I’d envisioned my career, but I wanted to keep working closely with him. I accepted immediately and I’ve never regretted it.”
With his dramatic career U-turn, Finsterwalder became CFO of DvH Medien, and later, CEO. The family-owned company owns major shares in much of the German media landscape, including Handelsblatt Media Group and ZEIT Verlagsgruppe, each publishing leading news platforms of both the print and digital mediums for their respective target markets.
For someone who never saw himself as a media baron, Finsterwalder has made sure that technology has played a major role in his development and enhancement of DvH Medien. So far, the move has proven successful.
“The biggest challenge in the pursuit of profitable growth hasn’t been the element of investment, because that can always be organized,” he explains. “It’s actually proven to be getting everyone on the team to accept the new rules of technology.”
In many ways, Finsterwalder adds, technology has even altered the culture among publishers.
“In centuries past, we were creating content without truly understanding the needs of our customers,” Finsterwalder admits. “All we ever saw is that they were buying our products. What we never knew was how much they were using them.”
That’s all changed thanks to modern advancements that now allow publishers to better understand their audience and develop strategized content.
“The problem is that there are still people in the industry who haven’t adapted,” Finsterwalder notes. “I think this will prove one of the biggest challenges of the next few years. Things have changed dramatically and it takes time to get people not only to accept it, but to work to drive business that way.”
And that’s precisely what Finsterwalder has made his and, by extension, DvH Medien’s near-term agenda. By further developing and extending its use of technology, Finsterwalder is convinced that the group will be better able to serve its clientele.
“We want to strengthen our profitable growth,” he reveals. “Last year was the best ever in the history of our committee. As a result, we have the full backing of our shareholders to go all in when it comes to technological development.”
That includes changing the mindset of staff still resistant to technological change.
“You can’t just invest in new technology and leave people to work it out,” Finsterwalder advises. “We need to support people in the use of the new systems; that’s one of the key factors for empowering the initiative.”
It’s an approach that’s indicative of DvH Medien’s overall attitude toward teamwork and collaboration.
“We always ask of our management staff to ‘enable your teams and enable the people.’ We place a strong emphasis on teamwork,” explains Finsterwalder, highlighting that this approach is atypical within the industry.
The team supporting Finsterwalder is entirely on board with his vision for the company. Chief among them is Dominic Gaspary, DvH Medien’s new Managing Director and former CCO.
“We’re excited to announce that Dominic, as well as CFO Jochen Maurer, will be joining our board of management,” Finsterwalder says. “As part of the company, they are committed to investing in the future of media and bringing our brands to the forefront of technological innovation.”
In his new role, Gaspary is responsible for overseeing DvH Medien’s three media companies: Handelsblatt Media Group, ZEIT Verlagsgruppe and Verlag der Tagesspiegel.
“My focus will be on accompanying our subgroups in the operational implementation of their strategies while providing guidance and support to ensure the success of each subsidiary,” he says.
Joining DvH Medien back in 2019, Gaspary quickly put to work his experience with developing digital strategies. “I firmly believe in the value of building highly effective teams, streamlining processes, fostering a positive and inclusive corporate culture and leveraging data-driven insights to make more informed decisions,” Gaspary says.
Gaspary was the ideal match for for Finsterwalder’s team. He vividly recalls his initial encounters with Oliver Finsterwalder upon learning about the available position.
“The role quickly caught my attention due to DvH Medien’s stellar reputation in the media industry and its remarkable array of quality media brands. Moreover, the company’s longstanding private ownership resonated with me. Additionally, their unwavering commitment to innovation and digital transformation perfectly aligns with my personal values and experiences,” he explains.
As CCO, Gaspary collaborates closely with the management teams of DvH Medien’s media companies.
“Working alongside our highly experienced professionals in the media industry is a remarkable privilege. I am eager to continue making a meaningful impact on the media group’s ongoing success.”
Gaspary emphasizes the importance of close collaboration with DvH Medien’s talented employees to achieve this goal.
“We strongly believe that sharing knowledge and fostering collaboration among our colleagues are essential elements for our success,” he affirms. In his new role, Gaspary takes it upon himself to support the companies, prioritize the needs of subscribers, and deliver exceptional content by investing in technology, data analytics, and digital platforms.
By enabling entrepreneurship and empowering staff, Finsterwalder says many issues are eliminated before they become corrosive.
“These things only become an issue if you don’t talk about them or reflect on why they came up in the first place,” he says, adding, “when you have an open and collaborative culture, you can make errors and learn from them.”
A healthy company culture also allows for increased efficiency on the business end. In DvH Medien’s case, that means being able to recognize an individual’s strengths and transfer them accordingly.
“We have four media brands and they’re totally independent of each other,” Finsterwalder explains. “Publishing groups can often go for quick wins by merging editorial departments, but we can’t afford to risk the independence of our brands; in the long run, you lose the USP of each media brand for its unique readers and users.
“Instead, we make sure to keep the different editorial departments independent and to regard all as individual long-term investment cases. It’s a good and necessary investment in those editorial branches because high-quality content with a unique selling proposition (USP) for our users is the basis of our business model.”
Being a privately owned company allows leadership to focus on long-term investments and goals as opposed to short-term financial KPIs, Finsterwalder says. It’s also a bonus for DvH Medien’s partners and suppliers, who value the enhanced transparency private ownership provides.
“When you’re building partnerships with the long run in mind, you have to be as transparent as you can be,” Finsterwalder acknowledges.
As the publishing industry becomes increasingly digital in nature, those partnerships – particularly with tech companies – are more valuable than ever.
“The delivery of paper has become a big problem as print declines,” Finsterwalder says. “As a result, we’ve had to ensure our supply chains are strong enough to weather that rapidly changing situation.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, DvH Medien’s plans to further focus on digitalization crystalized.
“Subscriptions and digital publishing are key aspects of our business, so when the coronavirus crisis appeared and advertising and events came to a halt, we were able to refocus on our subscription strategy,” Finsterwalder continues. “It’s important, too, in a situation like that, to not waste management energy de-focusing on activities. You have to sharpen up and become even more transparent, which is what we did. If you can’t be transparent, your people won’t follow you, and management is nothing without the people.”
The road ahead of the publishing industry remains shrouded in a fog of uncertainty, but DvH Medien’s long-term vision, sharp focus, embrace of technology and unlikely CEO have galvanized the company as the future takes shape.
“We’re not focused on quick wins, but developing the business and improving our reach,” Finsterwalder declares. “And it’s technology that helps us do that; the benefits technology offers publishing groups like ours are enormous.”