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The Succession Playbook

In Focus
NAME:Oliver Finsterwalder
LOCATION:Stuttgart, Germany
As outgoing CEO of DvH Medien, Oliver Finsterwalder is putting transparency first to ensure a seamless handover and continued success for the company.

Starting in a new role requires time and deliberation; recruitment – particularly at the executive end of the market – is a layered selection process with decisions rarely made overnight. But so does knowing when to step away from one, as fleeting thoughts and a niggle for change become increasingly pressing.

Just ask Oliver Finsterwalder.

He can pinpoint exactly when the seeds of stepping aside as CEO of DvH Medien were sown: 2019. “That’s when it all started in my mind because I didn’t want to hold on too long leading the group and being in the front line,” Finsterwalder tells The CEO Magazine.

Since 2008 he’s worked for Dieter von Holtzbrinck, the German media mogul who built DvH Medien from his acquisitions of media groups such as Handelsblatt Media Group and ZEIT Verlagsgruppe.

A trained economist, Finsterwalder was initially hired as a tax consultant, but so impressed von Holtzbrinck that he asked him to come on board in a more permanent capacity as CFO before appointing him CEO.

While in the top job, he has been credited with setting the group on a new technological course to harness data to better understand and serve its customers.

A Mindful Clear Out

Five years ago, an awareness swept over him. “I wanted to create more space in my mind for my private life, for issues beyond our industry and to find more time for private investment activities and the like,” he explains.

Before it got to the point of airing his thoughts, the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the world and pushed future plans well aside as the focus shifted wholly onto the present and steering the group through such an unprecedented time.

“I wanted to create more space in my mind for my private life.”

Finally, at the beginning of 2023, Finsterwalder was able to start a dialogue with von Holtzbrinck. “He was so kind as to pick up my idea and reflect on it,” Finsterwalder explains.

Upon that reflection, von Holtzbrinck recognized an opportunity to not only pass on the baton to a new CEO, but to start the process of bringing a younger generation to the C-suite. At the same time, it was decided to undertake further reorganization of its management, with new supervisory board members.

Transparency Rules

A major part of the transition has been proactive communication around a subject that is often shut behind closely guarded doors until the last moment. Finsterwalder will hand over the reins to incoming CEO Andrea Wasmuth on 1 January 2025, with the official announcement released from the group’s Stuttgart headquarters on 29 April 2024.

On that same date, he will transition to the supervisory board and remain on as Managing Director of Dieter von Holtzbrinck Vermögensverwaltung (Dieter von Holtzbrinck Ventures) and the family office. A new Chairman of the Supervisory Board will also be appointed on that day.

“We are convinced that being transparent is key for a successful management culture.”

“We wanted to make the process very transparent,” he explains about the decision to announce his step away from the C-suite early. “I’m inching back step by step and our new CEO is inching forward step by step. We are convinced that being transparent is key for a successful management culture.”

He appreciates that such a strategy is only possible because of the family-owned nature of the group. “We are blessed that our owner is very self-reflecting and is always ready to listen to individual wishes or motivations,” he says.

He also knows that the structure of the company has allowed another precious gift: time. “A learning process like this needs time to develop,” he explains. “We have had time to not only prepare this change, but also set out the rules of how we make it.”

A Perfect Handover

As he approaches his last few months in the role, Finsterwalder says his focus is on designing a “perfect” handover period with Wasmuth.

“As important as it has been for us to have a fixed moment, a clear end of the handover, the advantage of announcing the transition so early is that we’re still in the position to adjust the next steps. There, we are flexible,” he says.

Since this is a new playing field for everyone involved, there are no set rules for what must happen when. “We’ll just see what works well and where we have to push and where we have to move forward slowly,” he says.

Wasmuth, he says, is already deeply involved in making the process as smooth as possible while she finishes up her duties as CEO of DvH subsidiary, Handelsblatt Media Group. It’s her success over the past four years driving innovation and digital transformation in her current role that so impressed von Holtzbrinck when it came to selecting Finsterwalder’s successor.

“In the end, it’s a win–win. I’m very confident that it’s the right thing for myself and my private life, but also the company.”

In his new capacity, Finsterwalder will continue to provide guidance and support for the continued prosperous growth of the group’s media companies.

He is, he says, busier than usual as he continues with his business as usual while also preparing for his transition away from the role. But he knows that it’s only for the short-term as he leaves a legacy that includes a thoroughly designed and executed handover strategy.

“After 15 years in the leadership of our innovative media group, I am genuinely excited about the prospect of carving out additional space in both my mind and my schedule for my personal life and for topics beyond the media world going forward,” he says.

“In the end, it’s a win–win. I’m very confident that it’s the right thing for myself and my private life, but also the company.”

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