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Reinhard Mohn – Business Leader

"I want to convince people"

Reinhard Mohn
Reinhard Mohn
Photographer: Wolfgang Wesener

When he came home to Germany, a country in ruins, two years after the end of World War II, Reinhard Mohn decided to make use of the opportunities then available to him. Wanting to create something of value, he became managing director of the family printing and publishing business, transforming it into Europe’s largest media group.

The war had reduced almost everything to rubble and ashes. Operations had been severely disrupted at the Bertelsmann publishing house; its production facilities and machines had been largely destroyed. The company had been shuttered in 1944 and less than half of its 400 employees were still available to work for it. Prospects for restarting the business were dim.                                                                                                                 

Although only in his mid-20s, Mohn had already had a number of life-changing experiences. He had learned how important it is to respect the people for whom one is responsible and that a sense of community and a willingness to work together are critical when trying to achieve common goals. He also understood that people want the freedom to develop as they choose, and that they want to participate in the success that joint endeavors bring.     

For the young entrepreneur, the rapid growth that Germany experienced in its post-war years was the cause of many sleepless nights. His company was expanding quickly, requiring more financing than skeptical bankers were willing to provide. Mohn turned to his employees instead, suggesting that they help rebuild the publishing house and offering to compensate them with a share of the profits in return. It was a form of partnership that persists at Bertelsmann to this day.  

Like almost no other business leader, Mohn knew how to motivate others by allowing them to make decisions for themselves. He did not like rigid hierarchies and created more flexible structures instead. He gave his staff a high degree of freedom, allowing them to take responsibility for their own activities. He organized his growing company in a decentralized manner and delegated responsibility to other managers.   

What he learned in those early years became the foundation of his managerial principles, of “his” corporate culture, which is based on a fundamental respect of others. 

In 1950 Bertelsmann launched its “Lesering” (Reading Circle), a chain of book clubs that proved highly popular. One year later it had more than 100,000 members. Four years later that figure had grown to one million.

As the company’s business grew, the book club expanded to other countries: first to Spain in 1962 and, seven years later, across the Atlantic to South America.  In 1970 France Loisirs, the French club, was founded and quickly became the largest of its kind outside of Germany.

At the beginning of the 1990s Mohn transferred almost all of the shares he held in Bertelsmann AG to the Bertelsmann Stiftung, the foundation he had established in 1977. He had created the foundation in light of his conviction that “wealth entails responsibility,” as expressed in Germany’s Basic Law.

Typically, the decisions he made concerning the company and his role in it were rational and pragmatic. In keeping with the limit he himself had set, he stepped down as CEO and became a member of the Supervisory Board at the age of 60. Ten years later he relinquished his position on the Supervisory Board.  Similarly, his work at the foundation was characterized by a concern for what made sense. By transferring his holdings in Bertelsmann AG to the foundation and giving up his voting rights, he made clear that he did not view his role as a corporate leader as a privilege, but as a responsibility to the company, to those who worked there and, ultimately, to society as a whole.

What Reinhard Mohn achieved during his life is one of the greatest personal achievements in the history of modern Germany. He made it possible for a small publishing house specializing in religious texts and based in Gütersloh to become, within six decades, Bertelsmann SE & Co. KGaA as we know it today: a global player with over 100,000 employees; Europe’s largest media group; and the corporate parent of the RTL Group, one of Europe’s leading entertainment companies, Random House, the world’s largest trade-book publisher, and Gruner+Jahr. The company’s printing business, moreover, later became service provider Arvato.

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