Axel Springer eyes global expansion

The German media conglomerate is vying for Forbes, but that may be just the beginning

As the story is told in Germany, Mathias Döpfner, chief executive officer of Axel Springer SE, one of Europe’s largest publishing groups, was shocked when he heard that the Washington Post sold for a mere $250 million to Amazon honcho Jeff Bezos.

It’s likely that Bezos’ gain was Döpfner’s wake-up call. That $250 million would not be much of a stretch for for Axel Springer, A publicly held company that has about $685 million in cash and has an eye on global expansion.

So it’s not a surprise that Springer is reportedly one of three bidders, along with China’s Fosun International and Singapore’s Whale Capital, left standing for Forbes, the 96-year-old company which went up for sale in November.

Döpfner told The Wall Street Journal this week that he will go after any acquisition that fits three criteria: “a reasonable price, if we can become a market leader and if it fits with our core competencies.”

Forbes pretty well fits that description. The magazine publisher is asking a reported $400 million, but analysts value the company at about half that. Forbes has an active online presence and a recognized brand. And Springer and Forbes already cooperate; Springer has a license that allows it to publish magazines in Russian and Polish using the Forbes name.

Whether or not Springer nets Forbes, though, the company likely won’t stop looking for more acquisitions.

“In principle, there’s an interest [by Springer] in the USA for both journalistic titles and digital classifieds,” said Stefan Wimmer, a media analyst at private bank Metzler in Frankfurt.

In March 2012, Döpfner told shareholders that he was radically changing the business model for the company, publisher of Germany’s largest circulation tabloid, Bild Zeitung, and the conservative national daily Die Welt. The future is digital, he said, a not-especially original observation. Springer already derives 60 percent of its profits from digital companies, especially online classified portals all over Europe and in India, as well as online news.

With €3.3 billion in revenues in 2012, the last available annual figure, Springer continues to be Germany’s largest print publisher. Springer’s latest quarter earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization, fell 18.3 percent to €123 million ($165.7 million) from €150.6 million last year. This was due in large part to a restructuring. The company says it expects “low single digit” earnings growth this year.

It also supports startups, both in-house and through a media venture-capital arm, Axel Springer Plug and Play, the first of its kind on the continent.

But Springer, Germany’s second-largest media conglomerate behind Bertelsmann, has little room to expand there. As owner of national papers, magazines, and websites, nearly 70 percent of the German population reads or uses an Axel Springer publication any given week. A recent study by Bitkom, an industry trade group, revealed that a quarter of Germans reading their news online also pay for it. Most of that money goes to Springer. It also has a presence in China, with a number of news sites, and India, where it owns news sites, digital classified portfolios, and automotive magazines. But it is virtually unknown in the US.

Reuters reported last week that Springer has started preparations to float its online classified advertising unit, valued at €3 billion. If true, that frees up more cash for the company’s expansion.

Axel Springer, the man, was the company’s founder, an unabashed capitalist, grateful supporter of the United States, and ardent proponent of German reunification—so much so that he required his company’s journalists sign a contract that they would push for it, too.

The mogul, who died in 1985, never saw the Berlin Wall come down, but he did peer over it daily; in 1966, Springer defiantly built his 18-story office building just 12 yards from the western side of the barrier. Construction is starting soon for a digital media campus on a plot of land across the street that was once behind the wall.

Springer also has some US real estate. The company bought a modest campus in the Silicon Valley last year that it uses for a visiting fellows program. Springer managers fly there to learn the disruptive antics of digital entrepreneurs. During one of the first visits, a Springer executive bought a minor investment in AirBnB.

It’s unknown whether Springer would target another news organization if it doesn’t land Forbes. Springer officials would not comment for this article. If the company does stick with Döpfner’s strategy, a serious news title could help bring something the company lacks: cachet. In Germany, the name Springer is linked more closely with mass circulation Bild, with its screaming headlines and bare-breasted babes, rather than the staid Welt, which has only a fraction of its subscription base, both online and print.

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Alison Langley has more than 25 years experience in journalism as a reporter and editor. Her stories have appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Guardian, The FT and The Independent. She currently lectures in journalism at Fachhochschule Wien and Webster University Vienna. Tags: