The Bertelsmann Spirit

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A second lieutenant in Rommel's Afrika Korps, Mohn spent three years at a prisoner of war camp in Kansas. There he discovered the English language and developed a firm commitment to democratic ideals and free market capitalism. When he returned to his home in GŁtersloh in 1946, he put his new education to work rebuilding the family business. Instead of relying on the religious tomes that Bertelsmann had published for a century, Mohn established a network of book clubs to make publications accessible and inexpensive for a Germany that was struggling to rebuild. By the time he retired as chairman of the Bertelsmann AG board in 1991, Mohn had made the company one of the world's largest printing and publishing conglomerates. Two years later, he donated almost 70% of his shares in the company to the Bertelsmann Foundation of which he remains chairman. Had he kept those shares they would now be worth an estimated $70 billion, making him the world's richest man. Thomas Middelhoff became Bertelsmann CEO in 1997, and in a birthday letter to him last May, Mohn symbolically turned over leadership of the company. On his 79th birthday in June, Mohn sat down in Hanover for a rare interview with Time.

On Bertelsmann in the Internet age:
I'm not used to working as fast as people do now, but I accept the need for speed. If you want opportunity you must be faster, you have to take more risks, and you will make more mistakes.

Advice to the company's new younger generation of managers:
Fix your goals and learn to cooperate with everyone in order to achieve them. This is an age of entrepreneurs. Our company looks like an archipelago of independent islands, and each island has its own entrepreneur. I don't like hierarchies. I don't like bureaucracies, either. We need people who are willing to take risks and who are able to find new ways. We need their ideas, their creativity. Those are the possibilities I want in a big company. Remember that money is just a tool, not a goal in itself.

On the new era in global business:
I was influenced by Alfred Sloan and learned a lot from Peter Drucker. I created a new corporate culture at Bertelsmann, based on entrepreneurial freedom and the idea of partnership. There's too much talk of shareholder value now. When all stakeholders in the company identify with common goals and when entrepreneurs put the motivation of their employees at the heart of their leadership, you can achieve miracles. But don't try to boss people around like in the days of John D. Rockefeller. In our time you must convince people you are leading them the right way and that there's something in it for them, too. I think that very few executives have understood this up to now.

On successor Thomas Middelhoff:
He is incredible at building bridges between people or groups of people. And he understands that this is a time when we don't just live within our country, we have to learn to do business across borders and get along with the world.