‘I’m On The Public Stage For The First Time Now’
Rolf Hellermann has been Bertelsmann’s Chief Financial Officer since January 1, 2021. In this 100-day interview, he talks about how he took on his new position, what he wants to focus on as CFO, how he sees the Corporate Center’s work and role, and what he wants to have achieved by the end of his first year in office.
Rolf Hellermann has served as Bertelsmann’s Chief Financial Officer since January 1, 2021. That was almost exactly 100 days ago. He has been with the Group since 2004, held successive management roles at the Corporate Center and most recently was CEO of Arvato Financial Solutions, so Hellermann already knew Bertelsmann very well when he took office as CFO. In this 100-day interview, he talks about what still surprised him in his new role, what he wants to focus on as CFO, how he sees the Corporate Center’s work and role, and what he wants to have achieved by the end of his first year in office.
Mr. Hellermann, how was your return to the Corporate Center, and how were you received by your colleagues on the Executive Board and the team at the Corporate Center?
Rolf Hellermann: For me, it really was more of a return to the Corporate Center than a new start. And I’m really pleased to be able to rely on such a well-functioning team in terms of personnel and professionalism, where everyone does their job with great steadiness and reliability. I feel very welcomed by this team, and over several meetings I’ve become even better acquainted with their various roles and responsibilities. Collaboration on the Executive Board has begun just as smoothly. This was not a completely new situation for me either, because as head of Bertelsmann’s Corporate Center’s Central Controlling and Strategy (ZI) department, I had already attended countless Executive Board meetings, albeit in a completely different role at the time.
Did you have a formative experience during your first 100 days or – despite your many years at Bertelsmann – perhaps even surprises?
Rolf Hellermann: Of course, the fact that we are all living and working in an exceptional ongoing situation because of Covid is formative. Unfortunately, this makes direct collaboration with colleagues much more difficult, and I look forward to a return to normality – though perhaps a new normal – with much more personal interaction. What is new for me, and which I did not expect to this extent, is the visibility of my new role. This is particularly true in our outside contacts with consultants, auditors, business partners and, above all, banks. I have already had many interesting conversations here in my first few weeks as CFO.
You also had important outside contacts at your first Annual Press Conference at the end of March. How did you feel about working with the journalists?
Rolf Hellermann: In previous years, I’ve contributed a lot to preparing Annual Press Conferences – but it was done behind the scenes. Now, for the first time, I had to – or was allowed to – present the results of these preparations myself on the public stage. I really enjoyed it and it was relatively easy for me because of the excellent figures. I had and still have a great deal of respect for the task of having to provide information immediately in interviews with journalists. The fact that this, too, worked out well is mainly due to the excellent management of the entire process of drawing up our annual financial statements. The Corporate Center, with all the departments involved in this, really does run like a perfectly oiled machine, with all the cogs engaging with each other perfectly. Having the privilege of presenting the result of this work to the Supervisory Board, the rating agencies and the press, together with Thomas Rabe as CEO, is simply a pleasure.
Speaking of Thomas Rabe – how exactly does the division of responsibilities work between him as CEO and you as CFO? Or in more general terms, how do you define the role of a CFO?
Rolf Hellermann: Our collaboration works extremely well. We complement each other in the classic division of responsibilities between CEO and CFO. Thomas Rabe runs the business as CEO. As CFO, I am responsible for everything beyond the operating result. However, at Bertelsmann we have a much broader understanding of the role of CFO: I see myself as a business partner or sounding board for the CEO, including in matters of strategy, the development of the portfolio and businesses, and major projects in the Group.
Your predecessors pursued a conservative financial policy. Will it basically remain that way with you?
Rolf Hellermann: Bertelsmann’s ownership structure sets the framework for any financial policy, and in essence this means that we rely on internal financing through the earnings of our businesses and on capital market funds. This means that we always need sufficient water under our keel in our businesses, and at the same time we need full access to the loan capital market. Both of these factors in themselves call for a rather conservative financial policy. This will not change under my leadership.
And what influence does the economic environment in which Bertelsmann currently finds itself have on this?
Rolf Hellermann: Last year initially showed how good Bertelsmann’s aforementioned access to the capital market is: At a time of extremely low commercial visibility and peak uncertainty, Bertelsmann was able to easily secure sufficient liquidity in the spring thanks to the Executive Board and Corporate Center’s rapid action, to be prepared even for extreme scenarios. Financially, we really are absolutely solidly positioned in the second year of the pandemic, so we can look to the future with relative calm. At the moment, it is not so much a question of ensuring sufficient liquidity, but of skillfully managing the Group’s existing high liquidity. And I hope that – depending on the progress made with vaccinations in the first half of the year – we will see a strong overall economic growth spurt in Germany and Europe in the second half of the year. There are already signs of this in the U.S. And it would be perfect for our advertising business.
What new directions do you want to take as CFO at Bertelsmann?
Rolf Hellermann: Firstly, I want to advance the digitalization of the finance department, that is, the automation and further improvement of processes with new systems. Secondly, I will continue to expand the Tech & Data Alliance at Bertelsmann, for which I retain responsibility.
How do you intend to work with the finance community in Bertelsmann’s businesses?
Rolf Hellermann: I’m in regular contact with all the divisional CFOs. And I look forward to chairing the first meeting of the Bertelsmann Finance Council in a few days. This body, which is important for financial management, includes the divisional CFOs as well as the senior financial experts from the Corporate Center.
100 days have passed – what do you want to have achieved by the end of your first year as CFO?
Rolf Hellermann: As I emphasized at the beginning, I was fortunate to take over a well-ordered organization. We will soon complete the process of reorganizing the Corporate Center, so there is no need for any further action in this regard. What is important is that we then have a clear and shared understanding of what we want to achieve with the new Corporate Center and what its role is. This applies to the effective, powerful and assertive management of the business by the corporate functions as well as to the efficient support services provided by the services functions.