Leadership: Money means trust - Interview with Annabella Bassler, CFO Ringier

Ringier Group CFO Annabella Bassler talks to m&k about leadership in times of crisis, interpersonal relationships, diversity and the future in Eastern Europe.

CFO Ringier
Annabella Bassler, CFO of the Ringier Group (Image: Ringier / additional details and illustrations: Silvan Borer)


m&k You've been CFO of the Ringier Group since 2012, so this is your tenth anniversary. How would you begin a speech you would give in this context?

Annabella Bassler: I would start by saying that, on the one hand, these ten years are a long time, but at the same time, they have also flown by. As CFO of the Ringier Group - a modern Swiss media company, active in 18 countries in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa - I was able to gather an incredible amount of experience that has influenced me professionally and from which I have also grown personally.


What does money mean to you?

As CFO, responsible for over 6,000 employees worldwide, you take on a lot of responsibility. You are constantly dealing with financial issues, the security and future viability of the company. Money means trust. That's why it is and always has been a great pleasure and honor for me to assume this responsibility for a large family-owned company like Ringier.


As CFO, you spend most of your time outside your comfort zone. You have to like that, don't you?

As a leader, you are challenged in a completely different way. I love challenges and always have. I believe that challenge is the best way to develop, because you have to step out of your comfort zone.

"As CFO, you take on a lot of responsibility. You're constantly dealing with financial issues, the security and future viability of the company."


If we continue the thought experiment with the anniversary speech, how would it end?

I would end my speech on my 10-year anniversary by saying that after these years I have realized how important and valuable interpersonal relationships are in the work environment. I realized how much I value this basic trust and openness between my employees and me. And how grateful I am to have such a great and committed team. It impresses me anew every time to see what can be achieved when we work together as a team to achieve a goal. After these 10 years, I am convinced that anything is possible as a team. In addition to the processes, facts, figures and systems that the financial sector entails, one thing is crucial for me: "People are key. And this will certainly always be my top priority.


You were responsible for Ringier's Romanian business for a long time. At the moment, this region is the focus of international interest - but otherwise a rather dark spot for some in the DACH region. What is the state of the media industry in these countries?

Eastern Europe is an extremely exciting area from a media perspective, with many exciting characters and very talented employees who are committed to neutral and high-quality journalism.


How much development work has Ringier done here?

Ringier has been active in Eastern Europe since 1989, long before my time. By acquiring the shares of our joint venture partner Axel Springer in Hungary, the Baltic States, Slovakia and Serbia last year, we have once again confirmed our long-term commitment. We see a great future for Eastern Europe. We look forward to staying on the ball and continuing to move in this exciting market.


How is Ringier experiencing the current situation?

At the moment, of course, the situation is very tense. We are in close contact with our local CEOs and employees and try to support them and their families wherever possible. Their safety is our top priority.


How does the "Eastern Europe market" relate to the other important "Africa market"?

Our activities in Africa are very different from those in Eastern Europe or Switzerland. Whereas in Europe we rely not only on digital media but also on print products, in Africa we are purely digital. This is also an exciting market and brings with it new challenges, which we are tackling with courage and verve.


Whoever is responsible for Ringier's finances must also make sure that the diversification strategies work. How does GL decide which ventures to add to the entrepreneurial portfolio - who to "bring on board" and who not to?

As a matter of principle, we discuss investment ideas very openly and take time to assess whether a company fits into our media/marketplaces strategy. The goal is always to build an ecosystem. This openness makes every working day exciting and also makes us rethink many things and look at them again from new perspectives. Ringier started its digital transformation in 2007. Whereby I also have to say that today - 15 years later - we still can't say where we stand - but since we describe ourselves as paranoid, we are also cautious here and say that this was just the beginning. But we can say with pride that we have already invested two billion francs in over 60 M&A transactions in the transformation of Ringier.


Can large media companies still make a living from journalism alone, or will there always be further rationalization and cost-cutting measures as well as diversification?

We are convinced that journalism will also be a business model of the future. The Corona crisis in particular has shown how important independent, trustworthy and reliable media offerings with their information and classification are for citizens. However, journalism must also continue to develop and move forward in order to better satisfy the needs of readers and users. One important keyword here is data journalism.

"I am convinced after these ten years: as a team, anything is possible."


Is that why Ringier invests in the further training of journalists?

Of course. We are making this clear with the new Ringier Media LAB, among other things. The Ringier Media LAB strengthens the further training and development of employees in the editorial offices. An important innovation driver for our media brands.


Do you feel like you're working in a male domain?

Yes and no. On the one hand, there are very few female CFOs in Switzerland. For example, the "Handelszeitung" published an article in October 2020 showing that only ten out of 192 CFOs in listed Swiss companies are female. It is of course desirable and would also please me personally if more women were to increasingly take on management positions in the financial sector as well. But finance has long since ceased to be a "boys' thing"! For example, in our Ringier finance team, the gender ratio is balanced.


Would you like to see more women making it in finance and controlling?

Of course. I would like to see a balanced proportion of women and men in all areas - including finance and controlling. That would be the ideal situation, of course. An important point here is breaking down gender stereotypes and becoming aware of the unconscious bias that we all carry within us. I sometimes have the impression that, despite everything, it is still ingrained in our society that men would be better suited to topics such as finance and controlling. Which of course is not true at all.

"When you have to step out of your comfort zone, that's when you develop the most."


How do you address this gender gap?

It is a matter of great concern to me that neither women nor men set themselves limits on the basis of their gender and do not make full use of their potential. Gender equality goes far beyond the economic aspect. There are also gender gaps in many other areas that need to be addressed. Whether in business, the media, politics or society, this topic should be a priority everywhere. True to the motto "It is time to make gender equality a reality!".


What benefits do you see in promoting diversity in companies?

Diversity - not only in terms of gender - is a great advantage for a company. It promotes innovation and offers new business opportunities. Studies show that women and men are more innovative and resourceful together than separately. More diversity opens doors and increases employee engagement and motivation. We can only realize the potential of all employees if we put aside prejudices and recognize the uniqueness of each person. More diversity is not only beneficial for a company's efficiency, but also for employee satisfaction in general. This has a positive effect on the entire working atmosphere and thus on cooperation and mutual trust. This also gives a great boost in the finance and controlling area.

"Unfortunately, there are very few female CFOs in Switzerland."


What can you do for it?

I am convinced that diversity is a leadership issue. It is essential to give this topic the same importance as other business strategies. It is important to become aware of the biases, stereotypes and structures you carry within yourself: "It always starts with yourself." Self-reflection is the first step to change. Only if you know your own habits, which are mostly subconscious, can you consciously change and overcome them over time. Good leadership is increasingly based on inclusion. Every leader should therefore be committed to this topic.


In 2019, you launched the EqualVoice initiative, which aims to make women more visible in reporting. How satisfied are you with the measures taken so far?

EqualVoice is a project close to my heart and I would never have expected it to come so far in such a short time. The first successes have already become apparent: The Handelszeitung, for example, has increased its EqualVoice Factor from 17% to 32%. This shows that women are increasingly present in the articles in our editorial offices. Another big step is EqualVoice United. Together with nine leading Swiss companies, we were able to launch EqualVoice United in January 2022. Our common goal is to promote gender equality in the Swiss economy. We know equality goes beyond the media world. It takes all of us - whether in politics, business, sports or society. It's time for equality to become a matter of course in our society.

The EqualVoice Initiative was launched in November 2019. The aim is to make women more visible in media coverage and to give women and men the same voice. 82% of all articles worldwide are about men - in Switzerland we are slightly better with 72% of all articles being about men. We want to make more Role Models visible and break gender stereotypes - of women and men. EqualVoice can also be found on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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