“It’s true, our competitors hate the fact that we’re a big company in a small area,” says the 45-year-old owner of a media empire worth €500m in a Belgian market of just 10.5 million people. Christian Van Thillo might seem like a bit of a sharp-suited shark in a sleepy rock pool but his company, De Persgroep, is kept honest by Belgium: a fussy, fragmented place that expects its own home-grown sophisticated, bilingual, regionally-focussed media, rather than borrowing from neighbouring Netherlands and France. “Belgium is an accident of history,” shrugs Van Thillo, “Belgians do exist, but there is no such thing as a strong Belgian culture.”
Although De Persgroep publishes two titles in French for the Brussels area that, according to Van Thillo, regards itself as a “petit Paris”, the group is focused on Flanders.
“Twenty-five years ago Flanders wanted more independence and created a new popular culture with Flemish TV and pop stars – and I want to provide what they watch and read!” Van Thillo cites the band Clouseau as an example of the success of “Fleminism”: unknown outside of Flanders, they regularly sell-out 20,000-seater concerts five nights running. Van Thillo’s plans for his Flemish media empire share a similar strategy. His TV and gossip magazine Dag Allemaal sells 380,000 copies and has a readership of 1.7 million in Flanders: that means almost a quarter of Belgians read it. Of the stack that Van Thillo flicks through in his office, only one features a non-Flemish cover star: a member of the Belgian Royals.
“If anything, globalisation is making local and regional coverage more important,” says Van Thillo. His Het Laatste Nieuws, the best-selling newspaper in the country, demonstrates his hunch. There are 20 regional editions that include at least five pages of local coverage a day.
“Passion for the reader” might seem a trite motto but De Persgroep lives up to it by following its readers around Europe. In summer, Het Laatste Nieuws is printed in Madrid, Provence and Istanbul and flown to the Canaries and Greece. “It’s a fantastic promotion,” says Van Thillo. “We promise readers they’ll have their paper the same time as in Belgium – and boom – at 07.00 it’s there!”
Van Thillo’s understanding of his readers is not just gut instinct. Six weeks a year are taken up with the “reader scanner” in which 50 people a day are called in to discuss their likes and dislikes across his newspapers, magazines, TV and radio. “Then we speak to the newsroom and make suggestions,” says Van Thillo. Do his journalists mind being told what to write by their readers? “Well, we have numbers – if only 12 per cent of readers read a certain column, it’s not working.”
Although newspapers have been suffering declining circulations in recent years, Van Thillo is quick to point out that publishing employs far more journalists than any other media industry and while that is the case, they will always set the agenda. “We have 185 journalists at Het Laatste Nieuws and 75 at VTM TV, so of course papers make more news.”
Van Thillo remembers well his first day on the job. “I graduated from my MBA at Duke in the States and the day my parents and I flew home, my father drove me straight from the airport to the office – it was a Saturday and I was 27.”
De Persgroep was in far from rude health when Christian took the helm. In 1993, after selling various titles and real estate to free up cash, he joined forces with his brother and sister to buy the company from the rest of the family. Van Thillo is quick to point out that while family dinners don’t turn into board meetings, key members have to be involved in the business.
“There’s nothing worse than a family-run firm where the family are passive – that’s what happened with the Wall Street Journal – they lived very far from their business and had no great vision. Murdoch doesn’t pay $5bn (€3.7bn) for a prestige title; he shows there’s nothing stronger than an active family-run firm."
Since its turnaround (€35m projected profit 2007), De Persgroep has embarked on an extremely thrifty and incredibly successful spending spree: after reading that Holland’s respected but penniless Het Parool newspaper was up for sale, Van Thillo “got the car out and drove to Amsterdam”. Four years after acquiring the paper for €1 in 2003, Het Parool is the best-selling newspaper in Amsterdam and turns a tidy profit for a cover price of a nicely ironical single euro. Q-Music is now a successful radio brand formed from the shell of Radio Noordzee, bought from John de Mol of Endemol for another euro in 2005.
Van Thillo’s stories always lead to print and especially newspapers, rather than to his TV or radio stations. While it’s clear both are integral to De Persgroep’s DNA, he neatly defines the division. “In reality, you publish for your readers but you broadcast for your advertisers. And how can you not be excited and challenged by a blank page every day?”
De Persgroep has five newspapers, 10 magazines, two radio stations and four TV stations across Belgium and the Netherlands. Here’s a sample:
Het Laatste Nieuws
Most widely read Belgian daily
For the young and educated. Won European Newspaper Design Award 2006
Most popular Belgian financial paper
Local Amsterdam paper founded in 1940
Flemish showbiz and TV
Lifestyle guide for teen girls
Lifestyle magazine with focus on travel
Q-Music BelgiumInteractive Flemish station
Daily listeners: 1,022,210
Voted the most popular radio brand in 2006
Interactive Dutch station
Daily listeners: 890,000
Flemish family channel
Daily viewers: 547,019
Top commercial channel in Flanders. News, drama and entertainment
Audience: 366,855 per day