Making a Mogul

Crashing into the Top League

Udo Müller DPA
Udo Müller, the chief executive at Ströer, is turning the advertising company around.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Ströer is hoping to catapulte itself into the top league of the digital advertising market in Germany.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The head of Ströer is completely revamping the Cologne advertising company.
    • The shift from outdoor advertiser to digital top-player began in 2012.
    • Udo Müller and Heiner Ströer founded the firm in 1990.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

A soccer ball always lies within reach in his large office. Udo Müller, chief executive of the advertising company Ströer, picks it up and dribbles it through the room while he telephones with his business partners and attempts to convince him of his ideas. Mr. Müller likes things to be sporty.

And in his most recent deal, he is hoping to enter the big leagues. Last week saw the purchase of T-Online, Germany’s most-viewed web portal, and the digital marketing company, Interactive Media, from Deutsche Telekom.

With one move, Ströer has moved beyond its old ambitions in outdoor advertising billboards and catapulted itself into the top tier of the digital advertising market in Germany.

The acquisition, amounting to €300 million, both strengthens the marketing business for online advertising space and, with the T-Online platform, simultaneously provides Ströer with valuable web content.

Being successful here is a matter of the sheer size that the Cologne family firm has to reach in order to hold its own in the digital market against such American players as Facebook and Google. Ströer has transformed itself more radically than almost any other company – and it only started the process in 2012.

Udo Müller is the man behind the company’s digital reinvention.

With one move, Ströer has moved beyond its old ambitions in outdoor advertising billboards and catapulted itself into the top tier of the digital advertising market in Germany.

The 53-year-old founded the firm in 1990 together with Heiner Ströer. In the exciting era just after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the two of them laid the foundations for Germany’s largest company for outdoor advertising, which today offers 290,000 poster and billboard surfaces and has revenues of €721 million.

In 2010, the company went public, accompanied by great expectations. But then came some difficult years. Outdoor advertising, the main commercial focus, failed to show the previous high rates of growth.

Mr. Müller has since grabbed the company and heaved it into the digital future. He bought one digital company after another: special German providers like Giga, Tube One, Content Fleet. Many wondered what he wanted to achieve with this shopping spree.

Today the answer is clear. Mr. Müller, say all those who know him, is a genuine entrepreneur. One who knows what he wants – and how he can get there. One employee describes him as “incredibly dynamic,” though it’s unclear if it is supposed to be a compliment. Without a doubt, the former handball player demands a lot from his team.

“I have a weakness for working management,” he says dryly when asked how he is able to generate the fast pace of innovation.

He is said to ask his top managers in every single board meeting what their new plans and visions look like. He himself states that in his eyes, innovation is a crystal-clear responsibility of management. He expects his entire organization of 2,200 employees to take that perspective to heart. “The fast devour the slow,” Mr. Müller says.

With the purchase of T-Online and Interactive Media, there is a shift in ownership shares: Dirk Ströer, the son of the deceased co-founder, and Mr. Müller together now own 51 percent. Deutsche Telekom will get a share of 11 to 13 percent.

And what is coming next? Mr. Müller laughs and says: “For a good while now, we have already been at the next step and the one after that.”

198 Ströer-2014 WTB resume

Catrin Bialek reports on companies and markets for Handelsblatt from Düsseldorf. To contact the author: bialek@handelsblatt.com

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