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In the summer of 2016, Gunnar Wiedenfels first met his future employer, Discovery CEO David Zaslav, at the restaurant of the Ritz-Carlton on Central Park South in Manhattan. After seven-plus years at German TV giant ProSiebenSat.1 — where he ended up leading the finance division — he landed the CFO role at Discovery, moving from Munich to New York to start his new job in April 2017. (Last fall, Discovery extended Wiedenfels’ contract through at least April 1, 2024.)
Within months, the new finance chief proved his dealmaking mettle, working with Zaslav and other Discovery execs to seal the $14.6 billion acquisition of Scripps Networks Interactive. After that sale closed in 2018, Wiedenfels’ team ended up reaching what the company says were more than $1 billion in cost synergies — exceeding the initial $350 million target — via job cuts, real estate consolidation, more efficient marketing spending and more.
Now the 43-year-old exec is widely expected to be the financial brain who can make the numbers and the broader changes work on another megamerger: The combination of AT&T’s WarnerMedia, including HBO, Warner Bros. and the Turner networks, and Discovery to create a broader content giant with an implied equity value of $100 billion.
“I love challenging the status quo,” Wiedenfels tells The Hollywood Reporter, noting that media companies must constantly reevaluate the way they do business in the digital age. “Most things in the status quo are probably not optimal.”
That Wiedenfels sees his job as more than just ensuring that Discovery’s finance operations run smoothly will come in handy, given the company’s ambition to remake itself from a lifestyle content powerhouse into a broader content giant via its largest deal ever, which the German helped Zaslav, as one of his right-hand men, pull off.
People who have worked or dealt with Wiedenfels describe him as a quick learner with a no-nonsense approach who is ready to put in long work hours, characteristics that he will need for the WarnerMedia integration process.
Discovery has targeted $3 billion in cost synergies after two years and plans to reinvest savings into streaming content to power HBO Max and Discovery+ as they compete with Netflix, Disney+ and Amazon Prime. He described the synergies target as “very achievable and conservative” during a June 8 investor conference and adds, “It’s very important to keep delivering on promises to build trust.”
Several people who have worked with Wiedenfels tell THR they expect him to land the plane on the WarnerMedia deal, but the task will certainly not be easy. “Discovery has proven in the context of Scripps that they can execute on an acquisition,” Morgan Stanley analyst Benjamin Swinburne tells THR. “Turner is a much bigger company and more complex — you have CNN and a significant amount of sports, so it is a different challenge; but they are all in the same business.” However, the Wall Street expert expert also highlights that in the case of HBO and Warners, “you are really in a whole different sandbox.”
With WarnerMedia focused mainly on scripted and Discovery on unscripted, there’s little overlap in the creative and content areas. So analysts expect cost and job cuts to come from the corporate side and selling, general and administrative expenses. “You can’t just come in with your spreadsheet and say, ‘This is what we want to do,’” explains Wiedenfels. “But you want to at least start with a very rational and data-driven, analytical approach to find the best answer and use that as your North Star.”
At Discovery, “we call him the Renaissance CFO,” chief corporate operating officer David Leavy tells THR. “He runs a tight ship, but is also willing to invest and take swings where we see the opportunities.”
There is even a “Gunnarism” when the CFO vets ideas for whether they make business sense or not “that makes us laugh every time he does it,” shares Leavy. “It’s the Matthew McConaughey fugazi bit in The Wolf of Wall Street when he is explaining to a young Leo DiCaprio how Wall Street works and basically says it is all fake — fugazi. He goes through this whole riff and even does a whistle, and Gunnar will do the exact same riff when someone comes in with a business plan that wouldn’t work.”
Wiedenfels, a father of four, cites planes as an old passion. “I have been flying for coming up on 20 years,” he says. “I own a little plane, a 1966 V-tail Bonanza. You need to be super focused, which forces you to forget about everything else.” A newer hobby he found with his kids is beekeeping. Bees are a superorganism. “The individual is just one part of a larger organism,” he explains. “I’ve always found that an interesting concept.”
As CFO, one of Wiedenfels’ mantras is that “cash never lies.” (Zaslav regularly touts Discovery as a “free cash flow machine.”) In 2017, Discovery reported $1.5 billion in free cash flow and Scripps reported $800 million. In 2019, before the pandemic entered the picture, the combined firm reached $3.1 billion. Wiedenfels says the figure could have gone higher, but management decided to invest to “set ourselves up for future growth, because the bottom line of an individual year or quarter doesn’t matter relative to the longer term value creation. That’s a theme that also plays a role in our current transaction with WarnerMedia.”
Indeed, Wiedenfels has forecast annual earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization of about $14 billion for the new Warner Bros. Discovery and “free cash flow conversion of around 60 percent, which should place us at or near the top of the industry.” That implies free cash flow of about $8.4 billion, which Wiedenfels notes is key because it “will support both rapid debt paydown as well as the requisite direct-to-consumer investments and increased content spend.”
Wiedenfels worked as a management consultant and engagement manager at the global consultancy firm McKinsey & Co. Then, at ProSieben, he was “extremely good at taking unnecessary costs out of a system” but also understood “what makes creatives tick,” says former CEO Thomas Ebeling. At the German TV company, Ebeling recalls that Wiedenfels launched a content management system with incentives for managers to use a variety of available programming “that struck a good balance between financial requirements and audience share needs.” His takeaway: “He is an excellent co-pilot for the CEO.”
Adds former Scripps chairman and CEO Kenneth Lowe, who now sits on Discovery’s board and calls the Scripps deal integration “the best I have ever seen”: Wiedenfels “is whip-smart and more than a numbers guy. He is focused on delivering real transformation.”
Asked about his approach to work, Wiedenfels tells THR: “For my team, I’ve always had a no-asshole policy. We all work so much, so you’ve got to have team players. Pulling off this [WarnerMedia] deal with David and [chief development, distribution and legal officer] Bruce [Campbell] was probably the hardest time in my career because it was on and off and difficult and incredibly complex. And we worked through some nights, but it was so much fun. It was one of the best times in my entire career.”
Asked about transformation efforts in the Scripps integration, for a possible preview of what awaits at WarnerMedia, Wiedenfels recalls: “We approached every part of our value chain from the perspective: If we were setting a business up today, how would we do it? And we completely redesigned our entire content workflow, breaking down silos and being much more integrated.”
Importantly, the integration wouldn’t have worked “without spending a lot of time thinking about culture and asking every single employee before closing the deal about strengths and weaknesses, what works, what’s important, et cetera,” he tells THR. “We tried to synthesize it into some guiding principles for the new combined company, which then guided everything we did and gave people a bit of a compass.”
A version of this story appeared in the June 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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