Former Bertelsmann chief dies at 88

Reinhard Mohn grew the company into a powerhouse

COLOGNE, Germany -- Reinhard Mohn, the postwar founder of German media giant Bertelsmann, died Saturday. He was 88.

Mohn's transformation of Bertelsmann from a family-owned publishing house to Europe's largest media company reflected Germany's own economic rebirth after World War II. With his open management style and social conscience, Mohn came to represent a particular kind of new German entrepreneur walking the line between raw American capitalism and European state-heavy socialism. At his death, the Mohn family fortune was estimated at more than $8 billion.

Mohn and Bertelsmann also reflected Germany's at-times conflicted dealings with its own past. For decades, the company hushed up its collusion with the Nazi regime. Bertelsmann finally came clean in the 1990s, paying for an investigation that laid bare its role as an official supplier of books, including military propaganda, to the Wehrmacht.

Mohn took over management of Bertelsmann in 1947, after his release from an American POW camp. His first big idea was the book club -- delivering books directly to customers -- which took off with the swelling ranks of Germany's newly affluent, aspirational middle class. The company expanded into magazines, music and television. Today Bertelsmann controls RTL Group, Europe's largest broadcaster; Random House, the world's biggest trade book publisher; and Gruner + Jahr, Europe's largest magazine company.

As Bertelsmann expanded, Mohn set up the company as a series of largely independent divisions. He encouraged corporate loyalty with a profit-sharing scheme for his employees -- a move that earned him the nickname "Red Mohn" in some conservative circles.

Mohn converted Bertelsmann into a stock corporation in 1971 and, in 1991, stepped down as chairman of the company's supervisory board. But he and his wife, Liz Mohn, remained a guiding force. In 2002, they helped stage a boardroom coup to topple then-CEO Thomas Middelhoff and prevent him from taking Bertelsmann public.

In his lifetime, Reinhard Mohn received many public honors, including Germany's Order of Merit, the Spanish Grand Cross, the European Founder Award and honorary membership in the Club of Rome.

He is survived by his wife and six children.