On Monday the circle was completed.
Twenty years ago, financial woes forced German publisher Hermann Herder to sell several of his bookstores to the Kreke family-run empire of perfume, cosmetic and book retailers. The stores were later integrated into what is now Thalia, Germany’s largest bookstore chain.
Today, Mr. Herder’s son, Manuel, is managing shareholder of the family firm. And this week the more than 200-year-old publishing house pulled off a deal to take over Thalia — buying the controlling interest as part of an owners’ consortium from current owner Advent International, the U.S.-based private equity firm.
With the purchase, said to be worth hundreds of millions of euros, the Herders take back the family’s old flagship bookstore in Freiburg, southwest Germany. It is called Herder & Thalia, and thus symbolizes the future shared by the storied German publishers and Thalia.
Reading is good for people and the book trade is good for cities. Manuel Herder, Head of Herder Publishing
Over the years Manuel Herder, 50, cultivated relations with Henning Kreke, the 51-year-old head of Douglas Holding, which owned the Thalia chain as part of its retail group. The connection was never broken, even after Advent bought a majority stake in the Douglas group.
Both managers have great respect for each other and enjoy a “bond of friendship,” said Mr. Herder, who is now the sixth generation to lead the family firm, which was established in 1801.
Mr. Herder approached Advent about taking over Thalia and the parties quickly reached a consensus.
“The intensive dialogue of the past weeks has shown that we share, with the Kreke family and the Thalia management team, the same values and long-term vision for Thalia,” Mr. Herder announced on Monday.
The Kreke family will increase its share in Thalia from 16 to 35 percent. The other 65 percent will be taken over by a holding company in which Herder will have a controlling majority. Other shareholders are Thalia’s chief executive Michael Busch and the digital entrepreneur Leif Erik Göritz, who was on Herder’s advisory council and will become the new chairman of Thalia’s supervisory board.
The deal for Thalia is fraught with risk, however. The book chain has struggled amid competition from digital booksellers such as Amazon and was deeply in the red for years.
Advent began restructuring Thalia to face the challenge and said the bookseller is “once again on a solid economic footing with self-sustaining growth.”
The goal now is “to enthuse young people about books,” Mr. Herder said this week. “Therefore, we intend to anchor digitization even more deeply in Thalia’s DNA.”
Mr. Herder is an idealist who, in his own words, “puts people front and center.” And he knows what his business can offer.
“Reading is good for people,” he said, “and the book trade is good for cities.”
For 16 years, he has lived at the Red House in Freiburg, the sumptuous headquarters of the Herder Publishing House. His father, who died in 2011, gathered all the employees together in the autumn of 2000 and symbolically handed over the keys to the house.
The Herder Publishing House focuses on religious, spiritual and educational content — and above all the words of the Pope. Benedict XVI, the former German Pope, published all his books with Herder, from his time as a young theologian in Bavaria to his eight-year term in the Vatican.
Mr. Herder knows him well: His father took him as a little boy to Munich, where Benedict, as Joseph Ratzinger, served as archbishop, then later to the Vatican. In Rome, the Herder Publishing House had its own large bookstore near the Italian parliament for many years. Now somewhat smaller, it has moved directly to the Vatican.
Herder publishing employs about 200 people and its sales last year totaled €22 million, or about $25 million.
The star author now, of course, is Pope Francis. His own books and those about him, many published by Herder, are best sellers.
Florian Kolf leads a team of reporters covering the retail, consumer goods, luxury and fashion markets. Regina Krieger is Handelsblatt's Italy correspondent, covering a wide variety of topics, including business, politics, culture, the Vatican, architecture and soccer. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected]