Thomas Middelhoff describes himself as "an American with a German passport
who looks to US management style as he prepares the company for a stock market flotation in two to three years' time. Keen to attract the best talent to the company, the 48-year-old has even dressed up as Star Trek's Mr Spock as he attempts to get Bertelsmann to "boldly go where no man has gone before".
Middelhoff, who has been at Bertelsmann's helm for more than three years, has set about transforming the privately owned company, which was set up in 1835 as a publisher of hymnals, into a multimedia business. It's the second largest media company in Europe and one of the world's top five media companies.
Unlike Warner Brothers, News Corp or AOL Time Warner, few people know what Bertelsmann is, despite the company owning two thirds of its revenues outside Germany and being involved in every form of media apart from film-making. Its assets include BMG Music, the publisher Gruner & Jahr, RTL Broadcasting Group and Random House Publishing.
A loud denunciator of the neo-Nazis and the far right, the tall, affable Middelhoff has been a target for hate mail. This has not curbed his tendency to speak his mind, but he apparently is not one who takes criticism too well.
With a business administration degree, Middelhoff kicked off his career at the University of Munster as a research assistant before working in his parents' textile company. He joined Bertelsmann in 1986 in its printing business and eight years later joined the executive board.
He has five children and lives in the German countryside with his wife, where he indulges his love of horse-riding.
MATHIAS DOPFNER, chief executive, Axel Springer Verlag
Mathias Dopfner recently climbed into the hotseat of one of Europe's largest media companies, Axel Springer, which owns around 180 newspapers and magazines. At six foot seven his sights are set high as he looks to transform the company into an international player, with overseas income more than doubling to at least 30 per cent of total income within the next decade.
With a love of vintage red wine, classical music and his bass guitar, Dopfner is a workaholic, who at the age of 18 published a book about German pop music, The New Wave. He gained his first break in journalism as a music critic at a German daily newspaper in 1985. Two years later he launched his own PR agency in Munich where he learned crucial management and negotiation skills. In 1990 he returned to journalism, joining FAZ as its foreign correspondent. He then tried to start his own magazine before being poached by Gruner & Jahr where he soon came to the attention of the company's chief executive, Gerd Schulte-Hillen, who took him on as his personal assistant.
Dopfner, 39, joined Axel Springer in 1998 when he was made editor-in-chief of Die Welt, which was suffering from declining circulation. He is accredited with reversing the paper's fortunes, helped by developing an online edition.
New media is one of the areas in which Dopfner is trying to develop Axel Springer's interests as he drags the company into the 21st century. He is looking to the US market for acquisitions to build the company's overseas presence and has already made sweeping management changes: by next year he will have cut its workforce of 14,000 by a tenth.
LEO KIRCH, chief executive, Kirch Group
The Kirch family, despite being one of the two major players in the German TV market, is a secretive organisation that shuns publicity and hates being in the limelight. Leo Kirch, the 75-year-old founder, however, has been the focus of much speculation as he tries to save his debt-laden business.
His company, which owns one of Germany's two largest TV empires, is estimated to have debts and liabilities of billions of pounds, many of which are payable this year. His empire spans TV, newspapers and magazines as well as film rights, on which the company was founded.
Born in Bavaria, Kirch gained a doctorate in business administration and became an assistant professor in economics at Munich University. Keen to put his business degree to some use he decided in the 50s to start a career in business and set the foundations of his status as king of content when he bought Fellini's La Strada. As he built up content he began to make his way into the world of television. It is believed his son Thomas is being groomed to be his successor.
With his sight failing, the elusive Kirch is having to contemplate the sale of his 75 per cent stake in SLEC, the marketing and broadcast arm of Formula One, as well as giving up management control of his pay-TV operation, Premiere. His creditors include Rupert Murdoch, who has a 22 per cent stake in Premiere, and the rival German media group Axel Springer, which has an 11 per cent stake in its TV station, ProSiebenSat.
In a rare interview recently Kirch senior remained defiant: "There is an old joke. One man says to his friend: 'Oh no, I'm dead.' His friend comforts him, saying: 'It could be worse. You could be bankrupt.' Well, I have my own version. They say I'm bankrupt. But at least I'm not dead."
MICHAEL RZESNITZEK, managing director, Financial Times Deutschland
Helping to found the first national newspaper to enter the German newspaper market in two decades was no picnic for Michael Rzesnitzek. Yet he has helped Financial Times Deutschland, a joint venture between the Financial Times Group and Gruner & Jahr, become a major player in the market and a thorn in the side of the veteran newspaper Handelsblatt.
Rzesnitzek, who likes to don his leathers and zoom off on his Triumph motorbike to clear his head from the rigours of the day, has newspapers running through his veins, having first arrived in the industry as a journalist and photographer. However, he says he soon realised "I didn't want to just write, I wanted to do things. I decided the best way to combine both worlds was to go into publishing."
Snapped up by the publishing group Gruner & Jahr in 1991 as a trainee within the newspaper division, Rzesnitzek hasn't looked back, steadily climbing the career ladder until he was appointed managing director of FTD in 1999. The newspaper now employs 250 staff and has a circulation of around 80,000, roughly half of Handelsblatt's circulation. The target is to break even at around 120,000 copies.
The 36-year-old recalls that the toughest moment was preparing for FTD's launch and staffing up the paper with the right people starting from scratch.
An online edition of the newspaper was launched before the printed product and FTD also distributes its news through mobile and radio networks.
Clinging on to his beloved motorbike, despite the responsibilities of having a baby daughter, Rzesnitzek declares: "Speed is important, just like it is in business."