Thomas Trüb may well have been the most glamorous Swiss publishing manager at the heyday of print news. A visit to his happy place in Corsica is a journey to an industry that no longer exists in quite the same form.
Text: Mark van Huisseling
Pictures: Alberto Venzago
First published in the NZZ am Sonntag magazine on July 1, 2023
All of a sudden, everyone was talking about yuppies: young, upwardly mobile professionals. The term was coined in the early 1980s – in the United States, of course. It reached Switzerland soon after. Newspapers were printing portraits of thirty-something bank managers raking in the cash; radio presenters eagerly interviewed proud yuppies and the psychologists and economists who had made it their life’s work to research them.
Young upwardly-mobile professional or Yuppie. The Swiss specimen had a name: Thomas Trüb.
“I have always been a journalist”
In the early 1990s, I personally met a representative of this rare demographic group we all longed to be a part of. Well, nearly. At the time, I was an apprentice journalist at Ringier, the publishing house. One of my colleagues, not quite forty yet, seemed to be the rock star of the team: he was taking 200 flights every year, they whispered. Business class, obviously. He managed Ringier Pacific, which had been established specially for him. And the Eastern European business on top! Every weekend, he was jetting off to Marseilles or Corsica, where he had his own houses. Houses? Mansions! And he was constantly founding new magazines, including the weekly business paper Cash, the only successful spin-off Ringier had produced in two whole decades. This yuppie was in my direct vicinity; his business card showed the same company address as mine. And yet, he existed in a wholly separate solar system from me – just as unreachable as Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky.
Thirty years later, I am sat beside him at the dining table of his house overlooking Ajaccio Bay. I am drinking his red wine while he sips Champagne. My very first move is to offend him. “That is an insult”, responds the 70-year-old as I point out that he must have been the last glamorous Swiss publishing manager. “I have always been a journalist.” Or, at least, he made journalistic decisions – “and then raised the necessary funds.”
A Desk with a View – Thomas Trüb on his compound overlooking the bay of Ajaccio, Corsica.
Picture: Alberto Venzago
Successful men of a certain age tend to attach a great deal of importance to events that happened a long time ago. The more recent past, on the other hand, seems much less interesting. Perhaps, all their most important decisions were made at the start? Or do they just wistfully glorify their own potential, back in the days when everything seemed possible? Either way, Trüb recounts in great detail how he wriggled his way into the first year of the Ringier school of journalism, the class of 1974. “Hobby: reading the business section of NZZ”, he had claimed in his statement of motivation. A total lie. He then recalls how he made friends with his classmate Michael Ringier, son of the publishing company’s owner and its future CEO. On his very first day at work, having been asked to report on an increase in mortgage rates for Blick, he obtained a hot quote from then head of the Swiss National Bank Fritz Leutwiler (after finding out his favourite café and ambushing him during his coffee break). Se non è vero, it makes for a good story. Unlike a journalist, a storyteller is allowed to do just about anything – as long as he does not bore anyone.
“Unlike a journalist, a storyteller is allowed to do just about anything – as long as he does not bore anyone.”
For Bilanz, a business magazine and the next editorial department along his career trajectory, the yuppie wrote about yuppies. It made perfect sense. Or so it seems. Trüb disagrees: if anything, he considers himself a hippie. In terms of his age, this may just about work: he was sixteen in 1968. His personality, though? Was this man counter-cultural, anti-bourgeois, left-wing, even anarchist? Absolutely, claims Trüb, son of an upper middle-class family from Lucerne. (His grandfather was the director of Zurich’s EWZ power plant and a politician for the Alliance of Independents; he rubbed shoulders with the Migros founder Duttweiler, with little Thomas being “probably the only living Swiss journalist” ever to associate with him.) Seeking to convince me of his hippie credentials, he reminds me of his trip to Cuba with the International Brigade in 1973. In the daytime, they served the revolution; the evenings were dedicated to salsa and ideological exchanges with like-minded ladies from all over the world. Adventurous times indeed. The most important takeaway from the excursion: Marie-Françoise, a Corsican and his future wife. The relationship outlasted the ideology, this year the two are together fifty years, and the subsequent marriage, moreover, provided him with a French passport.
Cherchez la femme: Marie-Francoise, sometimes just “Muriel”, and for fifty years the wife at Thomas’ side.
In 1984, he bade farewell to employment and started his own business. He didn’t really have a plan, he says. This lack of a clear objective became his permanent business model: project-based consultancy gigs underpinned by the insight that “you can always deliver the plan after the project” (Trüb). At the time – he was in his early thirties – Trüb had another epiphany. Sure, you could make a lot of money by charging high fees. But being paid in equity could make you rich. This had been the case for him: when he developed a customer magazine for a Swiss IT start-up called Also, its young owner, Bruno Gabriel, paid him in options. “We spent a couple of afternoons on a concept, delivered it and forgot all about it”, recalls Trüb. Months later, after Also floated on the stock market, Gabriel informed him that Trüb’s holdings were now worth several hundred thousand Francs.
Cash was first published in 1989. Over the next two decades, the popular business weekly which Trüb had personally invented and developed went on to make more money than any other print media title in Switzerland (until the launch of the free periodical 20 Minuten). This was also thanks to the Cash clones published in the newly liberalised Eastern European countries (the Swiss print edition was discontinued in 2007). The success of the magazine further cemented his status at Ringier. Apparently, Michael Ringier once said that he could afford exactly two exotic birds: Frank A. Meyer for all things publishing, Thomas Trüb for all things business. After Cash, Trüb was no longer someone to be afforded. Quite the contrary. Rather than just pulling his own weight, this exotic bird generated profits en masse. About his competitor, Meyer, Trüb says: “We tore each other apart intellectually.” But their skirmishes were always marked by mutual respect, for “only a journalist could keep up with Frank”. Ultimately, they came to an agreement: FAM wouldn’t interfere in his affairs, and Trüb would let him lobby and hold court freely in turn.
A keen observer once noted that Trüb’s career would not have been possible anywhere other than Ringier. It was the only major publishing house that had grown without a clear strategy. Trüb accepts this claim. Or, rather, he repeats an earlier answer: “we delivered the strategy afterwards.” The same is probably true for Ringier’s printing and publishing businesses in China, Hong Kong and Vietnam – Trüb’s passion projects. Back in the day, he used to shout “Ho-Ho-Ho Chi Minh!” at protests; today, he visits the city for business. The Vietnamese business generates between 20 and 50 million Francs in reported revenue (1998 to 2003, source: Domo, the Ringier employee magazine). Peanuts compared to Ringier’s total annual sales of about a billion Francs. On the other hand: “When Thomi travels to Vietnam, the local staff get their hair done for the occasion”, explains Kurt Zimmermann, publisher and media columnist for Weltwoche.
Billions of losses? That may be a story in the newspaper, but Thomas Trüb’s Cash was big business for the publisher, bringing in millions.
Picture: Ringier AG
Covermodel or When the Newsman becomes the News – Thomas Trüb on the cover of a trade journal, early 1990s.
“It may sound like a cliché, but there tends to be a bit of truth in those: people like Thomas. Because Thomas likes people.”
The business Trüb has developed in Eastern Europe – including Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria – proved to be more solid. He published tabloids and copies of Blick there, as well as the aforementioned local versions of Cash. As early as 1991, Ringer was able to enter into a joint venture with the Munich media entrepreneur Leo Kirch, who – albeit still solvent at the time – was known to avoid the limelight and widely considered to be rather a difficult person to do business with. Together, they developed the Czech market. This relationship highlights another of Trüb’s important qualities: his people skills. Thomas – journalists always call him by his first name right away – is the kind of guy you want to have a beer (or a bottle of red wine/Champagne) with, go on holiday with, maybe share a flat with. It may sound like a cliché, but there tends to be a bit of truth in those: people like Thomas. Because Thomas likes people.
This mansion at Ajaccio is called U Tempu Persu, which is Corsican for “The Lost Time”. It’s also wrong, he says: “It should have been U Tempu Ritrovatu, Time Won: having to do less is more.” You can’t argue with that. There aren’t many industrialists who voluntarily put this insight into practice before retirement, and Trüb is no exception. Over the following years, was able to purchase the adjacent properties, something that should be done if at all possible. Today, my land spans more than 40,000 square metres set on a hilltop with views over Ajaccio Bay. Its 360-degree panorama view is hard to beat on the mountainous Mediterranean island. Trüb rents out the newly built house, not visible from his own, in summer. Far from built-up, the property is wide and spacious: nearly a third of the plot belongs to the animals making up his little private zoo, including two donkeys (“my tribute to Corsica”), pigs and three alpacas. His park is a traditional English garden, “with a surprise at every corner”. For example: life-sized plastic big cats in the trees, influential pieces by famous artists en plein air – all counterfeits, though. “I never even considered buying real art. Maybe it’s because there have always been so many major collectors around me,” he explains, referring to Michael Ringier and Uli Sigg, fellow Ringier journalist and later chairman of the board.
U Tempu Persu, “Time lost” in Corsican, the local language, Thomas Trüb’s hilltop-property overlooking the bay of Ajaccio on Corsica.
Picture: Alberto Venzago
Trüb seems happy and at home in Corsica. (He also owns a house in Marseille and rents a flat near Lucerne.) To the locals, he is Monsieur Thomas. Only very few foreigners achieve this level of acceptance, I learn from a Zurich native who owned a holiday home on the island for twenty years, but Thomas is one of them – thanks to his Corsican wife. Although that’s only one reason, he argues. He can slot into any culture. “I like to drink just as much as the Corsicans, perhaps even more. I am decent at playing cards and not afraid to raise my voice when need be.” Perfect conditions for a political career? “That topic has indeed come up here in Corsica”, he replies. But he decided against it. “I’m friends with everyone. If I had become a politician, half of the people here would have turned against me.”
It seems as though anyone looking for Trüb’s lasting impact on Ringier needs to dig a little deeper nowadays. For many years, he was the life of the party and developed ideas, some of which made money. “I may have been considered exotic, but I had to deliver from the very first day,” he says. On top of the publications mentioned earlier, he points out the various joint ventures across Europe that he brought into being. For example: Gannett, at the time the largest publishing house in the United States, had some of its European run of USA Today printed at Ringier’s printing works in Adligenswil (closed in 2018). Industry expert Kurt Zimmermann has a slightly more critical view: “Thomi was a bit of a wild card. Long-term considerations rarely factored into his decisions.” Some of his media endeavours, such as the Cashgroup of papers, would not have worked out in the long term – also because he loved to rush through projects and veered towards excessive optimism in his business plans. “It was a different time. Today, his spontaneous style simply wouldn’t work.”
Picture: Alberto Venzago
Picture: Alberto Venzago
I will let the last word go to Marc Walder, co-owner and CEO of Ringier and, in a way, Trüb’s apprentice: Thomas, “a wonderful person”, set three major developments in the history of Ringier in motion, he tells us in an email. “Firstly, its entrance into Eastern Europe.” Thirty-two years ago, Thomas travelled to Prague with fifty thousand Francs in a suitcase. The trip marked the beginning of the company’s first Czech newspaper, a local adaptation of Cash. “Today, Ringier is one of the biggest media companies in Eastern Europe.” Secondly: its move into Africa. “I remember the presentation ten years ago. Thomas opened with the words: ‘I would like to suggest Africa’”. Today, Ringier operates market places and media in Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda, South Africa and Ethiopia, making it the continent’s biggest European media investor. Thirdly: “Tapping into the field of digital marketplaces.” Thomas was the driving force behind the acquisition of Scout 24 around fifteen years ago. This facilitated major investments in fifty digital marketplaces (online adverts for jobs, properties and cars) across twenty countries.
As a manager, Thomas had been a “visionary looking for adventure”, continues Walder, but he was also someone “to start things rather than complete them”. His conclusion: “With him as a CEO, you’ve got a manager who is thinking ten years ahead.” What about the accusation of a lack of long-term viability? “I would say that’s a very unkind statement. Without Thomas, Ringier would never have invested in Eastern Europe or Africa”, counters Walder. In other words: the truth may well lie somewhere between these two poles, but Thomas Trüb can be proud of what he has achieved.
Back to School – Vi Than Elementary School, November 2022 (Top row from left to right: Alberto Venzago, Viktor Giacobbo, Thomas Trüb, Annabella Bassler, Christian Dorer, Manuel Liatowitsch, Manuela Nieth).
Picture: Alberto Venzago
And tomorrow she will be working for Google, maybe – Coding Classes at the Vi Thanh Elementary School, Vietnam, November 2022.
Picture: Alberto Venzago
High goals, little wall – Thomas during shooting of Alberto Venzago‘s film about the Dariu Foundation.
Picture: Alberto Venzago
Now, the standard question to ask a manager – or journalist, if you insist – at the end of an interview. What’s next? He seems to have anticipated it. He’s certainly prepared. Two things: he is busy looking for a successor to take over the Dariu foundation, which he established in 2002 with support from Ringier. It aims to enable children, especially girls, from poor rural, remote areas to enter into the digital world by providing them with computers and training them to use them, even teaching them to code. At present, 400,000 children from Vietnam and other developing countries benefit from the initiative every year. (The name of the foundation, Dariu, is also the name of Trüb’s son: the 34-year-old helped develop start-ups in Africa. He lives in Corsica.) “If you fail to find a successor, you’ve failed at everything”, comments Trüb. What’s the second thing? “I’m going to start another business,” is all he says. And does not reveal anything more. Let’s see if it becomes something sustainable.
is a freelance journalist and author based in Zurich.
is a photographier based in Zurich. He’s been traveling the world in pursuit of great pictures for the last fifty years – often times together with Thomas Trüb.