Exclusive Interview: Annelies van den Belt, CEO SUP, Russia’s Fastest Growing Online News Company

An exclusive interview with Annelies van den Belt, a female force to be reckoned with in the Digital world. She currently leads, as CEO, Russia’s fastest growing online news company and was named Media Momentum Women of the Year 2012 at the prestigious GP Bullhound Summit 2012. What a way to end our August Editorial Theme of BRIC Countries!

Annelies van de BeltI spoke with Annelies about her career; how she manages such a large company; and what she did to get there.

International citizen

I interviewed Annelies via Skype and we talked for a long, long time, in Dutch. We were serious and we had fun – in our native language. Because even though Van den Belt is a true international citizen and has been all over the world for the last 20 years, she is, like me, a Dutch native; she studied in Groningen, the North of Holland. She studied fast, completing her business studies in 3 years.

Find yourself a career

She went abroad with her banker husband - it was the beginning of the nineties, and that’s what you did, as a smart & beautiful young woman in The Netherlands. Follow your husband, and find yourself a career on your own, if you were strong enough. Van den Belt was strong, and already strategic at that time. First stop was Tokyo, where she started an international marketing career in a pharmaceutical company. Then in 1994 she moved to Russia. Pioneering for Johnson & Johnson, she was thrown in the deep end with medical devices sales and marketing, building a team and immediately taking on P&L responsibility,

An American corporate career is good start to a career. It taught me never to deliver any double-digit surprises, Van de Belt says.

Managerial skills

It’s where she learned her habit to check the P&L status, 24-hours a day. To know where the company stands. It’s one of her managerial skills; to be precise, to be systematic. And she abides by these learning points every day.

It’s a boy’s game

Currently, she is fundraising some 50 million $ for the Russian conglomerate, in order to increase the pace of expansion there. She is focusing her fund raising efforts on London. Of course, there is plenty of Russian money, but foreign funds will be the stamp of approval for the company from ‘the real world’.

In order to put the Russian brand further on the global map, a traditional investment bank ' a global brand name' is to advise on the fundraising process, located in the UK. The two existing Russian shareholders can 'mingle' with the JP Morgan high flyers and shop at Harrods. Van den Belt understands, it’s a boys game in that respect. But investment bankers in general do not impress her, she is not into status. She just wants to grow the business.

Female role model

She went to Google Zeitgeist this year; the theme was ‘Women’. What struck her is that there were only 10 women present at the event and many, many men to discuss the whole issue of female leadership and female entrepreneurship. A missed opportunity?

Her first female role model was Annemarie van Gaal, another Dutch native, who at the time was developing magazine titles in Russia and later sold her business to Sanoma Magazines.

Pioneer in Russia

Playboy and Men’s Health were the titles that Van de Belt worked on. She learned then to take more risks. That’s what you do when you are a pioneer in a developing market: dare to take risks, dare to be an entrepreneur. It became one of Van den Belt’s important skills.

Move to the UK

After that she moved to the newspaper business in the UK. She was only 30 years old at the time but already very experienced. She had a great career from 2000-2008 as Executive Director Digital at News International, developing all the digital properties. After that she became MD of ITV.

The English shark environment is horrendous, Van de Belt says.

It took her a year and  half to get used to the English work environment. But in the end she became part of a team with another woman, with whom she developed a strong friendship and they have been working together ever since.

My first work experience in Russia helped me to get used to harsh environments. Russia gives you a ‘’callus on your soul"; you get to be indifferent to setbacks.

Set priorities

She believes that having her children fairly young taught her her early on in her career to set priorities.

Work is work, a child is a child. I always open emails from my children. I don’t work 24 hours a day; I am busy with my work 24 hours a day.

Back to Russia

And then the possibility of Russia came along again, via a telephone call from one of the shareholders.

It happened as a result of networking and relations: a colleague at ITV knew the Russian oligarchs involved - and Van den Belt's son was at the same school as the oligarch’s son.

They asked her to move to Russia and lead a large media company, SUP. For Van den Belt it was the perfect test on whether she could lead a large digital media company.

Hired Gun

SUP was funded with 50 million dollars, led by 2 American executives and had just bought two online media properties, one of them Live Journal. The burn rate of the company was high, close to million dollars a month, so the bottom of the financial bucket was in sight. Actually, there was no clear strategy for getting enough money in, for cash flow. There was a lot of traffic, but no revenue.The company was not ready to be driven towards exit, it needed sustainable revenue.

 I was the hired gun to make the company sustainable, Van deBelt says

She spoke Russian, she knew the country, she had the experience, she was involved with 2 IPOs and one listed company; she was the perfect candidate.

Van den Belt was able to set her conditions: she wanted to be fully responsible for the decision making and she wanted to raise funding from third parties, foreign investors.

The other reason she took the position was because she was able to promote the female CFO, Lilia Omasheva, to COO.

Mini-shareholder

If you step into a company, you need to know the financial situation in detail, Van de Belt says.

She is a shareholder in the company, albeit a mini shareholder, but it gives her the opportunity to share the upside she is delivering.

Content business

The culture has changed in the company. Instead of five guys talking about the exit 24/7, the team is working on the business again. A strategic transformation was required. SUP is now a content business with advertising. With more than 300 employees, 50% of the employees work on content delivery; 35% are in sales.

In the last four years, van den Belt has built and launched five new online properties for SUP and revenues have been up. Revenues come from advertising packages for corporates, who want to reach individuals through SUP’s content rich websites and its social media reach. Attitional revenue comes from e-commerce, events and jobs.

The Huffington Post is an example for Van den Belt. Huffington Post 2.0, is building content from journalists and professionals and complementing it with user generated content. It's this strong content mix which wins her admiration.

Reach

Expansion happens by launching new digital properties, but she also acquires companies which can really add to the traffic of the group.  She only buys other companies for reach. A style-fashion site she recently looked into buying is fun, but has no reach. It actually only makes sense for SUP to buy an online company if the acquisition increases their reach by at least 1 million visitors.

Future of Content

What are the digital media properties she believes in? What type of content is working online? Van den Belt mentions blogs, parenting, cars, recipes, horoscopes. She is skeptical about dating sites in Russia, as they don’t focus on building relations.

SUP’s most visited site is still Live Journal, with 6 million unique visitors a day and 30 million page views: a real traffic gem.

Fundraising: Top tips

As she is fundraising, Van den Belt shares her tips on how to fundraise.

  1. You need to have a network to discuss your business with various interested parties. You need to visit events where such people are present. And you need to do some bench marketing. Do you still have the right story for your investors? You need to be on top of your financials, and you need to have the right data to present to your investors.
  2. Even though a company has 100.000 activities, you need to articulate its core activities and the next level. You need to describe what you are going to do with the funds, and how to be scalable and profitable.
  3. As CEO, you need to show your abilities and achievements.
  4. Talk to as many Private Equity guys and VCs as possible to know who is the smart guy, who brings in the smart money. Who brings in other colors, other ideas, and other contacts.
  5. Understand the fundraising process. Hire a firm if needed. It adds to your credibility and allows you to keep working on the business.
  6. Get your business profiled, through awards or otherwise. Panels and Jury of awards could be your entrance to a fundraising party. Awards are a confirmation of your strategy and add prestige.
  7. Think with investors in scenarios. Don’t stick to one plan, but be flexible. Use the investors' un-emotional way of looking at your business
  8. Get yourself a reall y good sparring partner in your own team.
  9. Get yourself a coach, as part of the executive program. And discuss your performance before and afterwards . You need to create your mirror.

And with those lessons, we say goodbye and promise to keep in touch.

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Bio: Annelies van den Belt

CEO of SUP Media, Annelies van den Belt has worked in London and Moscow for most of her career. She has extensive experience in managing commercial online ventures, having been the managing director of ITV Broadband (the UK’s leading commercial broadcaster) and previously run the commercial online division of both the Times and then the Telegraph newspaper websites. Prior to these high profile British media positions she worked as the publisher of The Moscow Times and a number of other major Independent Media titles.

SUP Media is an international online media company based in Moscow, Kiev and San Francisco, USA. Since its launch in 2006 it has acquired and grown organically six businesses. SUP Media holds #1 positions for news, sport and blogging in Russian online space – reaching more than 50% of Russian web users monthly.

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