Axios in Wonderland

Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP
Dylan Byers
August 10, 2022

Back in early July 2021, Axios C.E.O. Jim VandeHei was in his home state of Wisconsin when he received an interesting inbound call. It came from Mathias Döpfner, the erudite and elegant C.E.O. of Axel Springer, the German media giant. During the past decade, Döpfner has greatly expanded both his firm’s footprint and its influence in the U.S. In 2015, Axel acquired Henry Blodget’s Business Insider for $450 million. Years later, Business Insider would buy a minority stake in Morning Brew for $75 million. Meanwhile, Axel entered into an investor agreement with KKR upon which Henry Kravis’s private equity colossus became the company’s majority shareholder for $3.2 billion. Döpfner was appointed to the Netflix board of directors in 2018.

On this July day, Döpfner was in Sun Valley attending the annual Allen & Company conference along with Kravis, among others. He told VandeHei that the two men wanted to meet with him immediately, according to multiple sources familiar with the situation. Döpfner sent a private plane to ferry him from Wisconsin to the conference early on the morning of July 8. Once there, Döpfner and Kravis outlined a plan in which Axel would buy both Politico and Axios, with VandeHei running the combined enterprise. (His Axios co-founders, Mike Allen and Roy Schwartz, would also assume leadership positions in the new business combination.) VandeHei said he was intrigued, if somewhat skeptical, about the idea and would bring it back to the board for review and discussion.

Had talks gone forward, Axel would have proposed $1 billion for Politico and $400 million for Axios, sources familiar with the conversation told me. But the vision never materialized, obviously. The sources familiar with the Axios board meeting said that, among other things, VandeHei, Allen and Schwartz eventually soured on the idea of going back to a company that they’d left on less than amicable terms. The tension between VandeHei and Politico owner Robert Allbritton, as well as VandeHei and his Politico co-founder John Harris, is the stuff of Washington legend, and has been well (and perhaps overly) documented. In the end, Axel ended up buying Politico for $1 billion, approximately 5x its annual revenue, and Axios eventually received an equity investment from Cox Enterprises valuing the company at $400 million, a little more than 4.5x revenue. (Both VandeHei and Döpfner declined requests for interviews.)