Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Brownridge to Challenge Wenner

"Revenge... is like a rolling stone, which, when a man hath forced up a hill, will return upon him with a greater violence, and break those bones whose sinews gave it motion."
Albert Schweitzer (German medical Missionary, Theologian, Musician and Philosopher. 1952 Nobel

Brownridge to Challenge Wenner
By Lucia Moses

Ever Since Kent Brownridge surfaced as a bidder for Dennis Publishing castoffs Maxim, Blender and Stuff, industry watchers have been atwitter about the possibility of a showdown between him and his old boss, Jann Wenner. Brownridge toiled for Wenner for 31 years, before "retiring" in the fall of 2005 (he said the decision to leave was his, but it's widely believed that he was bounced out after relations between he and Wenner soured). And those who have seen his fierce competitiveness in action expect him to jump at the chance to use it against his former employer.

"I think he would love to stick it in Jann's face, especially over what happened to him at the end," quipped one ex-employee.

Brownridge, who served for years as Wenner's consigliere and senior vp, general manager, would certainly have the knowhow to do so. "Kent makes Karl Rove look like a Sunday School teacher," said a former Wenner exec. (In a sense, that is not much of a stretch: Brownridge was once a political operative for George McGovern.)

But Brownridge has denied any feud-business or personal-exists between him and Wenner, calling him a "lifetime friend." "It's a natural thing for people to speculate that there's going to be a big rivalry," explained Brownridge. "My rivalry is with myself, to see if I can get out of myself what is necessary to do this. That is the question here, and not anything I might or could want to get out of Wenner." Jann Wenner declined to be interviewed, but said through a representative as he left for vacation, "We are very happy for him and wish him good luck."

Still, Maxim (and to some extent smaller sibling Stuff) and Blender have long butted heads with Wenner's Rolling Stone and Men's Journal for automotive, consumer electronics, liquor and other ad dollars. After Dennis launched Maxim in 1997 and Blender in 2001, Wenner went on the defensive, hiring laddie magazine editor Ed Needham from the now-defunct FHM to edit Rolling Stone. Former Wenner employees said anonymous e-mails were sent to Blender salespeople alleging circulation hanky-panky there, while others went to ad buyers, detailing salacious words in Maxim. Rolling Stone has since replaced Needham and amped up its serious journalism, but it still bears the influence of Blender's humorous, quick-read formula.

Brownridge, backed by private equity firm Quadrangle Group, has big plans to grow the company. Namely, by cross-selling the titles more aggressively than has been done in the past; leveraging selling opportunities with Maxim and its many brand extensions, including a planned casino and line of steakhouses; and expanding Maxim's reach online and on TV. "This is a company that makes plenty of money, and we just want to make more money," he said. "And eventually, we'll sell."

He certainly can point to a long record of successes at Wenner. He helped take the iconic Rolling Stone to profitability, was pivotal in the launch of Men's Journal in 1992, and led the evolution of Us into a weekly from a monthly frequency in 2000.

"It was a high-risk, high-wire act that turned into a success," he recalled of Us' transformation. "Everyone said it would be nuts, it would be Jann's Vietnam. We pulled it off. I wrote the business plan. It didn't work too well the first 15 months, but then it paid off. That'll never leave me." Indeed, Brownridge helped lure women's magazine vet Bonnie Fuller, who created the formula that can be seen in virtually every celeb weekly out there.

Terry McDonell, group editor of Time Inc.'s Sports Illustrated, who had editing roles at Men's Journal, Rolling Stone and Us Weekly during Brownridge's tenure, said his old boss was a master at positioning magazines, who saw early on the potential to differentiate Us from People by being celeb-friendly, and was quick to adjust the newsstand draw after single-copy sales were overestimated. "He's smart, moves very fast, is fearless," McDonell said.

"Everybody who knows him thinks he will do something incredibly interesting with this company."

In addition to his inside knowledge of Wenner gained from years as Jann Wenner's right-hand man, Brownridge will benefit from a number of Wenner alums working for him. Those include former Wenner chief financial officer John Lagana, now in the same role at Dennis; and one-time Rolling Stone publisher Rob Gregory, now group publisher of Maxim.

Injecting new life into the former Dennis titles will be one challenge. Maxim, Dennis' crown jewel, rode a wave of anti-P.C. sentiment to rapid success, but as the monthly has softened its image, some of its distinctiveness has been lost. Circ was flat at 2.5 million in the second half of 2006, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations, while ad pages are down 8.1 percent this year through July, per the Mediaweek Monitor. And FHM, the chief rival to men's gadget title Stuff, is gone, at least in print. Brownridge is known for his circulation expertise, but the rules of the game have changed there, too. Some of the tactics practiced at Us, which as a monthly barely made rate base at times and used bulk copies to pump up circ, aren't likely to pass muster with media buyers today.

Filling out the executive ranks may be difficult. (Brownridge said he doesn't expect to make any personnel changes, but people who have worked for him expect that with his intense interest in the editorial side, he will look for another top editor for Maxim; he's already spoken to former Maxim editors Bill Shapiro and Mark Golin, now both at Time Inc.) Another logical hire would be Keith Blanchard, who was editor of Maxim before briefly running Wenner's Web sites. His ability to poach from Wenner is limited, thanks to contracts binding many top sales and editorial people he himself put in place (and that Jann Wenner has been known to enforce through litigation). The take-no-prisoners reputation he cultivated at Wenner may give other candidates pause, too.

Meanwhile, a sale process that stretched out over a year and a half has swamped the former Dennis titles with morale problems. As the sale dragged on, some employees left, and uncertainty about the company's future led some advertisers to pull back. Even the office bathrooms have been neglected.

Yet Brownridge, 66, is eager to get his hands dirty again. When he left Wenner, he retreated to his horse farm in Virginia, where he tried to live the life of a gentleman farmer. But it didn't last long. On nightly runs to Wal-Mart, he found find himself engrossed in the magazine racks, comparing magazine displays. It didn't take long for him to call up his friend, Peter Ezersky, a principal at Quadrangle, and pitch his services as a consultant. (Quadrangle tried to buy Time Inc.'s enthusiast group and a couple other publishing companies before winning the Dennis titles, for which it paid just north of $240 million.)

Brownridge said it wasn't money that lured him back. "I like to run things," he said. "Ever since I was a little kid, I liked to boss the other kids around. When you run things, you fix them, and make them better and see the results."

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