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ABM faces tough search for new top executive

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In the wake of Gordon T. Hughes II's announcement last month that he will be leaving his post as president-CEO of American Business Media in July, the organization he has led since 1994 set in motion the search for his successor. But ABM members expressed concern that it may be difficult to find a successor to Hughes, given the tough times facing the industry and the fact that the association itself has seen its budget contract due to the economy.

“As to a successor, ABM needs to find somebody to help members survive in these troubled waters,” said Frank Anton, CEO of Hanley Wood and a former chairman of ABM: “Somebody with recent responsibility for revenue. Somebody with electronic media experience. Somebody diplomatic enough to reconcile the different service needs of big and small companies. Somebody used to operating successfully on a shoestring budget. In short, somebody who's smart, energetic and optimistic—if there are any optimists left in the media world.”

Anton is a member of the search committee ABM has assembled to look for Hughes' successor. Other members of the committee are: Gary Fitzgerald, CEO of Meister Media; Glenn Goldberg, president of information and media at McGraw-Hill Cos.; Anthea Stratigos, CEO of Outsell; Rex Hammock, CEO of Hammock Inc.; and Charles McCurdy, CEO of Canon Communications.

Rance Crain, president of Crain Communications Inc., which publishes Media Business, said, “I think the kind of guy an association like ABM needs is a guy who understands that the world does not revolve around advertising anymore, a guy who can figure out how to get more revenue from both readers and other sources.”

Tom Kemp, CEO of Northstar Travel Media, said: “In the best of times, running an association is kind of thankless. You have too many people who have their own agendas. It's tough to keep everyone happy.” He said it will be even more difficult given the current economic conditions that member companies face.

“It's not going to be easy to find anyone to come in here,” he said. “The association is under a lot of pressure.”

The next leader will also have the tough task of following Hughes, who has been widely praised for his work at the helm of ABM. His tenure coincided with the transformation of the business media industry by the Internet.

“I think Gordon Hughes was a great choice at the time, and he really handled the association through some rather dramatic changes in marketing and the transformation of b-to-b,” said Keith Crain, chairman of Crain Communications.

Hughes joined what was then American Business Press as executive director and was instrumental in a number of changes at the organization. He helped transform it from a trade publishing association to a broad media organization whose members reached their audiences in print, online and in person. The organization's adoption of its current name in 2000 underscored that transformation.

“He increased membership dramatically and oversaw a change in direction of the association's role in response to the changing nature of most media companies' businesses,” Anton said. “That's to say he navigated through the shift from member companies being fundamentally b-to-b magazine companies to full-service, integrated businesses with magazines, Web sites, trade shows and data. That's good stuff, and it wasn't easy.”

Hughes also led a transformation of ABM itself. He helped usher in an era of associate membership (in addition to media memberships) that helped fill the organization's coffers. “I remember our first sponsor of the spring meeting paid $35,000 [in the mid-1990s],” Hughes said in an interview. “That eventually became a $2 million event.”

He also helped develop the Creative Excellence in Business Advertising Awards, the Timothy White Award for editorial courage and a new strategic plan introduced in late 2009 that attempts to align ABM with other media and marketing associations.

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