For almost 100 years, Forbes Media has been run by a member of the Forbes family. B.C. Forbes founded Forbes magazine in 1917. His sons Bruce and Malcolm later ran the business and, up until Dec. 1, his grandson Steve Forbes was CEO. On that day, Mike Perlis took over as president-CEO, with Steve Forbes remaining chairman and editor in chief.
“It's a very significant move for Forbes,” said Jim Spanfeller, CEO of the Spanfeller Group and former CEO of Forbes.com. “I think it shows great confidence in Mike and what he can bring to the company.”
Perlis, most recently a general partner at venture capital fund SoftBank Capital, expects to work closely with Steve and Tim Forbes, chairman of Forbes Digital. “Those guys are superconnected to this business,” Perlis said. “Steve is incredibly well-connected and valued from an editorial standpoint with a lot of advertisers. He plays a very important role. Tim knows every nuance of how the company operates.”
Prior to his decade at SoftBank Capital, where he was involved with BeliefNet and other businesses, Perlis was president-CEO of Ziff-Davis Publishing and president of Playboy Publishing Group. Industry observers applauded his hiring at Forbes.
“He'll bring with him a very educated sense of the direction of the media business,” said John Wickersham, partner at Atwood Advisors, noting Perlis' decade of venture capital experience.
“He has the right kind of background for what they are looking for,” said Reed Phillips, managing partner of DeSilva & Phillips. “He combines a strong digital background with a strong print media background.”
Perlis takes over in challenging times not only for Forbes but also for its chief competitors, Bloomberg Businessweek and Fortune. Each of these three publications lost about two-thirds of its ad pages between 2000 and 2009. For the first three quarters of this year, all three lost ad pages compared with the same period last year: Bloomberg Businessweek (-4.7%), Forbes (-9.6%) and Fortune (-9.1%).
As print pages have dwindled, Forbes.com has embraced online innovation. Spanfeller revamped the site to aggregate business news. Now, Lewis DVorkin, chief product officer at Forbes Media, is again modifying the editorial approach of Forbes.com and Forbes by wading into social media and through the innovative AdVoices program, which allows advertisers to purchase blog posts.
Between October 2009 and October 2010, Forbes.com saw its traffic dwindle from 10.6 million to 8.4 million unique monthly visitors, according to Compete.com. In the same timeframe, www.businessweek.com dropped from 6.1 million to 4.2 million unique monthly visitors, and Money.CNN.com, which serves as Fortune's online presence, fell from 12.3 million to 8.1million, according to Compete.com.
“This is definitely one of the most competitive segments of media,” Wickersham said. “[Perlis] has a substantial challenge ahead of him.”
Perlis, however, is bullish on Forbes because of its paid circulation of 900,000. He has confidence that the changes in how Internet users consume and share information will favor such strong brands. “I believe that brands are going to play a more important role as social media plays a more prominent role,” he said. “Brands in that social environment are really important.”
Industry observers said Elevation Partners, the private equity fund that acquired a minority stake in Forbes Media for a reported $300 million in 2006, played a role in the naming of Perlis as CEO. The firm acquired its stake at the top of the market and has seen Forbes Media, like most media companies, underperform in the intervening years.
“If I were an investor in Forbes,” Phillips said, “I would want the best CEO you can get for the business.”