Turnover at the top

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In the past year, no fewer than five prominent b-to-b media companies have announced changes in the CEO position. Kelly Conlin took the top spot at Primedia in October 2003, replacing interim CEO Charles McCurdy, who stepped in after the resignation of Tom Rogers in April of last year.
  • At Advanstar, Robert L. Krakoff ceded his CEO title to Joseph Loggia in January 2004. In June, Krakoff resigned his chairman title and left the company.
  • Thomas Kemp resigned the top spot at Penton Media in March and was replaced by David Nussbaum on July 1.
  • Theresa Lafontaine resigned as CEO of Allured Publishing, effective Oct. 1. Janet Ludwig, a member of the Allured family, which owns the company, replaced her.
  • Last month, United Business Media CEO Clive Hollick announced he would retire next May, when he turns 60.

What's driving these shifts in the executive suite? Industry observers say it's a combination of unique internal factors at each company and common macroeconomic forces-particularly the stagnation in print ad pages and the Internet's growing impact on traditional trade publishing.

"While each of the circumstances is unique, there is a common thread, and that is that the last three years have been a remarkably difficult time for most b-to-b media companies," said Kemp, who is now managing director of media merchant bank Veronis Suhler Stevenson. "It puts a lot of stress on the organization and on the shareholders."

Added Reed Phillips, managing partner at media investment bank DeSilva & Phillips, "You could surmise, with all that activity, that it's kind of a natural breaking point for a changing of the guard right now. It may be because we're at the tail end of what has been a very hard downturn for b-to-b, and we're right at the very beginning of what everyone hopes will be an upswing in the market."

Robert Crosland, managing director of media investment bank AdMedia Partners, said the number of CEO changes is not necessarily a sign of weakness or desperation for these companies or the industry at large. "Changing CEOs is good," he said. "Every time you put in a new CEO, there is a flurry of improvements. It's like any other job: 90% of what you're going to accomplish in a job you can get done in a couple of years. ... After that they've pretty much exhausted their pool of opportunity, because people get blinders on."

Lafontaine to start company

Allured's elevation of Ludwig to the CEO post in the wake of Lafontaine's departure seems to be the top-level change least related to the recessionary woes that have gripped the b-to-b media industry since 2000. "We're profitable," Ludwig said. "One of the things Theresa has brought to the table is a good financial base. ... Whatever she does, she will be successful."

Lafontaine is leaving to start her own company. Backed by BIA Capital, she plans to acquire a b-to-b property or properties with $2 million or less in annual cash flow. She explained her departure from Allured by noting that she wanted to call her own shots. "Some decisions in a family-run company you're not going to make," she said.

Ludwig's sister, Nancy Allured, preceded Lafontaine as CEO.

As at Allured, Hollick's retirement as UBM's CEO appears related more to the internal situation at the company than external economic woes. He will reach UBM's retirement age of 60, which is common in the U.K., and step down next year.

Among the key milestones of Hollick's tenure was the company's acquisition of CMP Media in 1999. Many industry observers say the company overpaid for the property, especially in light of the technology downturn, but Hollick subsequently sold other properties, including UBM's TV assets, which shored up the company's balance sheet. "The performance has been less than stellar," said Joel Novak, managing director of communications industry investment bank Berkery, Noyes & Co.

Among the b-to-b media companies that have changed CEOs over the past year, Advanstar, Penton and Primedia seem to have the most in common, according to industry observers. Concerns about Wall Street's perception and the recession-to varying degrees-contributed to the changes at the top, they say.

While Krakoff was universally praised for his management of Advanstar during the downturn, outside observers speculate that owner DLJ Merchant Banking Partners III (which is part of Credit Suisse First Boston) was preparing the company for an initial public offering and wanted a younger CEO they felt could tell a better story to Wall Street.

"I think the company got to the point where Loggia was mature enough to take the reins and manage the entire company," Phillips said. "The ownership was comfortable with that, and so they found themselves with two CEOs when they only needed one."

Loggia said that in his first few months on the job he has refocused the company, in part by changing its mission statement. Previously, he said, Advanstar was focused on being a successful b-to-b media company. Now, he said, the company's mission statement is more externally focused: "Connecting our customers with theirs."

The intended effect, Loggia said, is to move the company beyond the traditional trade publishing view of the marketplace. As proof that his vision for Advanstar is beginning to pay off, he pointed to the creation of an affiliated continuing medical education unit to leverage the company's acquisition of Thomson Corp.'s Medical Economics properties last October.

Loggia also noted that Advanstar launched its first consumer magazine, Dirt Sports, which is aimed at offroad enthusiasts, when customers said a consumer title was needed in the industry. "Before we would have said, `We're a b-to-b media company; we don't do this.' "

Where are they now?

Although he has left Advanstar, Krakoff has no plans to retire from b-to-b media and is looking for another private equity partner and a b-to-b media company to run.

At Primedia, Rogers resigned as CEO when the company's share price failed to rebound after being driven down by several Web deals, such as its acquisition of McCurdy stepped in as interim CEO, but industry observers say he was too closely tied to Rogers' visionary, if flawed, Web strategy to satisfy Wall Street.

So Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, the private equity firm that owns a controlling stake in Primedia, tapped Conlin, the former International Data Group CEO, to run the company. In his brief tenure, Conlin has sold properties to help shore up Primedia's balance sheet. Taking a page from IDG's book, he has also flattened the company's management structure.

Like Primedia, Penton made acquisitions, such as its purchase of Streaming Media, that went sour and damaged the balance sheet. After nearly eight years at the helm, Kemp announced in the spring that he was resigning as a chairman-CEO. Most observers believe ABRY Partners, the private equity firm that owns a large stake in the company, wanted a new CEO with a different story to tell Wall Street.

On July 1, Nussbaum took over as Penton's CEO. Among his first moves was the elimination of several high-paying management positions. He has tried to instill in Penton a culture that is "media agnostic" and moves beyond its traditional publishing stance. As part of this effort, he had installed Eric Shanfelt as Penton's Internet guru to help spread best practices on the Web among different divisions at the company. "I've seen a tremendous increase in the activity level when it comes to developing e-media products, and we're seeing more Webcasts, if nothing else," Nussbaum said.

He is also trying to foster a customer-focused culture. "We don't want to have salespeople trying to sell customers what we have in our bag," he said. "We're trying to understand our customers' needs and find a way to supply solutions to those needs."

So far, the results are encouraging, Nussbaum said. The company expects that its third-quarter revenues will increase modestly and EBITDA will also show improvement. M

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