An odd package but, in the form of Stephen M. Lacy, president of Meredith Publishing Group, one that works extremely well.
Mr. Lacy joined Meredith Corp. as VP-chief financial officer in 1998 and, for most of 2000, ran the company's interactive and integrated marketing operations. He was named group president in November 2000.
"There is a benefit to coming in and looking at things without the emotion. The financial background allows me to make a decision more quickly," says Mr. Lacy, 49, who before coming to Meredith had never worked in publishing.
At Meredith, the publishing bucket includes magazines, books, brand licensing, interactive media, integrated marketing, and database and information systems operations.
Meredith Corp. Chairman-CEO William Kerr named Mr. Lacy publishing group president when Christopher Little left. The group had already seen years of growth so "the biggest challenge was to keep the momentum going," Mr. Kerr says. Then came Sept. 11, 2001, and the recession. "Then it was how will we lead the pack coming out?" Mr. Kerr says. Mr. Lacy's efforts toward that end have put him in the spotlight as Advertising Age's Publishing Executive of the Year.
Mr. Lacy and the other Meredith executives pepper their conversations with military and sports language. It's a striking contrast to the home and garden subject matter the company concentrates on, but also a fitting mind-set: Strategic planning and strong leadership have contributed a great deal to the company's growth and bottom line.
For 2003, Meredith predicts a combined 16% ad page growth for its six biggest titles over 2002. Through September, Meredith's ad pages were up 14.5% from a year ago, according to TNS Media Intelligence/CMR.
Operating profits for the publishing group, which includes a total of 17 subscription-based titles, hit $46.4 million in the fourth quarter, ended June 30, up 24% from the previous year. Meredith noted especially strong performance for Ladies' Home Journal and More, saying both titles boosted ad pages by more than 30%. For all of fiscal 2003, operating profits for the publishing group climbed 17% to $139.3 million.
Meredith was at the "right place at the right time," says Ed Atorino, director at investment bankers Blaylock & Partners. "The trends [like home decorating and food] went their way, and they capitalized on it."
One of the most successful ad programs under Mr. Lacy has been the Home Initiatives Group. Started two years ago, the group "pursued 90 to 100 accounts where we put together programs to dominate their budgets," he says. The group creates plans that go beyond specific titles or ad programs. Focused on "breaking down silos," Mr. Lacy and the other company executives emphasize that the brand that matters most is Meredith itself.
Mr. Lacy, a self-described "elephant hunter," doesn't like to waste time on small projects. They require just as much attention as larger, "move the needle" initiatives, but don't contribute as much to the bottom line.
"One of our mantras is that bigger is better," says Jerry Kaplan, exec VP-Meredith Publishing Group. "The focus is on generating revenue and putting out the best product we can."
Mr. Lacy is also focused on putting the right team in place to meet those goals.
"One of Steve's great strengths is his ability to pick and motivate talent," says Mr. Kerr. But once Mr. Lacy installs them and gives them the resources they need, Mr. Atorino says, he leaves them alone.
Case in point: the revitalization of Ladies' Home Journal under new Editor in Chief Diane Salvatore. Although the title had strong circulation, there was little excitement over it in the ad community, and the magazine's readers were, well, getting older. Ms. Salvatore's new team "gave [the 100-year-old title] a shot of B-12," says Mr. Kaplan.
LHJ's turnaround was "phenomenal," Mr. Atorino says, adding it's one of the most "unheralded success stories" in the industry. At yearend, LHJ's ad pages will be up 23% over 2002, to 1,500, according to the publisher.
LINKING WITH CHRYSLER
Other elephantine initiatives under Mr. Lacy include a bevy of Better Homes & Gardens brand extensions-from a licensing deal with Home Interiors & Gifts to the expansion of BH&G special-interest publications and custom publishing deals for clients including DaimlerChrysler and DirecTV.
Two other subjects that put a sparkle in Mr. Lacy's eyes include book publishing and the Internet. Meredith aggressively courted book partners in the home and food arenas. Its best sellers include titles for Home Depot and cable hit "Trading Spaces," and recently published titles with cable channels HGTV and Food Network. On the Internet side, the company has just about hit a three-year goal of 1.5 million subscriptions through the BH&G Web site, at half the cost of offline subscription acquisition.
Next up for the publishing group: a focus on women in earlier stages of life and on Hispanic women. A foundation was set for both areas with the 2002 acquisition from Primedia of American Baby Group, which includes Spanish-language titles and a magazine popular with first-time moms.
Research into the needs of Hispanic consumers is ongoing. "You've got to be there early and seize your position," Mr. Lacy says.
But Mr. Lacy also recognizes that you can't build a company on strategy alone. Giving your employees a pat on the back and a good laugh helps. Like three years ago at the company's E.T. Meredith Awards for Creative Excellence, when the planned Elvis impersonator backed out. Mr. Lacy stepped into the jumpsuit and, Mr. Kerr recalls, "brought our troops to their knees."