Joseph Ripp, the newly appointed CEO of Time Inc., is what Donald Rumsfeld might call a known unknown. Mr. Ripp is a veteran of the media business, but when Time Warner announced his hiring on Monday morning, the response of several media analysts and gadflies was simply, "Who?"
Mr. Ripp was a dark horse in the race for the CEO post at Time Inc., whose portfolio includes brands such as Time, People, Sports Illustrated, InStyle, Fortune, Entertainment Weekly and Essence. For many observers, the surer bet -- and the more exciting one -- was former Time Inc. executive Michael Klingensmith, who left the company in 2008 and later became chief executive at the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Nor does the selection Monday match the statement made in 2011 when Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes named Laura Lang, a digital agency CEO without publishing experience, to lead Time Inc.
"They didn't get a high-profile pick like Laura Lang, nor did they get an innovator like Michael Klingensmith," said media analyst Ken Doctor.
What they got was an executive who last worked at Time Inc. nearly 10 years ago, when the company was enjoying a streak of 11 straight years of revenue growth. When Mr. Ripp starts his new gig in September, he'll be overseeing the world's largest magazine publisher -- set to spin off from parent Time Warner by year's end -- during a time of difficulty for the print business. In the second half of 2012, Time Inc.'s newsstand sales fell 11% from the previous year, according to a Bloomberg News report citing the Alliance for Audited Media. The company's revenue in the first quarter of this year fell 5%.
Mr. Ripp said he's realistic about his return to the company and plans to sit down with the management team to understand what they think the company should do next. (His son, Brendon Ripp, is VP of sales for Fortune.)
"I'm not so naive to think the world hasn't changed since I left Time Inc.," he said. "There's been an awful lot of change there, but understanding cultural changes and how you get people excited is something I've been very good at."
"It's really about the talent at Time Inc. that's going to take them forwards," Mr. Ripp added. "I'm the catalyst to help them get it all done."
Mr. Ripp declined to elaborate on specific ideas he might have for the company, but he did say there are no plans to restart merger talks with Meredith Corp.
Asked about the industry's challenges at grocery store check-out lanes and other retail racks, he signaled commitment to that and other core aspects of publishing. "Newsstand sales are a vitally important part of the industry as a whole and it will remain so for years to come, so will the subscription, so will the advertising, and so will the digital," he said. "We'll be going to be pursuing all of these things in the future and really balancing and making sure we're maximizing each and every one of them for our shareholders."
"There's still a need for great news," Mr. Ripp continued. "There's still a need for great commentary; there's still a need for insightful articles."
But Mr. Doctor, who described Time Inc. as a laggard among its peers in terms of innovation, said the hiring of Mr. Ripp raises more questions about Time Inc.'s path forward. "What does he have in his experience that will help him take on this formidable period of transformation that so many people have failed at?" Mr. Doctor asked.
Mr. Ripp joined Time Inc. in 1985 as assistant comptroller and was promoted in 1993 to senior VP, CFO and treasurer, a position he held until 1999 when he became CFO of Time Warner. Then, from 2001 until 2004, he was CFO at America Online and later vice chairman.
"He's a very standup guy," said Parade CEO Jack Haire, a former Time Inc. executive who worked with Mr. Ripp. "He knows the business well. He's a straightforward, ethical guy."
After leaving Time Warner, Mr. Ripp was president and COO of Dendrite International, which served the pharmaceutical industry. Later, from 2008 to 2010, he was chairman of the troubled newspaper chain Journal Register Co. and eventually became CEO of OneSource, a business information company.
"He's one of the few people to make the transition from print to online and back," another former colleague said of Mr. Ripp.
The Securities and Exchange Commission alleged in 2008 that Mr. Ripp and other AOL executives had overstated the company's ad revenue from 2000 through 2002. Mr. Ripp settled with the SEC in 2011 without admitting or denying the allegations against him, paying $150,000 in penalties.
Mr. Ripp said he was the whistleblower in that case. "The SEC filed certain charges and they withdrew the bulk of them and we settled that case," he explained. "A whole group of New York banks did a thorough investigation of both issues before they nominated me as the chairman of the Journal Register Company … I was really pleased that the issues were settled and we moved forward."