Denson takes reins: Hachette and G&J explored joint venture

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Gruner & Jahr USA Publishing last week named a new U.S. CEO, but only after its German parent company engaged in serious discussions with Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S.'s French parent company over creating a 50-50 partnership in America, said executives familiar with the situation.

Those discussions were only abandoned earlier this month, said two executives.

A friction point was the relative inequity of each company's U.S. operations. Hachette last year posted around $700 million in revenue; G&J's was closer to $400 million, according to executives familiar with the matter. It's not clear who would have run the combined operation, but G&J was searching for top management while Hachette has a veteran CEO, Jack Kliger, and an heir apparent, Chief Operating Officer Phillipe Guelton, firmly in place. A Hachette spokeswoman did not return calls by presstime.

With the deal talks over, G&J needed a president-CEO. It selected Reiman Media Group CEO Russell Denson, a low-profile executive little known in New York media circles, to serve as its president-CEO on May 27, filling a slot vacant since former CEO Dan Brewster was fired over four months ago.

Axel Ganz, G&J's international head who introduced Mr. Denson to staffers, said he could not confirm or comment on any past discussions. He said G&J was subject to several unspecified inquiries from various companies and that no discussions were ongoing. "The fact we've hired a new CEO speaks for itself," he said.

financial background

Mr. Denson, 53, came into publishing through the finance side, and has leveraged operational smarts, a low-key presence and a honey-gravel Texas drawl into a string of high-level jobs.

His resume includes stints at `80s startup Hippocrates, which was sold to Time Inc. in 1990 along with Health, and then as chief financial officer of Weider Publications. He was named CEO of Weider in 2001. American Media then bought those titles in late 2002. In 2003, he joined Reiman, an advertising-free stable of titles owned by Reader's Digest Association, in 2003. Between publishing stints, he ran and then sold a biotechnology firm and a toy company, and dabbled in the dot-com world through Web site icelebrate.com.

below the radar

As a G&J candidate, he flew well below the radar, but two executives said he'd traveled to Germany recently to meet with G&J's top brass.

Even Mr. Denson's fans concede he's not from the A-list of magazine executives whose names surface whenever a new CEO is sought. Among them: Time Inc. exec VP Michael Klingensmith, Fairchild CEO Mary Berner, and Conde Nast Chief Marketing Officer Richard Beckman, all of whom received entreaties. Other executives contacted include TV Guide Publishing President John Loughlin, ESPN Exec VP John Skipper and former Ziff Davis publishing head Mike Perlis; in play until late in the game was former TV Guide CEO David Steward. (Mr. Steward did not return calls.)

Mr. Denson inherits a company reeling from bad publicity that came in the wake of its disastrous legal battle with erstwhile business partner, entertainer Rosie O'Donnell, as well as from revelations it significantly overstated newsstand circulation for certain titles, including teen title YM.

"Job one is to be visible," Mr. Denson said, "to reach out to the employees and external [constituencies], principally advertisers."

Mr. Denson echoes Mr. Ganz in stating a focus on existing operations. "Today we're not actively looking" for acquisitions, he said. "We have to consolidate what we have-get our hands around it." Mr. Denson begins at G&J on June 14.

Résumé

Who: Russell Denson

Age: 53

Birthplace: Houston, Texas

Resume: CEO, Reader's Digest Association's Reiman Media Group, 2003-4; CEO, Weider Publications, 2001-2002; CFO, Weider Publications, 2000-2001

Hobbies: Motorcycles; automobile restoration

Homelife: Married 34 years to Carolyn, with three children.

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