Mary Berner: SI's Fair Lady

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Conde Nast Publications executives usually visit S.I. Newhouse Jr. in his office. But a scant three weeks after Glamour Publisher Mary Berner returned from maternity leave for her fourth child last fall, the Advance Publications chairman uncharacteristically popped into her doorway.

"He asked me if I'd like to go to Fairchild," recalled Ms. Berner. "It was very straightforward." At the time, Advance was finalizing its $650 million acquisition of the publishing house and the industry was rife with rumors about who would run it and whether it would remain independent from Conde Nast.

In the year since Ms. Berner replaced Michael Coady at the helm of Fairchild Publications, the 41-year-old executive has lived up to her reputation as a hard-driving straight shooter. And though Ms. Berner is not afraid to make enemies, she earns extraordinary loyalty from her charges and has won high marks in the ad community for sharpening Fairchild's marketing skills.

MAKING A SPLASH

"It was business that was done in the old-fashioned way-all about the editorial," said Matina Karadiakos, senior principal/media director at Optimedia International, New York. "Now it's more about how you've got to be a smart marketer, innovative and entrepreneurial."

The executive office at Fairchild is a far cry from Ms. Berner's first media job, peddling space for the Allston Brighton Citizen Item, a weekly newspaper in Boston. There she earned about $100 a week and lined up alongside colleagues to get a $10 bonus at Christmastime.

But today's Fairchild is also far from where it will end up. Perhaps the best measure of the impact Ms. Berner has had is that she's making such a splash, internally and externally, at what has essentially been a trade publishing operation.

Closely held Fairchild does not disclose financial information. But Ms. Berner said flagship Women's Wear Daily and the consumer publishing division account for 75% of revenue, while other business-to-business publications pull in the rest. Analysts peg Fairchild's 1999 revenue at roughly $300 million. Ms. Berner said revenue will rise about 16% this year.

Looming large on the agenda next year is the May 15 launch of a subscription-based Women's Wear Daily Web site, a play for same-day European readers. Larger still are unspecified plans for growing the business, which the fast-talking Ms. Berner will not address in anything other than general terms. "This is the year we built the platform," she said.

It hasn't been a quiet year at Fairchild's Manhattan headquarters. Ms. Berner divided the company into four segments: b-to-b; consumer; Women's Wear Daily; and Internet. She relaunched Conde Nast's Details and introduced several trade titles. Women's Wear Daily significantly beefed up its U.S. distribution. And the company launched an ad campaign under the tagline, "Fairchild First."

"She has an idea every 30 seconds," said Patrick McCarthy, Fairchild's editorial director and an 18-year veteran of the company.

"For years here there was very little promotion and PR," said Stephanie George, president of Women's Wear Daily. "And no investment in products except a little bit for W when I was there."

Ms. Berner also brought in a host of new talent to a company that wasn't known for attracting it. Two of the most recent high-level hires are Senior VP-Chief Financial Officer Robert Sauerberg, former VP-finance at The New York Times Co. Magazine Group, and W VP-Publisher Alyce Alston, who had been launch publisher of O, The Oprah Magazine.

`NO LOVE LOST'

Those hires don't get talked about quite as much as the staffers she's lured over from corporate sibling Conde Nast-27 of them, according to some Conde counts. That internal poaching, along with the relaunch of Details after it failed as a Conde Nast title, have created a sibling rivalry between Ms. Berner's Fairchild and Steve Florio's Conde Nast.

"There was no love lost between some publishers," said an industry executive familiar with the situation. "[Glamour Publisher] Debi Fine-I thought she was going to choke [Ms. Berner] to death." Ms. Fine has lost more than 15 staffers to Fairchild, and she came close to losing her job when Glamour subsequently slipped (she was later promoted instead).

Conde Nast CEO Mr. Florio dismisses talk of a family feud, yet showers only faint praise on Ms. Berner. "I am very proud of the fact that someone I brought into the company has progressed to be president of a division," he said.

But another Conde Nast executive said the poaching underscores the loyalty Ms. Berner engenders: Glamour staffers' "loyalty was to her, not the brand or the company. It was easy to poach." Indeed, many top execs Ms. Berner has worked closely with in the past have popped up at Fairchild. Ms. Alston worked with Ms. Berner at TV Guide, and b-to-b Group Publisher Mike DeBartolo worked with her at Glamour, as did Jane Publisher Eva Dillon.

"When you put together a team, you're going to draw from the people you know," said Ms. Berner. "Are there a lot [of former Conde Nast staffers] here? Yeah. Well, whatever. My response is: `Stop whining.' "

"Let [Conde Nast] come over and recruit our people."

Ms. Berner said the less-glamorous b-to-b group will continue to be a priority. Those titles "make money in two years," she said. Revenue for the b-to-b segment was down 3.5% for the first half of 2000, but will end the year up about 16%.

The numbers to date at Fairchild's consumer publications are more decent than spectacular. The relaunch of Details was well-received. But ad pages at W and Jane were up just 3% in the first 10 months of the year, below industry growth rates. Ms. Berner said revenue at Jane will be up 17% for the year, owing to a tougher stance on ad rates, and that W's late-year numbers are stronger.

"She's done well," said Valerie Muller, senior VP-director of print services at Grey Global Group's MediaCom, bringing W "from the runway to the actual retailers," and making an impact with Details, "her first big challenge."

Ms. Berner said the company is unsuited for "mass magazines" and those outside its style and retail bailiwick. But, as one executive noted, "there's little she can do" in terms of acquisitions of consumer titles that play to Fairchild's strengths. Added another executive, "Anything that comes up on the consumer end is going to go into Conde Nast unless it's a specialty shot."

Mr. Newhouse declined an interview request, but said through a spokeswoman, "Mary is a remarkable executive who has quickly grasped the culture and potential of Fairchild. Under her direction, the company will have an interesting and important future."

Tea-leaf readers may spend time parsing statements like that, especially in light of Ms. Berner's formidable drive. But Ms. Berner staunchly refuses to play seer. A year from now, she said, "I will

still be harping on the same thing. We will stay this course for about five years and then take a breather and see what happens."

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