As Berner bolts, Conde Nast reorganizes (again)

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When Advance Publications paid $650 million to buy Fairchild Publishing from Walt Disney Co. in 1999, Fairchild was considered a backwater in b-to-b publishing. To change that perception, Mary Berner, a hard-charging, consumer publishing veteran of Advance unit Conde Nast Publications, was tapped as president-CEO of the newly acquired unit.

Within a short period, Berner reinvented Fairchild, establishing it as a major player in b-to-b publishing. While most b-to-b publishers struggled in the wake of the dot-com debacle, Berner kept Fairchild's ad pages relatively flat, which at the time was considered the new "up" in business publishing. In 2004, Advertising Age, a sibling publication of Media Business, named Berner "Publishing Executive of the Year."

Even before that accolade, Berner was considered by many in the industry to be on track to become president-CEO of Conde Nast, one of the top magazine publishers in the world.

No more.

In a surprising announcement, Conde Nast said earlier this month that Berner had resigned as group president of Fairchild and would be leaving the company at the end of January.

Conde Nast also announced that Fairchild would be renamed the Fashion & Retail Trade Groups. Mitchell Fox, a group president of Conde Nast Publications, will head the unit, which includes trade titles Women's Wear Daily, DNR, Footwear News, Menswear International, Supermarket News, In Furniture, Home Furnishings News and ancillary businesses, as well as W magazine and the Conde Nast Bridal Group. Fox retains his position overseeing Golf Digest Publications.

Three other Fairchild titles, Cookie, Details and Jane, will now report to Charles Townsend, president-CEO of Conde Nast.

Berner's departure comes about three months after Conde Nast reorganized as one consolidated company with seven divisions: Conde Nast magazines, the new Conde Nast Business Magazine division, Fairchild Publications, Gold Digest Publications, Conde Nast Media Group, CondeNet and the Conde Nast Shared Services Centers. Previously, Fairchild had operated with more independence.

The reorganization apparently precipitated Berner's move, said Tom Kemp, a managing director at media investment bank Veronis Suhler Stevenson and former chairman-CEO of Penton Media.

"This was effectively a demotion, which did not sit well with her," Kemp said. "There's a big difference between being CEO of your own operating company and reporting directly to [Advance Chairman] S.I. Newhouse to being a group president of a division reporting to Chuck [Townsend]. ... It's a loss of control and a step back from being CEO."

A person familiar with the situation, who requested anonymity, said Berner is eager to run her own company. "She built and ran Fairchild for six years and, with the reorganization, she's just a group publisher and she's gone way beyond that." 

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