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When Charles Townsend resigned as president of The New York Times Co.'s Women's Magazines group last week to become publisher of Conde Nast's Glamour, one industry guessing game ended. But the defection immediately set the corridors of both companies buzzing with a new round of speculation.

At Conde Nast Publications, they're already taking bets on how fast Mr. Townsend, a 49-year-old executive steeped in circulation and corporate management experience, will climb the corporate ladder.

And at The New York Times Co.'s overall magazine division, they're wondering who will take the president's post. Mr. Townsend had been a top contender for that job, vacant since William Kerr split for Meredith Magazines in September 1991.

Incoming Conde Nast President Steven T. Florio is believed to have lured Mr. Townsend with the promise that he would be elevated to a corporate exec VP post within two years. At that level, Mr. Townsend would be a key adviser to Mr. Florio, keeping a close eye on the company's bottom line.

Both Messrs. Townsend and Florio insisted there was no promise of such a post.

Mr. Townsend "had to feel there is a very good and rosy future for him here," Mr. Florio said. "I've assured him that is the case, although I've given no specifics."

In succeeding Glamour's Jack Kliger, 47, promoted to senior VP a week earlier, Mr. Townsend must reignite the title and preserve the magazine's status as the most profitable in the company. Last year, despite dipping 0.9% in ad pages, Glamour still threw off an operating profit of more than $25 million, said one industry executive.

At The New York Times Co., the likeliest contenders for president of the magazine division are Mr. Townsend's interim replacement, Michael Golden, 44, women's group senior VP, and James Fitzgerald, 55, president-ceo of the company's sports/leisure magazine group.

Mr. Golden has a decade of magazine experience and, as the nephew of Chairman Arthur O. Sulzberger Sr., the right pedigree to carry him higher up the corporate ladder.

But Mr. Fitzgerald's Trumbull, Conn.-based group is more profitable than the women's group.

And there's strong speculation that an exhaustive Booz Allen & Hamilton management study of the magazine group will recommend the women's group be merged with Mr. Fitzgerald's group.

Insiders say much of the study, to be completed next month, focuses on ac counting, billing and circulation departments. The latest word is that an internal power struggle is shaping up between the two groups over where to base the services if they're combined.

Mr. Fitzgerald reportedly has little interest in leaving his current base for Manhattan. And his hand seems to be especially strong since he has been doing double duty as publisher of Golf Digest since David Ferm defected to become publisher of Business Week in November.

Mr. Townsend denied his departure was linked to any power struggle that might result from the study. "This was a Conde Nast-driven decision, not a New York Times-driven decision," he said. "There are opportunities short term and long term at Conde Nast Publications. This is the premier magazine company in the world."

Mr. Townsend may have been doubly attractive to Conde Nast because he spent 13 years at Hearst Magazines, including stints as publisher of Motor Boating & Sailing, Sports Afield and Harper's Bazaar before joining The New York Times Co. in 1986 as president and publisher of Family Circle.

Scott Donaton contributed to this story.

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