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Steven T. Florio, Former Conde Nast CEO, Dies

Steven T. Florio, former chief executive officer of Cond? Nast Publications Inc., died Thursday due to complications from a heart attack. He was 58.

NEW YORK — Steven T. Florio, former chief executive officer of Condé Nast Publications Inc., died Thursday due to complications from a heart attack. He was 58.

This story first appeared in the December 28, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Florio was hospitalized several weeks ago and had a history of heart problems. He had surgery to replace a faulty valve in 1999 and a second surgery a few years later to correct a manufacturer’s defect on the replacement valve.

Condé Nast chairman S. I. Newhouse Jr. said in a statement, “Steve was a great executive and a great leader. I am very glad that we had many years together.”

Credited with growing Condé Nast and shaping its culture as a personality-driven star system, Florio stepped aside as ceo in January 2004, but remained under contract as vice chairman until last January. After relinquishing the ceo title, he served as adjunct professor at New York University in the entertainment, media and technology program, and was an investor in Tutto Il Giorno, a restaurant in Sag Harbor, N.Y.

Florio’s two children, Kelly and Steven John, still work in business capacities at Condé Nast, and his brother, Tom, is the publisher of Vogue. He also is survived by his mother, Sophie; his wife, Mariann, and another brother, Michael.

The family will be receiving visitors at the Frank Campbell Funeral Home at 1076 Madison Avenue on Sunday from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 7 to 9 p.m. Funeral services will be held Monday at St. Ignatius Church at 980 Park Avenue.

The phrase “larger than life” came up in nearly every recollection of Florio.

“Steve’s whole being and identity was wrapped up in his job at Condé Nast, and I think he was pretty aware that his personality — big, colorful, swaggering in a kind of primary colors way — was his most vivid asset as an executive and as a salesman,” said New Yorker editor in chief David Remnick.

“He was a consummate supersalesman from the first day that I met him,” said Chuck Townsend, who succeeded Florio as ceo and with whom he shared a great love of sailing and membership in the New York Yacht Club.

Many saw Florio as the exemplar of a bygone era at media companies. “It was a smaller world,” said Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour. “It was much less involved in the Internet. The company wasn’t as large as it is now, and he ran it based on relationships he had. It was more like an old boys’ network.”

She added, “People liked him so much because he was respectful and in awe of people’s creativity.”

Florio was born at Jamaica Hospital in Queens and raised on Long Island. After graduating from NYU’s business school in 1972, he began his career at Esquire, where he rose to the position of vice president/advertising director. He went on to serve as publisher of GQ and, in 1985, when The New Yorker was purchased by Condé Nast parent Advance Publications, he took over at the magazine as president. Three years later, he was given the title of ceo of The New Yorker.

Former New Yorker editor in chief Tina Brown recalled working with Florio in the early days. “We had so much fun; we laughed all the way,” she said. “He brought enormous buoyancy to the office and knew how to keep spirits up in the bad times.”

Vanity Fair editor in chief Graydon Carter struck a similar note. “Steve was very much an editor’s publisher. He realized that good journalism and good magazines produced good profits,” he said. “Inasmuch as it seemed he could talk the birds out of the trees, I can only imagine his powers of persuasion as a publisher.”

He became president of Condé Nast Publications in January 1994, and added the ceo title two years later, overseeing all of the company’s then 18 titles.

Florio often cast his rise to head one of the world’s leading magazine publishers as an example of the American dream. In 1995, he told Interview magazine, “I was invited to the White House recently as part of a group that Ralph Lauren put together for breast cancer awareness. I went there with Ralph, and as we were walking into the White House, and the first lady was walking toward us, I looked at him and I said, ‘Jesus, it’s a long way from Queens.’ And he looked at me and said, ‘It’s a long way from the Bronx, too, but we’re here.'”

But throughout his tenure, he had his share of detractors, many of whom were rivals. In 1998, Fortune magazine published a scathing profile of Florio that accused him of running a company with below-average profit margins built largely on buzz and image. The article got personal, claiming that “even his supporters acknowledge that in Florio’s hands, truth is a fungible commodity.”

On Friday, friends and former employees either declined to comment on the criticisms or attributed them to competitive agendas. “You had a lot of folks on the outside who compete with Condé Nast who weren’t going to go out of their way to make it easy for him,” said Portfolio publisher and Condé Nast group publisher David Carey. “Others would take potshots, and it came with the territory for him.”

Carey said Florio taught his team “about the art of publishing more than just the science of it….He was a tireless champion for the magazine medium. He believed very much that clients wanted their media partners to help them think big, and I think he instilled in all his executives the thought that there’s no idea that’s too crazy or outlandish, that almost anything was possible.”

He was praised by people who worked for him as a mentor and an identifier of talent, as seen in the number of current high-level executives at the company whom Florio hired.

“He believed in me before I believed in myself,” said Richard Beckman, recalling the day, 22 years ago, when Florio interviewed him for a position in the London sales office of The New Yorker. “The interview lasted about two-and-a-half hours, and as he walked me to the door and put his arm around me, he told me that one day I’d be the publisher of Vogue.”

Florio kept his promise, 13 years later. “I think I probably reminded him of it 10 times a day up to that point,” joked Beckman.

“He was smart, he understood people and their motivations, he was creative and ambitious and literally unmatched in his optimism and confidence,” said Condé Nast group president Mitchell Fox.

When he stepped down as ceo in 2004, Florio said he wanted to lead a less hectic lifestyle. Health problems were believed to play a role, and the vice chairman’s position was seen by many as largely symbolic.

He returned to the headlines in 2005, when WWD reported that he was circulating a book proposal full of sharp words for his former colleagues. In it, Florio referred to himself as “the Godfather, the Samurai, the leader, the Warrior,” and described himself as “not short on nerve or ego, and I carried a heavy chip on my shoulder. They’ll bury me with it, too. I was still Steve Florio. I was there to get the job done.”

But he later canceled the project, telling The New York Times: “I would never sacrifice my integrity to write a book.”

His legacy at a company that has grown exponentially with more magazines, Web properties and other publications (including WWD) can also be seen through the prism of how much it has changed since his tenure.

“He was the last of a breed, in a sense,” said Beckman. “He was the perfect person to create, above all, a personality for the company. In the beginning, I think we had a presence greater than our scale, and I think he did that.”

Since succeeding Florio, Townsend has been credited with establishing more business discipline at Condé Nast.

Said Townsend: “The company was younger and less complicated and didn’t have the pressures it has on it today….This is not the roaring Nineties. This is a much more sober and complicated time in business.”

“It’s really hard for me to know if Steve was perfectly suited for the times in which he worked, or whether he helped define those times,” said Fox. “And I would strongly suggest the latter.”