NEW YORK — It takes an exceptionally savvy, thick-skinned and Machiavellian sort of person to last for 31 years in the shadow of Jann Wenner, where firing is always just a mood swing away.
Kent Brownridge is all that, to be sure, and his surprise announcement Thursday that he will step down as vice chairman and general manager of Wenner Media LLC at year’s end left those who know him asking two questions: Did his magical ability to finesse his impossible boss finally run out? And who will Wenner ever find to replace him?
Officially, Brownridge and Wenner are both saying the decision to retire was entirely voluntary. Brownridge is 65 and a cancer survivor, and he prefers to spend his free time on his horse farm in Virginia. “We’ve been on a year-to-year basis for a long time now,” Brownridge told WWD Thursday. “This time, I decided it’s time for me to leave. I’ve been there 31 years. How much longer could I do it?”
Several company insiders, however, insisted there’s more to the story than that, noting the suddenness of the announcement, the lack of an immediate successor and the deteriorating relations between Brownridge and Wenner in recent weeks.
“No way was this a planned retirement,” said one former high-level Wenner employee. “He was definitely forced out.”
A former Wenner executive believed Brownridge had initiated discussions with his boss about retiring, only to have Wenner move up the time frame on him. “Something precipitated the speed with which this happened,” he said.
Certainly, Brownridge did much to endear himself to his boss in his decades at Wenner. He ran practically every aspect of the business for weeks or months at a time when Wenner was off traveling — “What’s Jann going to do during ski season?” was the big question among Wenner watchers on Thursday.
Moreover, Brownridge consistently sacrificed his own popularity to save the company money or otherwise see to it that Wenner’s whims were carried out. “I personally have seen him do a lot of things in his own name that were not his doing,” said John Lagana, Wenner Media’s former chief financial officer, who is now at Dennis Publishing. “He took the fall a lot of times in the press for being the bad guy, when maybe there were other reasons for doing it that were not apparent to people.”
Stories of Brownridge acting like a penny-pinching, micromanaging caricature of an evil boss abound. Some, no doubt, carry an element of legend, but all say something about the reputation he has acquired for playing the bad guy. Several insiders claimed Brownridge would go over expense reports personally; when one aroused his suspicions, he would call restaurants to investigate whether employees were claiming phantom lunch companions in order to get around strict per-person limits on meal expenditures.
A former underling recalled being asked to cancel all subscriptions of a Wenner magazine that were being sent to the offices of a rival publication; Brownridge believed an ad sales rep at the rival title was trying to poach Wenner’s advertising. “He loved conducting witch hunts,” said the underling.
Yet another former employee recalled what happened when a Wenner editor sent staffers home at lunchtime last New Year’s Eve. When Brownridge found out, he took the half day out of the truant staffers’ vacation days, and docked pay from those who had none left.
Even when there was no material gain to be had, Brownridge was always looking out for the company’s interests. An oft-circulated story has Brownridge upbraiding a Wenner publisher for taking a car service to work. Even though the publisher paid for the car service herself, Brownridge told her it was unacceptable that people might think she was expensing it. He instructed her to get out of the car a block away and walk to the office.
Despite Brownridge’s role as Wenner’s enforcer, their relationship was not without its tensions, said insiders. “Jann and Kent would go through these bad periods,” said one. “They’re like an old married couple. They’ve gone through periodic spats.” The two have had a number of arguments in recent weeks, including one that ended in Wenner kicking Brownridge out of his office, according to a high-level source.
One sore point, according to a different source, was the breakdown at Men’s Journal, which lost its editor in chief, Michael Caruso, and its publisher, Carlos Lamadrid, in a matter of weeks this fall. Brownridge oversaw the search for an editor, which ended with the hiring of Tom Foster, a mid-level Men’s Health editor.
“Jann was upset over the pathetic roster of candidates,” said the source, who also cited the clumsy management of Wenner’s books division as a point of contention.
Besides, as the many longtime Wenner employees who’ve been handed their heads over the years can attest, the mercurial Wenner does not need a reason to be angry. “Jann can turn on anybody,” said an executive who worked for him. “He has the loyalty of a gnat.”
Brownridge, meanwhile, calls just about all of the above “completely not true,” insisting he never looked at expense reports or called restaurants, could care less how people got to work and, above all, never fought with his boss. “Frankly, you don’t argue with Jann. It’s just not done,” he said. “And there’s nothing to argue about. I’m in complete agreement with the decisions Jann has made of late.”
In any case, whether or not Brownridge’s decision to retire was entirely his own, Wenner will still need to replace him. It won’t be easy — Brownridge even said his portfolio would likely be divided among two or three people. Gary Armstrong, Wenner’s chief marketing officer, is reportedly being considered for Brownridge’s job, but lacks expertise in several areas that Brownridge oversaw, including production, distribution and purchasing. “The thing about Kent is, so much of his judgment is based on experience,” said Sports Illustrated managing editor Terry McDonell, a longtime Wenner employee before moving to Time Inc. “There’s no one else there who can run the company.”
“There’s not one person who could replace him, in my opinion,” said Lagana. “They won’t find another Kent.”
Wenner’s recent decision to install himself over Foster as editor in chief of Men’s Journal suggests a willingness to reimmerse himself in the day-to-day management of his company. But Wenner is far less suited to the task than his longtime number two, said those who know him.
“Jann is self-involved, self-centered and highly paranoid,” said one former business-side employee. “Kent is all those things, too, but he’s more rational.”
“This is a disaster,” agreed another insider. “Kent is very shrewd, very realistic and pretty reasonable and practical. Jann is none of those things.”