FRANK DISCUSSION: Frank Bennack Jr. was at the Paley Center Friday in the latest in a series of interviews with media moguls, when the inevitable question of succession came up again.
He is 79 now and in his second tour of duty as chief executive officer of Hearst Corp. He has also been sounding like a man on a farewell tour. In recent interviews promoting the company’s 125th anniversary, he has openly discussed retirement, and told the Financial Times in September chief operating officer Steven Swartz is his choice to be the next ceo.
But another year has passed, and still Bennack is at the helm. During the interview with Paley president Pat Mitchell, he sounded like someone in no hurry to call it quits.
“We do have a timetable. We haven’t announced it officially. I’ve said that I’ve chosen Steve [Swartz] to become ceo, and clearly, it’s his job to lose as my successor,” he said. “We’ll announce it to our employees first and then to the rest of the world.”
Bennack officially retired in 2002 but returned to the company in 2008 after his then hand-picked successor, Victor Ganzi, departed over disagreements with the Hearst family.
Bennack steered the company through a brutal time for the industry, and then to come to grips with the Internet. His notorious stinginess allowed Hearst to weather the recession better than some competitors, and make some major acquisitions, like Hachette Filipacchi’s magazines, including Elle.
The spending has continued this year with the purchase of the unsexy, but potentially lucrative medical database Milliman Care Guidelines.
Like his counterpart at Condé Nast, Chuck Townsend, himself the subject of a recent Paley Center sit-down, Bennack is high on the print business.
And as for figuring out how to make money online and on tablets, he seemed satisfied with the state of things so far.
“Twenty percent of our revenues this year are going to be from digital sources,” he said. “That’s a good start for a 125-year-old company that was publishing afternoon newspapers.”
In 1990, Hearst had the foresight to buy a 20 percent stake in ESPN, which turned out to be a savvy investment. Bennack is still bullish on television, and suggested one of Hearst’s magazines is working on a brand extension into cable, though he didn’t specify which.
But the television business, he said, isn’t for everyone. New Cosmopolitan editor Joanna Coles will be disappointed to hear Bennack thinks the American edition of Cosmo shouldn’t be on television, much like Coles’ Marie Claire dipped into it with its involvement in “Project Runway.”
“Television is a voracious medium. It eats up creative content, and you worry: does it undermine the core franchise?” he said.