STORMY SKIES AT CONDE NAST FRANCE
Byline: William Middleton
PARIS — Seventy-five years after setting up business in France, Conde Nast’s decision to virtually dismantle its operation has left its employees angry and bitter, with the threat of lawsuits looming.
Last month, the company announced that Vogue Hommes, Maison and Jardin and Automobiles Classiques will cease publication after their February issues.
According to company sources, that means 131 of the 191 Paris employees will lose their jobs. With morale in the offices here at an all-time low, employees are preparing for a possible showdown with management over severance pay and many have begun lashing out at those who made the decision.
“It is a shame that 14 months of new management have been such an appalling failure,” declared a lawyer representing some of the laid off employees.
Adds a disgruntled executive: “The only corporate strategy for economizing was to close magazines and fire people. There was never anyone capable of devising a strategy or making a decision in this company.”
Still, Conde Nast International chairman Jonathan Newhouse stands by the French division’s president, Gardner Bellanger. “I think she is an excellent executive,” he said by telephone from his London office.
The most recent closings follow the folding of two other magazines, Glamour in 1994 and Vogue Decoration in 1992. And there are many who say that Vogue — the flagship publication and the only Conde Nast title remaining open — is in a very weak state.
According to published reports in France, Vogue’s February’s 1995 circulation was down 13 percent compared with February 1994, to 35,312; March was down 24 percent, to 27,887; April was down 41 percent, to 16,620; May was down 26 percent, to 21,884; June was down 17 percent, to 19,569, while July — the first time a July issue has been published — came in at only 14,952.
When reached for comment, Bellanger argued that comparison figures were unfair because sales were inflated last year by a drop in cover price starting in February that led to an immediate boost in circulation.
And Newhouse maintained he is not concerned about circulation figures at Vogue Paris. Although there have been rumors of a possible departure for editor-in-chief Joan Juliet Buck, Newhouse denied that there are any planned staff changes at the magazine.
There also seems to be trouble on Vogue’s advertising front. According to SECODIP, which monitors advertising pages in France, pages in Vogue this year through November have declined 10 percent to 686 pages.
Conde Nast has been losing money in France for several years. According to sources, losses for Conde Nast France have ballooned from 9 million francs ($1.8 million) in 1991 to an estimated 37 million francs ($7.4 million) this year. Bellanger, however, declined to discuss any possible losses.
But those figures have infuriated employees.
“How can someone who supervised a company with those kinds of losses continue to stay on as managing director,” one demanded. CondA Nast staff is also angry that they were not allowed a role in trying to reverse the situation.
According to the workers’ attorney, “Employees did not have the possibility to speak with management about a plan to turn the situation around.”
Another Conde Nast executive is even more specific. “Jonathan Newhouse has refused to meet with employees here. In a serious situation like this, we should have had the right to dialog with the decision-maker to find out if the titles could have been saved by reducing staff, cutting costs or clearly positioning the magazines within the market.”
In reply, Newhouse stressed that every option was explored before the magazines were closed and insisted the decision was reached correctly.
“Gardner Bellanger is head of the French company, and, as head, was responsible for the decision,” he explained. “The decision was made in a proper way.”
But because of their dissatisfaction, employees are preparing to fight.
“Conde Nast is giving the minimum (severance pay), but we want more for damages and interest,” said an employee who is organizing the fight to win more benefits. “Everyone tried to say something to save the magazines, but management didn’t want to listen and now we’re closing. We don’t want to be thrown on the streets because they didn’t do their work.”
Meetings between lawyers representing both sides will be held today and next week. Sources indicate that if the employees’ demands are not addressed, they will consider further action, including arbitration and lawsuits.