NEW YORK — In a move that surprised the publishing industry, Condé Nast Publications on Monday named Charles H. Townsend as its chief executive officer, succeeding Steven T. Florio, who will step down on Feb. 16 after leading the company for a decade.
This story first appeared in the January 13, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Florio will become vice chairman of the Advance Magazine Group, a newly created position.
Townsend currently is chief operating officer of Advance, a position he will retain, and the architect of a sweeping upgrade of its back-office operations. His streamlining of Condé Nast and its siblings, which include Fairchild Publications, owner of WWD, is seen within the company as playing a major role in the gradual growth of its profit margins after he assumed those responsibilities in the mid-Nineties.
“Chuck Townsend brings a long and varied set of experiences in magazine publishing to his new position,” S.I. Newhouse Jr., chairman of Condé Nast and Advance, said in a statement. “He has been a publisher, a former magazine company president, and he played a crucial role in the creation of the Advance Magazine Group.”
Townsend’s elevation is further evidence that Condé Nast and its owners, the Newhouse family, are serious about reining in costs and setting the publisher on a path of steady growth. But it still fails to answer the most pressing question of all: succession.
Townsend is already 59, more than four years older than Florio, who turns 55 in April. Florio said Townsend may not be in the top job for very long. “I asked [Townsend], ‘Two years or three?’ and he shrugged his shoulders,” said Florio. “The big change will come three years from now, when I finally retire and when Chuck certainly does the same thing.”
But others are not so sure. One source in the industry dismissed the idea Townsend is in any way an interim ceo and said the parlor game among Condé Nast kremlinologists over management changes at the firm was premature in the extreme.
The management change, sources in the industry said, was pushed forward by a number of things. Florio has not been well, having had persistent heart trouble since heart surgery six years ago, and he fell ill again over the holidays, several sources said. But Florio disputed this categorically. “This has nothing to do with my health. I wish I could give you my doctor’s phone number.”
Nor is he burnt out, said Florio, who joined Condé Nast in 1985, was named its president in January 1994 and ceo two years later. “Over the holidays, I started having conversations with my family about maybe making a lifestyle change and maybe slowing down just a little bit.”
But others cited different reasons, namely a real cultural shift inside Condé Nast. Overwhelmingly, sources pointed to a company that is looking to less rough-and-tumble executives who are able to sell ads without the baggage that frequently comes with it. In July, for example, Condé Nast fired GQ publisher Ron Galotti, the well-known ad salesman whose aggressive tactics with clients (as well as media reporters, limousine drivers and his own staff) became the stuff of legend. His replacement was the more mild-mannered Peter Hunsinger.
In the past, Florio’s own personality was a frequent source of concern — particularly a habit of grand pronouncements in the press that often had little basis in reality — but his ability to get the job done tipped the balance in his favor.
Recently, that began to change. As Florio’s health was suffering, a series of ad page declines swept across titles at Condé Nast at the beginning of 2004, causing major concerns over both his strategy and how long he would remain in his current role. With a few notable exceptions — Lucky, Architectural Digest and Gourmet — ad pages at the company were way down. In January, Vogue’s pages fell 30 percent; Vanity Fair’s fell 8.9 percent; Self’s dropped 14.6 percent; Allure was down 27.9 percent, and House & Garden fell 29 percent, according to Media Industry Newsletter. Industry sources said numbers for February, released next week, will be disappointing, as well.
The drops were surprising. Things have been going extremely well on the edit side, leading company higher-ups to believe that the ad side would follow. A recent editorial change at GQ has improved newsstand sales dramatically, said several sources. The overwhelming success of Lucky and improvements at Allure have given Condé Nast further entry into the women’s middle market, which Hearst has typically dominated. An early start by Teen Vogue has been extremely promising and the market share of its big sister has been improving dramatically, despite a couple of very worrisome years at the end of the Nineties. The New Yorker, after almost two decades of losses, is finally making money, according to executives at the company, and this spring, Condé Nast will launch Cargo, a shopping magazine for men.
And Florio insists the bad news is premature (“We haven’t had any serious discussions about the end of the first quarter,” he said), and anyway, 2003 started the same way. “Last year we started slow and had our best year ever. Like I said, I’d like to go out on top,” he said.
Perhaps predictably, his successor is his opposite in style and temperament. Several insiders invoked the phrase “anti-Florio” in describing Townsend, who others described as quiet, calm, thoughtful, a straight shooter, a numbers guy.
But don’t expect life at Condé Nast to change, at least right away.
“All the things he was going to change he’s already changed,” said one of his former colleagues. “The challenge will be motivating the publishers,” who had the run of the place under Florio, so long as they made their numbers. Townsend, who has more of a managerial bent, loomed in the shadows before and will make his presence felt more keenly from now on. “All of the publishers there worried about him,” said the former colleague. “If he didn’t like any of them, that counted for a lot. When you worked there, you were very conscious of his presence.”
Townsend was named chief operating officer of Advance Magazine Group in 2001. He joined the company as publisher of Glamour in 1994, becoming an executive vice president of Condé Nast a year later and its chief operating officer in 2000. From 1986 to 1994 he was with The New York Times Co., where he was president and ceo of its women’s magazine publishing division that included Family Circle, McCall’s, Child and others. Prior to that, he was with Hearst and, before that, operated his own independent publisher’s representative company in Miami.
One person who has done business dealings with him said, “He is a man of very few words, who uses two instead of 10 if they convey what he means to say. He is quietly behind Steve’s bluster and he knows how to make money. This is a guy who reads a piece of paper and knows what’s going on with it.”
If Florio is right, and he and Townsend leave together in 2007, Monday’s moves do not unilaterally rule out an eventual successor from the current ranks of younger executives. Both Fairchild president Mary Berner and the Golf Digest Group’s ceo, Mitchell Fox, have been rumored as potential future ceo’s. But for now, aspirants are more likely to stay put to see what happens. “This ties the knot for the future contenders,” said a source close to Townsend.