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Recipe for success

Barb Newton in the test kitchen for Taste of Home, the most successful food magazine in the United States.

Reiman Publications is not your regular sort of magazine publisher. In fact, if you took most established procedures for putting out magazines and turned them exactly on their head, you’d end up with a pretty fair representation of the company’s business model.

“It’s a case study in everything they never taught you in business school,” says Samir Husni, Ph.D., chair of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi and author of the annual Samir Husni’s Guide to New Magazines.

For one thing, Reiman isn’t based in New York City, the traditional center of the publishing world and the place where many think you have to be in order to be a success. It’s based in Greendale, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee.

For another, the company’s magazines have never accepted advertising, something that’s almost heretical in the industry. They rely almost solely on the price of subscriptions. Yet, despite missing the enormous revenue stream that advertising can provide, the company now publishes 12 national consumer magazines totaling more than 13 million circulation, including the largest food magazine in the country, Taste of Home.

Reiman also sells 2.3 million books annually, and has a catalog company, a cooking school, and a tour company.

And even more groundbreaking, the company’s publications, from food to travel to country living, are almost entirely written by readers, not high-priced professional writers. A staff of editors sifts through the submissions, chooses the best ones, and gently massages them into shape for publication.

The company has been this way since 1965, when founder Roy Reiman dragged out an old TV-dinner table, perched a clackety typewriter on top of it, and set to work on his first magazines.

The company that was once run from his basement sold to Reader’s Digest in 2002 for $760 million.

“It just goes to show that if you listen to readers and give them something worthwhile, they will pay for it,” Husni says.
It’s no coincidence, then, that when Reiman Publishing needed a new president in 2004, it went after someone who also breaks traditional publishing molds: a woman from Whitehall, Pa., by the name of Barbara Newton.

An accidental businesswoman

Newton had no real plans to get into the business side of publishing. When she headed off to Lehigh University after graduating from Whitehall High School, it was to study English, not business. After she finished her B.A. in English and journalism in 1982, she went on to earn a master’s degree in English literature in 1986.

“I wanted to be a professor,” she says.

What lured her off the path to academia was a quirky, close-knit, mid-sized publishing company right down the road. More specifically, it was the president of that quirky publishing company, who also just happened to be a Lehigh alumnus.

For a while, as she was working on her undergraduate degree, Newton was the editor of The Brown and White, Lehigh’s student newspaper. And that made her familiar with the name Bob Teufel ’59, who had also been the editor of the paper during his Lehigh days. She also knew that Teufel had gone on to become the president of what was then called Rodale Press (today the Emmaus, Pa.-based publisher of books and magazines is known simply as Rodale Inc.).

“It sounded like an interesting company and they were just down the road,” Newton says.

So, during her summer breaks, she began interning at Rodale, the publisher of magazines such as Prevention, Runner’s World, and Organic Gardening. And because it was a close-knit company, she came to know most of the people who worked there, including Teufel.

When Teufel got wind of her decision to go back for a master’s degree, he was reluctant to let her get away so easily. He telephoned her at the school to let her know that a job was always waiting for her at Rodale whenever she finished her studies. Nearly 25 years later, that one conversation remains with her as clearly as ever.

“It meant so much to me that the president of this company took the time to call me in my dorm and say that,” Newton recalls. When she finished school, it was unthinkable to her that she would work anywhere but Rodale.

That phone call also taught her an invaluable business lesson—running a successful publishing company requires more than just shuffling numbers around. It also requires building solid relationships and earning the respect and trust of those who work for you. It’s a delicate balance between the collective needs of the company and the individual needs of the employees who make that company a success.

“Barb always had that balance,” says Teufel, who’s now retired from his position as president of Rodale. “She’s very good with numbers and she also has wonderful people skills. She has a personality that just lights up the room when she walks in.”

Respecting her readers

When Reader’s Digest bought Reiman Publications in 2002, some in the publishing industry figured it would only be a short while before the new owners did away with Reiman’s atypical way of doing business. And some still believe that’s a possibility, especially since Roy Reiman, the company’s founder, retired from the company in December.

“The biggest challenge for Reader’s Digest is to learn how to not mess with Reiman, to leave them alone,” Husni says.

There are a few competing interests at play. For one, Reiman’s parent company, Reader’s Digest, is a publicly traded entity and is ultimately answerable to shareholders who want a certain return on their investment. That often leads to demands for increased profits, quarter after quarter, year after year, so that shareholders can see either increased dividends or a continued rise in the price of the shares they’re holding.

“Barb has short-term goals to make as well as long-term goals,” says Teufel. In privately held companies such as Rodale, there’s usually more time to let new publications find their way to profitability or to fix problems with older publications that aren’t making as much money as they previously did. “Private companies don’t have the pressure of quarterly earnings,” he says.

And Reiman, of course, was a privately owned company before it was purchased by Reader’s Digest. Reconciling the two corporate cultures in such mergers can be a real challenge—one that continues to be on Newton’s mind as she steers the company through its first-ever era without Roy Reiman. “I have tremendous respect for Roy,” she says. “People love him. He created a wonderful company.”

She says she feels a tremendous responsibility to the company’s 500 employees and 13 million subscribers to maintain the unique and welcoming spirit of the company that Roy Reiman built.

“I think the biggest danger is if Reiman doesn’t try to be itself,” she says. “Reader loyalty is precious and fragile. If someone loses confidence in us, it’s really hard to get it back.”

It’s a very difficult time in publishing, she adds. There is tremendous pressure to appease advertisers by tailoring editorial content to their likes and dislikes. And advertisers who don’t get everything they want often threaten to take their advertising dollars elsewhere.

Problems often arise when an advertiser’s likes and dislikes are not the same as readers’ likes and dislikes. And readers are quick to shy away from publications they feel aren’t putting them first.

Reiman is still largely free of such advertiser pressure because its magazines don’t accept advertising. That may change somewhat as the company launches new magazines, but Newton says the existing magazines will remain ad-free because that’s what readers expect.

And meeting readers’ expectations is not only the right thing to do, it’s plain good business. “Focusing on the reader can be a very profitable and rewarding thing,” Newton says.

Case in point: Last year, Newton and her team launched a new magazine called Cooking for 2. The idea for the magazine came from listening to readers of Reiman’s flagship 3.5-million circulation magazine, Taste of Home.

Taste of Home is full of “groaning table” recipes averaging six to 14 servings, Newton says. That’s great for growing, hungry families, but more than a little large for empty nesters whose children have left home. These loyal readers wanted to remain Reiman customers, so they asked for a magazine that catered to their needs. And the company provided one.

Today, just over a year later, Cooking for 2 boasts a circulation of 900,000, a huge number for a magazine so young. And renewals are high, says Newton, a good indication that that number will continue to grow. Many readers are also giving subscriptions as a gift to friends, a sign that they have great confidence in the magazine.

Plus, a successful magazine launch begets future successes, she says. The company also publishes books, many of which it sells through direct marketing to its lists of magazine subscribers. In fact, in an era when many book publishers have scaled back their direct-to-consumer marketing efforts, Reiman has the largest mail order book business in the world, with cookbooks created by culling the best recipe collections from its magazines.

“Forty-three percent of our customers buy more than 11 times with us,” Newton says. Other direct marketing publishers would give several eyeteeth and more than a few limbs for those kinds of numbers.

Breaking gender barriers

As a woman in the publishing industry, Newton has grown accustomed to blazing new trails. For starters, when she first went to Lehigh, the university had a ratio of men to women of three-to-one. Of course, that wasn’t all bad. She met her husband Jeff ’84, ’94G at Lehigh. The couple has two children—Claire, 12, and Cameron, 8. Newton was only the second female editor of The Brown and White.

At Rodale, it was her role in helping launch Men’s Health magazine in 1990—which quickly grew into the largest men’s magazine in the world—that really helped her career take off. “I think it was then that Barb really showed her colors,” Teufel says proudly.

She went on to be the first female publisher of Organic Gardening, one of Rodale’s oldest and most venerated titles, started by the company’s founder, J.I. Rodale.

By the time she left Rodale in 2002, she had become the highest-ranking woman there (other than owner Ardath Rodale, who took over the company following the death of Bob Rodale), holding the position of senior vice president and managing director of the Women’s Health Group, the company’s largest division.

And she was Reiman Publications’ first female president when she took the job two years ago, a move that has already paid unexpected dividends. “Roy told me I was the first Reiman president he ever hugged,” she says.

Although she’s excelled in many male-dominated areas, she is not one to make an issue of it. Both business and journalism, she says, need to be run as meritocracies. “I really believe that the best person should get the job and the best story should get the space,” Newton says.

And that’s exactly why she got the job as president of Reiman, Teufel says. “Barb’s a very talented person,” he says. “She’s got a great future ahead of her.”

Whatever the future holds for her, Newton says an enormous amount of credit is due Teufel “for the chance he took when he hired me as a college junior, and over the years for the environment he created at Rodale, where I really thrived. He brought in extremely talented, fascinating, and good people from all different backgrounds, allowed them to stretch and take risks, and most importantly, brought out the best in people. It was interesting and challenging and fun every day.

“Bob is very modest and was quick to give other people credit for the successes at Rodale, but over more than 30 years, he was the one who built that company’s financial and creative success. I learned so much about leadership from watching him, and I hope to be able to recreate that spirit at Reiman.”

A professor after all

Although Newton didn’t enter the academic world as she originally planned, that doesn’t mean she never became the professor she once wanted to be. In 2001, she teamed up with Pete Beidler, professor of English, to teach a course at Lehigh called “Writing for Rodale.”

Newton’s connections to the publishing industry paid off in spades. She arranged for an all-star cast of guest speakers to address the class, including Helen Gurley Brown, the famed former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine and author of the 1962 culture-changing book Sex and the Single Girl.

As an English professor, Beidler, not surprisingly, takes great pleasure in the fact that Newton helms a business that brings in more than $300 million a year in revenue. He often holds her up as an example to his students.

“She’s my ideal English major,” Beidler says. “She’s living proof that English majors can do anything.”

Even teach? “Oh, she’s a pretty good teacher. I’d say twice as good as me,” he says, laughing.

--Christian Millman

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin Online
June 2006

Posted on Wednesday, June 28, 2006

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