ARTHUR never called before 8:00 A.M. unless something was bothering him or he had some news. It was not quite 7:30, and I was lying in bed, waiting for the alarm to go off in my Cambridge sublet on Memorial Drive, when the phone rang. It was Arthur (Arthur Carter, my friend, boss, and sometimes bane), and this morning something was bothering him or he had some news, depending on how you look at it. How would I like to take over from him as owner of The Nation?I was in Cambridge because after sixteen years as the editor of The Nation,America's oldest weekly magazine (it was founded in 1865 by a group of visionaries and malcontents in and around the abolitionist movement), I had persuaded Arthur that I could use a sabbatical. My plan had been to spend six months, starting in January of 1994, as a fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, where I would ruminate on the role of the journal of opinion in the post-Cold War world, and then spend the next six months writing. Arthur's call, five months into my year off, changed all that.
This, I quickly figured out, was what is technically known as a wake-up call. Economics is not my strong point, but I did know two things: the magazine was losing $500,000 a year; and I didn't have $500,000 to lose -- that year or any year.
"There's no hurry," Arthur said. "Think it over and let me know by the end of the week."
Having done business with Arthur for the past half dozen years, I assumed that this was not an invitation to negotiate. It was more like a take-it-or-leave-it-and-if-you-don't-take-it-by-Friday-(you schmuck)-I-might-well-take-it-off-the-table.
So I took it. Or, rather, I consulted my brother-in-law the lawyer and gulped and took it. Here, as I learned after the lawyers got into the act, was the deal. Arthur wanted a million dollars for The Nation(which seemed to me a little steep, given its balance sheet), but he asked nothing down and proposed a payment schedule of $100,000 per annum at six percent interest. This, my brother-in-law the lawyer explained to me, was "cheap money." Furthermore, Arthur's idea was that I could continue my sabbatical
until the end of the year -- and although I would sign the papers instanter and take on legal responsibility immediately, he would continue as publisher and continue to cover the losses until I took over.
There was still the little matter of how I would explain to my wife, Anne, who lacked her brother the lawyer's understanding of higher mathematics, that buying a magazine that was losing $500,000 a year for $1 million that I didn't have was a deal worth grabbing by Friday. Especially since I knew that as a genre, journals of opinion almost never make money. Even that avatar of capitalism William F. Buckley Jr., when asked whether his own journal of opinion, National Review,might ever make a profit, had responded, "A profit? You don't expect the church to make a profit, do you?"
But I had an idea. Across the Charles River from the Kennedy School stood the world-famous Harvard Business School, and on its faculty was my friend Samuel L. Hayes III, the Jacob Schiff Professor of Investment Banking. Well, he wasn't exactly my friend, but we had served on Swarthmore College's Board of Managers together, where Sam was one of the key managers of the college's investment portfolio, which that year was the No. 1 performer in the country. I told Sam that I might have the chance to acquire The Nation,and I explained my idea over baked scrod at the business school's faculty club. Suppose I opened The Nation's books to a class of Harvard's brilliant young M.B.A. candidates. Was there a way that they could turn our little company into one of those famous case studies? The job would be simple but challenging: How to take a magazine that has lost money for 130-odd years and, without changing the magazine, turn around its economics.
Sam gently reminded me that although he didn't see The Nationregularly (or irregularly, for that matter), he suspected that his Republican politics were not exactly Nationpolitics. But he said he would think about it, and that I should send him my "financials." I signed with Arthur, and not long after, I sent Sam the numbers, along with a business plan I had worked up. He said he would let me know.
Although I had confidence in the modest projections I had developed with the help of an old friend, Jim Kobak, a leading consultant to the publishing industry (they showed us passing the break-even point four years down the road, and they called for an investment of at least $3 million), I feared that Sam, who sat on the board of Tiffany's, might prefer more-ambitious projections.
So when, some months later, Sam and I had our follow-up lunch, it was with surprise that I received his news that Harvard was going to help us become a capitalist success story.
Sam had "run" our numbers and was impressed that the actor Paul Newman had agreed to invest in our cause (I emphasize the "cause" here; the proprietor of Newman's Own salsa, spaghetti sauces, salad dressings, and lemonade knew more about business than I did, and he had few illusions about The Nationas a business proposition). Sam thought that The Nationmight make a fascinating case study -- not for the M.B.A. program but, rather, for a special course given for owners, presidents, and CEOs of companies with annual sales ranging from several million to several hundred million dollars. This is the Owner/President/Management Program (OPM), whose initials coincidentally also stand for "other people's money" (an apt acronym, it seemed to me, since the course -- which is offered in three units of three weeks each over a three-year period, to accommodate the busy schedules of its students -- cost an astronomical $12,000 a year).
Sam described the kinds of students (whom I immediately began to think of as unpaid consultants) that OPM tends to attract: self-made entrepreneurs who have had a successful business idea and now want to learn how to run the business; sons and daughters who went into the family business and now want to professionalize it; folks catapulted from middle management to the top of their companies; and foreign entrepreneurs who want to see how the Americans do it. The course is taught by the case-study, or "learning by analogy," method, and The Nationcould be one of the cases. Sam explained that although the raw IQ scores of the M.B.A. candidates might be higher, the OPMers were livelier, cockier, and, because of their varied experience, in a unique position to make informed, creative, and perhaps even constructive suggestions. I would be invited on the day The Nationcame up for discussion -- not quite what I had had in mind, but not bad.
Sam proceeded to explain that OPM has three phases. Unit I deals with management skills, Unit II with profitability and growth, and Unit III with harvesting the wealth that OPMers have learned how to maximize in Unit II. He thought The Nationmight fit nicely in Unit II. Then a diabolical smile crept over his face, and his eyes narrowed. "You know," he said, "we can do the case study, but whether or not we do it, you might want to take this course yourself." Only good breeding, one assumes, kept him from adding, "You don't know what you're doing."
There was, of course, no way I could or should take this course. My sabbatical had kept me away from the office for too long as it was. Although by the standards of our slice of the industry I had had some fundraising success, I had put together only a third of the capital I believed we would need. My essential fundraising strategy was to raise half the $3 million from a small group of large investors, and the other half from a large group of small investors (we were looking for a Circle of 100 to commit $5,000 a year for three years), and that would be labor-intensive work. Moreover, the magazine continued to lose around $50,000 a month. We were changing printers, redesigning, and computerizing all at the same time: a triple trauma. Our union contract had run out, and renegotiation time was upon us. The course tuition was unaffordable. And besides, even if I wanted to go, there was still the minor matter of admission: the deadline for application had passed. So, naturally, I applied.
As I was subsequently to learn, a balance sheet has two sides, and Sam, who served as a reference and used his pull to get the deadline extended, was right. Essentially I was an immigrant in the land of high finance. Here, at a minimum, was a chance to learn the language -- how to read balance sheets, keep track of cash flow, talk to potential investors, find out what "good will" really meant, master such tools of business analysis as price-earnings and other ratios, become an effective manager, and all the rest. Besides, I had a daughter living in Cambridge, and maybe it was a good omen that I was looking to recruit a Circle of 100 and OPM that year had 101 students, not including me. Perhaps some of my self-made multimillionaire classmates would see the virtue of investing in a business with a mission (once I learned how to write a mission statement). Indeed, if I averaged only one new Circle member a year, I would cover my costs and then some.
ON a windy Sunday in early March, along with fellow OPMers from eighteen countries, I arrived at George Baker Hall in time to be shown to my monastic dormitory room. (We had been told to leave our spouses behind, because this was to be a "total immersion" experience. A honeymooning classmate took this injunction so seriously that he left his bride in California.) It included a single bed, one window, a computer, a clock radio, a small bathroom, and no mini-bar but a narrow shelf fully stocked with case studies in five subject areas -- financial management, general management, human aspects of business, accounting and control, marketing strategy -- and an "HBS Executive Education" book bag in which to carry them.
I put on the name tag each of us was required to wear at all times and joined the welcoming cocktail party in the Baker Lounge, below, with only mild trepidation. It seemed to me auspicious that the first person I met -- who was clad in a University of Florida basketball jacket -- was Nathan S. Collier. When Nathan, who has an open, friendly smile and tousled blond hair, found out what I did, he told me that his granduncle had founded the late Collier'smagazine, although he himself was in what he called the apartment-ownership-management business.
In fact, after the second -- or was it the third? -- vodka on the rocks, I concluded that a surprising number of my new classmates might see the business potential in America's oldest weekly magazine if they were only given a fair chance. Besides Nathan, there was Richard Elden, a Chicago-based investment manager who manages $2 billion. He told me that he had started out as an International News Service reporter, and that on the side he had recently helped to found a small company that hired investigative journalists to prepare in-depth reports on targeted industries and corporations.
And there was David Karam, the president of an Ohio company that owns and operates seventy-five Wendy's Old Fashioned Hamburger franchises. He told me his Lebanese father would be thrilled to know that his son had a classmate whose magazine, The Nation,had been the first to publish his personal hero, Ralph Nader, also of Lebanese extraction.
There were many more prospects, but here I'll mention only Maximiano A. (Max) Goncalves, the president and chief executive officer of Fenasoft, located in São Paulo, Brazil, which produces the largest computer show on the planet. He said he had a particular interest in U.S. journalists, and could we have dinner to talk about it?
Clearly, I had more in common with my fellow businessmen (I now for the first time began to think of myself as a businessman) than I had anticipated, and I could hardly wait for the next day's program to begin. As it turned out, I didn't have to wait long. I had set my clock radio for 6:30 A.M., so that I'd be up for my 7:00 continental buffet breakfast in the Baker Lounge and still have time to scan the papers that OPM provided gratis -- the Financial Timesand The Wall Street Journalamong them -- before the morning study group to which I had been assigned convened, at 7:45. Fortunately for my study habits the clock radio in the room next door sounded off at 5:30, as it would every day of the course, which gave me an extra hour to read and reread my cases.
Over our course of study we read and discussed something like 150 cases, so it doesn't surprise me that I don't remember which case it was that Professor Norman Berg, who headed up OPM, taught in his opening 9:00 A.M. class on general management. But I should have seen the handwriting on the wall, even if it was disguised as chalk marks on the electronically manipulated blackboard that he kept sending up and down like an elevator. Norm had asked the class to list the pros and cons
confronting the company under consideration. A forest of hands went up, and we had our first con. The company had a union. What could be worse than that? Norm wrote "UNION" in big letters at the head of the con column, underlined it three times, and chalked in an exclamation point for good measure.
I got a big laugh and a lot of little snickers when I mentioned that unions can increase productivity. I should have realized then and there that I'd have to come to terms with a basic question: Did I want to spend my valuable classroom hours scoring political points against my (mostly) free-marketeer classmates; or did I want to concentrate my energies on learning how to bring The Nationto the break-even point?
Actually, it was a little more complicated than that. In my view, The Nation,with its pitifully small circulation (20,000 in 1978; 85,000 in 1994; now about 100,000), had survived all these years (while magazines with circulations in the millions -- Collier's, Look,and all the rest -- had gone under) because it was more a cause than a business. The only reason The Nationhad not been organized as a nonprofit (which would entitle donors to all sorts of tax breaks and the magazine to lower mailing rates) is that nonprofits can't endorse candidates for political office or devote more than a small percentage of their resources to trying to influence legislation; and we didn't like the idea of leaving the tax status of our subversive weekly vulnerable to challenge by hostile Administrations.
Though I had signed on with OPM to learn to think like a businessman, I was not ready to abandon The Nation's tradition of dissent -- its anti-business bias, if you will. (And, of course, it would have been bad for business.)
Case after case seemed to underline my dilemma. I remember the day OPM took up Wal-Mart. It was just after 3:00 P.M., and class was out, but the conversation flowed on. I was on the Harvard bridge, headed across the Charles to Cambridge. On my left Pedro Salles, who runs the fourth largest bank in Brazil, was zipping along in the electric wheelchair that took him from class to class. On my right was Tim Erdman, the chairman, president, and CEO of this country's oldest and largest designer-builder specializing in outpatient medical facilities. Tim, in his late forties, was on Rollerblades. I was in the center, huffing and puffing and not quite keeping up. Our destination was Cybersmith, a store that featured the latest in technology before it became generally available. But what really seemed to propel my fellow OPMers was the inspiring tale of Sam Walton, a JCPenney trainee who had had the idea of building discount department stores in small towns across the country which would all operate on small profit margins, and who converted this "niche marketing" concept, as they liked to call it, into one of the greatest business successes of all time. When he died, The New York Timesput his family fortune at $23.5 billion, but the professor suggested that Walton was the kind of guy who would have cared more about the Wal-Mart cashier who had $262,000 in her retirement account after working for the company for twenty-four years.
I pondered whether to mention the Nationarticle, published the previous year, that had portrayed Sam Walton as the main threat to Main Street USA, the man responsible more than any other for the malling of America, for the destruction of community upon community. But before I could decide, we had arrived at Cybersmith, I was out of breath, and why spoil a good party?
By the time we considered the case of Cash America, however, I was less reticent. As it happened, that morning I was the leader (owing to daily rotation) of my 7:45 A.M. study group, and since I was up at 5:30, I had plenty of time to prepare. Cash America made its money from a chain of pawnshops, charging steep rates of interest. A prime purpose of the case was to assess the CEO's new strategy of attempting to destigmatize pawnbroking and simultaneously change what HBS likes to call "the value equation." Instead of lending as little as possible on collateral and selling it for as high a price as possible if it was forfeited, his revolutionary idea was to lend as much as possible and sell as inexpensively as he could, on the theory that he could make up in volume (from repeat customers, who were the most profitable) what he lost on the margins.
When I reported that according to a forthcoming Nationarticle (called "Cashing In on Poverty"), Cash America's typical loan rate hovered around 200 percent, I naively assumed that we would have an interesting dialogue on the morality of the pawnbroking business, especially given the Nationwriter's assumption that it was immoral to exploit the poor merely to increase return on investment ("ROI," I had learned to call it) for the rich. Instead the study group immediately divided into those who believed that the poor were deadbeats who deserved what they got and those who felt that Cash America was providing the uncreditworthy poor a valuable service -- let the market decide!
The bottom line of the HBS/OPM mentality -- surprise, surprise -- seemed to be that the bottom line is the bottom line. One morning in Professor Ben Shapiro's marketing-strategy class we were discussing the marketing of a product subject to government regulation. Spotting David Karam's hand in the air, Ben made a beeline in his direction and asked whether he thought the regulation was appropriate. "It all depends on whether you believe Adam Smith or Karl Marx," David said. "Do you mean to tell me," the consternated professor shouted, "that this case has something to do with communism?" He then turned, looked at me across the room, and said with a sweet smile, "Sorry, Vic."
I DIDN'T mind my status as class foil. And although we had our disagreements, my classmates and I gradually developed mutual respect. When Dan Roche absented himself from class during Unit II for all of two days and returned $36 million richer, having sold his software business, I enthusiastically joined in the applause despite my by now well-known antipathy toward corporate takeovers. When a small-town banker commiserated with another classmate, saying, "You're in a family business? I wouldn't wish that on anybody," my heart went out to both of them.
Note from my learning journal (we were instructed to make entries after each class about how the case applied to our own companies):
Everyone gets a great kick out of Sam Hayes's favorite trick -- to dramatize the principle that financial leverage always involves risk, he spreads his arms like an acrobat attempting to keep his balance and then tiptoes out on what he calls 'the debt limb.' He explains that his financially conservative wife, Barbara, who disapproves of going into debt, 'hugs the trunk,' whereas he is generally inclined to go as far out on the limb as financial prudence permits. Today he is out 'on the twigs.' My problem is that every time Sam does his balancing number, it reminds me of my own delicate balancing act -- the attempt to absorb HBS know-how without succumbing to HBS values. I am persuaded that if the HBS faculty ran the world, it would be a better place -- that is, a more humane and efficient version of the status quo. But what attracted me to The Nationin the first place was its commitment to challenge the status quo. I'm not sure what this says about the idea that it is possible to apply the lessons of the typical HBS case to a company like The Nation.I did my nightly homework and read all about MBO (Management by Objective), MBWA (Management by Walking Around), TQM (Total Quality Management), the New Intimacy (a catchphrase to describe the relationship between customers and vendors), the Price Performance Curve, the Value Chain, the Magic Matrix, the Order Cycle, Market Segmentation, and Market Share (said to be the management mantra of the 1980s -- this decade it's the New Economics of Service). I kept in mind Professor Shapiro's maxim "There is only one reason to lose a good customer and that's death. His!" But I still had a lot of trouble analogizing case studies of Steinway pianos, Southwest Airlines, Mrs. Fields Cookies, and such to my venerable company.
This was partly because of The Nation's status as a nonprofit sheep in for-profit wolf's clothing, but also because my Nationself still tended to regard the profit motive as avaricious indifference to social consequences, while OPMers saw it as the key to business success. Not that my classmates were against doing good -- they were all for it. Well, most of them were for it, but that had to do with the Service-Profit Chain (treat employees well and they will treat customers well). Even language compounded the problem. At OPM "downsizing" was a synonym for efficiency and savings, whereas at The Nationit signifies misery and unemployment. A word like "empowerment" in The Nation's pages means granting the disenfranchised and the dispossessed more say over their destiny; at OPM it meant getting rid of middle management.
And then one day we took up the case of L. L. Bean, and I decided that maybe there was something to this learning by analogy after all. What impressed me about L. L. Bean, founded in 1912, was not the innovative systems that were the ostensible focus of the case but, rather, that the company's founder, against advice, had stuck to his idiosyncratic ways. And I said so.
To this day an L. L. Bean customer can return a product at any time, day or night, and get, at his or her option, a replacement, a refund, or a credit. If a customer returns a pair of boots after ten years, the company will replace them, no questions asked. This seemed to me a tribute to the maverick who started the business in his brother's basement, in Freeport,
Maine (which is how it came to be open twenty-four hours a day). He sold his first hunting boots (based on rubbers his wife bought him, with leather tops stitched by a local cobbler) to friends and relatives (hence the no-questions-asked returns policy), and then refused to automate or adopt any of the efficiency measures advocated by his financially ambitious grandson.
When asked to put a value on the company, whose sales in 1965, the date of the case, were $3 million a year, classmates -- especially the contingent from Latin America -- expressed skepticism about the old man's unwillingness to move into the modern era. At this point Philip Adkins, a London-based investment banker who owns the J. Boag & Son brewery in Tasmania and who had arranged the financing for a Disney theme park in Japan, piped up. Philip said, "I agree with Vic. This image of Emersonian self-reliance adds untold value to the Bean brand name." Philip's estimate of the company's value was ten times as high as anyone else's. The professor ended the class by reporting on the current market value of L. L. Bean stock -- more than a billion dollars.
At lunch I asked Philip whether he thought there was an analogy between the "brand recognition" of The Nation-- which, after all, had a 135-year-old reputation for its nonconformist politics -- and L. L. Bean. Yes, he said; in fact, as he thought about the worldwide possibilities for exploiting The Nation's "brand name" in the new electronic media, he decided that I was "sitting on a gold mine."
I generously offered to share with him my prospectus for the gold mine. He said he would review it with interest and asked me whether I knew that when Rupert Murdoch bought The Timesof London, the first thing he did was to enter on its balance sheet a good-will item of as much as $50 million. When his solicitors said he couldn't do that, Murdoch asked, Why not? Why do you think I paid $27 million for it? For its printing plant? I'm shutting that down. For its staff? I'm getting rid of half of them. Talent is for hire. I bought it for its name. I own The Timesof London.
Philip had all sorts of ideas about what I might do with The Nation's name, not to mention its balance sheet, pointing out that a good-will item of $10 million for the name (more than three times what I had listed) would impress potential investors. He said that he, at any rate, was impressed, and that I should consider him a potential investor. (True to his word, by the way, he's still a potential investor.)
OF course, the big day for me was the last day of Unit II, when the Nationcase was on the agenda. Aside from my strategy of importing my wife, Anne, to sit by my side as a buffer against those classmates who tended to see visiting CEOs as an occasion for target practice, the class began like any other. "If you were the CFO of another magazine," Sam asked as his opening question, "what are the financial dimensions you would be looking for on a day-to-day basis?" He drew from the class the difference between The Nation's fixed costs and its variable costs. He had the class inventory our assets -- intellectual as well as physical -- and then diplomatically observed, "In terms of the balance sheet, this is not an asset-intensive business." I nudged Anne when Sam described the Carter note as "a very friendly arrangement." Perhaps I was not such a dummy after all.
But just a minute -- there were not enough assets to cover obligations. How would the balance sheet handle that? As he referred the class to the good-will item on the balance sheet, Sam asked, "What is the kernel of value inside the husk?" Philip Adkins could have told him, but Philip had dropped out of Unit II for personal reasons. Sam called on Mitch Dong, who had been waving his hand for some time now, as was his wont. Mitch lived in Boston and embodied the entrepreneurial spirit that OPM did its best to cultivate. He had merged his environmental company with a publicly traded company, sold his interest a year later, and started a hedge fund that trades gold equities based on esoteric statistical models, all of which enables him and his family to alternate vacations between a boat in the Galapagos and a villa in Tuscany.
Mitch didn't have the answer to Sam's question, but he did, he said, have the solution to my problem. As he saw it, I had it made. The Nationhad a $1 million sweetheart loan from its former publisher. It had a subscription list now approaching 100,000 names, worth $10 to $20 a name in the marketplace -- maybe as much as $2 million. And it was bleeding $50,000 a month.
His solution: Kill The Nation."That way," he happily explained, "you cut your losses to zero. You sell the subscription list to JFK Jr. -- he's started a new political magazine, hasn't he? And with the two million dollars you get from the sale you buy long-term Treasury notes, which pay seven and a half percent interest [this was 1996, remember]. And you use the difference between the seven and a half percent you receive and the six percent you owe to settle your obligations, your severance payments, and your accounts payable. And on the difference you retire to the Galapagos, sipping piña coladas. If you get bored, Machu Picchu is right next door."
Lots of other ideas were generously offered. Carlos Adamo, an Argentine banker, said we should raise the subscription price: we had loyal customers and nothing to lose. Chris Bergen, who with his wife runs a pharmaceutical-testing company, thought we should consider going biweekly. Sam proposed that we find a way to segment the market -- charging more for those willing to pay more. I liked Sam's idea, not least because it reminded me of a doctrine I had studied way back in a political-theory seminar at Swarthmore: "From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs."
ON March 21, 1997, Tom Potter, the managing director of Eagles Boys Dial-a-Pizza, in Queensland, Australia, who had never been to college, gave the graduation speech and got his Harvard diploma (so it was a certificate -- big deal), along with the rest of us.
As I sat there listening to Tom, I did a reckoning of my OPM experience.
has not yet passed the break-even point, and if I don't take up Mitch's proposal to kill the magazine, perhaps it will be a while before we turn a profit, but OPM was not a total loss. I failed to enlist any of my classmates as Nationshareholders, but ...
I went to Harvard thinking that ROE was Roe v. Wade. Now I know it is Return on Equity.
I went to Harvard thinking that the year was divided into seasons. Now I know it is divided into quarters.
I went to Harvard not knowing the difference between the quick ratio and the acid-test ratio, and now I know they are the same thing (the sum of cash, current marketable securities, and receivables, divided by current liabilities -- so there).
Finally, I went to Harvard believing that I was a buffalo and came back hoping I could become a goose. Let me explain. Prior to OPM I had assumed that in my new role as the company's leader my job would be to lead. Then, in Unit III, I read a book called Flight of the Buffalo,which summarized what I had already begun to gather from my more enlightened classmates -- that a good business doesn't function like a herd of buffalo, with loyal followers doing what the lead buffalo wants them to do, going where the leader wants them to go. (That's how the early settlers were able to decimate the buffalo herds. They'd kill the lead buffalo. Then, while the rest of the herd stood around waiting for the leader, the settlers slaughtered them, too.) What a business really needs, the book said, is not buffalo but responsible independent workers, like a flock of geese, who fly as a team in a V formation, the leadership changing all the time.
By the time we graduated, Nathan Collier, who was forty-five, and I had become good friends, and he shared with me his ambition. "It has three elements. I want to earn my first billion by the time I'm sixty. I want to have a helluva good time getting there. And if I can help mankind a little along the way, so much the better."
And indeed, I learned from the OPM bulletin board that between Unit I and Unit II, Nathan had made a $10 million bequest in the form of adjacent property to his alma mater, the University of Florida at Gainesville. He also took out a one-year subscription to The Nation.
I count David Karam among my new friends too, although his father's admiration for Ralph Nader was put in perspective on the last day of class, when David made a rousing speech denouncing unions to enthusiastic applause. I also discovered that David, who has a formidable intellect, is a member of the libertarian-conservative Cato Institute, and hopes down the road to run for high political office on what I suspect will be an anti-government, anti-union platform. Early on I crossed David off my list of potential Nationshareholders, but I was moved when one day he articulated his business philosophy: "To provide a high-quality product and service, to make a fair profit, and to improve the lives of our employees." If he does run for the Senate, I'll probably disagree with 90 percent of his platform and send him a campaign contribution.
When Richard Elden invited me to dinner, I thought at first that it might be the moment to make my subtle pitch. I would tell him about the good luck I was having rounding up my Circle of 100. But before I got to it, he told me about the good luck he had had rounding up a Circle of Four or Five for his investigative-reporting enterprise. We still get together when we are visiting each other's cities, and maybe if I ever make a financial success of The Nation,he will let me buy into his business with my profits.
Max Goncalves's interest in American journalists turned out to be an interest in recruiting five of them to serve as journalist-judges for his high-tech expo in São Paulo. Happily for me, I turned out to be one of them, despite the fact that, as I made clear, I spoke neither Portuguese nor computerese. Our job was to give a "Max" Award to "the most innovative exhibit of Brazilian computer technology that has the best potential for export sales." As it turned out, my contribution was to add an additional criterion -- social benefit. And I guess that if we ever put out a Portuguese edition, Max might want to subscribe.
Actually, I did come back with some Circle members from the Cambridge area -- none of them OPMers, but more than enough to cover my tuition. And OPMers did account for twelve new Nationsubscriptions. As an unexpected bonus, when Peter Norton, who created Norton Utilities and, with Paul Newman, is one of The Nation's principal shareholders, discovered that I had enrolled in OPM, he told me that he, too, had attended the program. He said, "I was in hog heaven. Until then I had never had a male bonding experience, and in terms of intellectual challenge it's one of the highlights of my life." By the time I graduated, Peter had significantly increased his Nationinvestment. Call it the old school tie.
On my return to the office our associate publisher asked me to give an example of what I had learned at Harvard, and I told her. Before OPM if a subscriber wrote in to cancel his or her subscription, the loss of the $48 never really bothered me. I agreed with the late Nationeditor and owner, Oswald Garrison Villard, who said, "If I don't get my requisite share of cancellations every week, I fear my editorial hand must be slipping." But I did hate to lose an old friend, so I'd send a note asking, Are you sure you really want to do that? About half of them were so thrilled to get a personal note from the editor that they would agree to stay on board.
Having been exposed to nine weeks of Ben Shapiro, who among other things introduced me to the concept of "the lifetime value of the customer, "I now have a whole new calculus when I get a cancellation: Subscribers who have been with us four years or more renew at an average rate of 80 percent. The average age of our subscriber is 47.5 years. The average life expectancy of a 47.5-year-old is 31.6 years. So instead of saving the magazine $48 by preventing a cancellation, I am saving 80 percent of $48 times 31.6, and when one factors in the fact that 15 percent of our subscribers send gift subscriptions and extra money, and so forth, it's clear that the "value" of a Nationsubscriber is well over $1,000 rather than a mere $48. You get the idea. When I explained all this to our associate publisher, she nodded and smiled and was obviously impressed, and then she asked, So what can we do about it? Well, I said, we can write a letter to anyone who tries to cancel and explain why he or she shouldn't. But you already do that, she pointed out. Yes -- but as Sam implied at the outset, I didn't know what I was doing.
Victor Navasky is the publisher and the editorial director of The Nation. Among his books is (1980), about congressional investigations into the entertainment industry during the Cold War years.
Illustrations by Robert Grossman
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1998; Saving the Nation; Volume 281, No. 1; pages 77 - 84.