Martha Stewart's celebrity somewhat obscures her substance. In her business, as well as in her cooking, her gardening, and her entertaining, she is truly a perfectionist. And at heart, she is an entrepreneur. In big media companies these days, everyone talks about creating multichannel operations; Stewart has been doing it for years.
Stewart personally, of course, is a considerable newsmaker, and recently she has been in the news for her trial, the incarceration, the travails of her home confinement, and her resurgence as a business leader. She spoke with BusinessWeek Editor-in-Chief Stephen J. Adler in Manhattan in early December as part of the Captains of Industry series held at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan. Following are edited excerpts from their conversation:
A big part of your reintroduction to the public has been two TV shows that launched this year: The Apprentice: Martha Stewart and Martha. Which has been more satisfying to you?
It's unusual for me to take a job like The Apprentice, and it was just a job. I got paid a fee. I have no participation in the show. Generally, we're the originators. But I did it because I knew it would be a jump-start, and it would get attention.
You're getting close to the conclusion.
Yeah, we're getting close to which of those inappropriate contestants we are actually going to have to hire. I can't believe people behave like that. They're exhibitionists and opportunists, those kids. I did not choose them either, by the way. I just want you to know I had nothing to do really with the choice of the contestants. That's part of reality television.
How is your relationship with Donald Trump?
I would not say we were close friends, but we are friendly to one another. I always like people who are themselves. Donald is himself. You see it on TV. He's the same person on TV that you know in person -- the same guy. He's not an actor. He's not a fake. And his hair really is horrible. When I get close to him, I just want to [get] the scissors.
But he's a nice guy, and his wife is really nice. All his other wives are really nice, too. He didn't know about me coming on [with a new version of] The Apprentice. This was as big a surprise to him as it was to me, that he wasn't leaving.
Your title [at Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO)] is now founder, and Susan Lyne is CEO. Would you like to be CEO again?
I'm very happy with my current status. I am doing the same work I've always done. I'm working hard to develop the businesses with Susan. [She] is a very competent CEO.... I consider myself the visionary still. I have lots of visions, and I want to help develop those visions into real, substantial businesses.
Would you consider your daughter, Alexis, a potential successor to you at the helm of the company?
Alexis is very different from me. She's entrepreneurial. She's done a lot of things on her own. But I don't know if I want her to be my successor. I wouldn't wish this job on anybody but [one] who loves it so much. It's hard work.
You said that prison was "by far the least bad part of the last three years." Can you explain what you mean by that?
I was locked in a pleasant environment for five months.... And I used my time well.... Before that, I was exposed on all sides to the press.
I remember going into a Kmart just to do my regular run around to see how the product looked, and one woman was buying a sheet and her husband said, "You can't buy that. She just was convicted." And he threw it back on the shelf. I went over to him and I said, "Oh, hi, I'm Martha." I said, "If you really look at the product, you will see that your wife should buy it, because it's really good. It doesn't matter that I was convicted, because the product is the same." They bought it.
In retrospect, did the company overreact during that period and dissociate you from the brand more than it should have?
The company was in a terrible position. Advertisers didn't know whether to advertise or not. The Japanese didn't know whether to cancel the magazine or not. It was just the most horrible position for any management to be in. There was no certainty.
You are an opinion leader in a lot of areas, but I haven't heard a lot about your political views. Who should be President in 2008?
If there is a woman running, I will be voting for the woman. I think [Hillary Clinton] would do a wonderful job. I think it would be very difficult and a big struggle for her, but I think she of all women out there would do a very good job. And maybe it's time for a woman President.
I read something about you launching a new magazine called Blueprint, aimed at people in their 30s who are interested in first homes.
We haven't formally announced it. We have been working on a thirtysomething magazine that will help young people. And they're very needy, actually. We have found that many young people need good practical advice about how to design not only their homes, but everything around them -- their lives. But when I say "design their lives," we don't want to tell them how to. We want to show them ways to. I think that that would be a very successful magazine.
Is there any task around the home that you are really afraid of?
You know, I'm not a good carpenter. I like plumbing. I like electrical [work]. But not carpentry.