The rap on Kent Brownridge, who's running Maxim for private equity player Quadrangle Group, is that he's unusually smart and unusually ferocious. And that the latter overshadowed the former during his long tenure as Jann Wenner's No. 2 at Wenner Media.
"If you get in his way, he will roll right over you," says a former Wenner executive, and this is one who claims to be a fan. In person, Brownridge can come off like The Simpsons' magnate Montgomery Burns or former Senator Robert Dole at his most saturnine. That he can do so with a certain deadpan glee earned him the joshing tag "Dr. Evil" from ex-employee and Ad Age columnist Simon Dumenco. Still, sometimes you sensed his subordinates' raw animal fear. Some years ago, I was interviewing him in his office, and he needed some scraps of data that he (atypically) did not know offhand. So he punched a button on his phone. "Tell [redacted] I need to see him," Brownridge snarled at an assistant via squawk box, "and tell him I am NOT HAPPY."
Approximately 18 seconds later, said executive stood in the doorway, wearing a wary and likely very familiar expression.
AFTER 31 YEARS, in early 2006, Brownridge left Wenner. He insists it was his idea; few observers agree. Through a spokesman, Jann Wenner says: "It was both retirement time"—Brownridge was 65—"and a mutual parting of the ways that I think we both recognized was due." (Precisely what happened remains opaque. But Wenner threw Brownridge a party at the Four Seasons—and Wenner Media is a company where pushed-out executives, as one insider puts it, end up at the bottom of an airshaft, not hearing toasts at a landmark restaurant.) Following a brief, unhappy retirement, Brownridge hooked on with Quadrangle. The just-completed purchase of Dennis Publishing's Maxim and music magazine sibling Blender, under the newly formed Alpha Media Group, leaves Brownridge chasing the same young male reader as Wenner flagship Rolling Stone. This has spurred talk of revenge. But the Dennis deal is one of four that Brownridge has bid on; another was regional high-end publisher Modern Luxury, which doesn't exactly target Bud-swilling twentysomethings. Then again, Brownridge has already poached James Kaminsky from Wenner title Men's Journal to edit Maxim. (Jann Wenner would not comment on competitive issues beyond saying he's "very happy to see Kent back in the game.")
In his new corner office—which sports portraits of Steve Jobs, P.T. Barnum, Lee Iacocca, and Sun Tzu—Brownridge says that Blender's circulation could easily rise from its current 825,000 to 1 million and promises to increase his company's head count by 20%. (At the existing mags, that is: Brownridge shuttered lagging lad title Stuff.) While he offered few specifics for reigniting Maxim's turbojets, which have cooled, a parsing of his comments strongly suggests that Maxim will feature a lusher look and design and a rethought business approach. "You can't run a magazine company on 'Hey, come to our Super Bowl party,'" he says, referring to a notorious annual Maxim rite. (Although cynics may cite the juice Vanity Fair squeezes from its annual Oscar-night bash and beg to differ.)
As for his rep, Brownridge professes no regrets. "I ran [Wenner Media] like it was my own. Any attack, I took personally. I hit back hard. I am not going to apologize for any of that." While he hasn't mellowed at 67, he insists he's refocusing. Given a chance to dump on his medium's peers, he demurs. "This is the new me. And I am not going to answer. The old me probably would have said something terrible....I haven't got time for anything except work." With that work, Brownridge (along with Mary Berner, the former Condé Naster who now runs Reader's Digest Assn. for Ripplewood Holdings) will demonstrate what private equity ownership of big and famous consumer magazines means. I remain glad I do not hear his voice crackle over an interoffice line, but I look forward to watching how Brownridge will fare. Preferably from a safe distance.
For Jon Fine's blog on media and advertising, go to www.businessweek.com/innovate/FineOnMedia
By Jon Fine