How Rodale Takes Care of Its Health

The organic-mag empire is pursuing multimedia success

Over the past decade, a succession of publishing executives has taken the same 90-minute drive west from New York City to bucolic Emmaus, Pa. Their mission? To woo Ardath Rodale, a sweet grandmother of 10, into selling the family book and magazine business.

What they all covet are Rodale Inc.'s hugely successful titles, such as Men's Health, Prevention, and Runner's World--especially as health and fitness continues to be a hot category with consumers. Yet Rodale, or Ardie, as she likes to be known, has politely declined all offers. A large corporate owner, she says, would be too disruptive to the 71-year-old, privately held company that has its roots in farming and holistic health advice. Says Rodale: "It would absolutely destroy our culture."

FANCY IMPORT. But Rodale, 72, hasn't just been biding her time. She imported her own fancy New York publisher last year, hoping to jazz up the Rodale image. True, revenues had exploded from $70 million in 1980 to $500 million last year. But consistently profitable Rodale lost money in 1999 and had to fold a women's magazine just two years after acquiring it. That jolt prompted Rodale and one of her three daughters, Maria Rodale, 39, who will succeed her as chairman, to take control back from the longtime management team. That's when they brought in Steven P. Murphy to be the new president. Murphy's resume included stints at the publishing arm of Walt Disney, music company EMI Group, and publisher Simon & Schuster. "It's important to make changes if you want new ideas," says Ardie. "Otherwise, the old ideas just get recycled."

Murphy, 47, dove into an ambitious plan to transform the earnest Rodale from a niche publisher into a big-time multimedia company. He wants to double revenues in five years, to $1 billion, largely by revving up "underperforming" brands. "It's simple. I want to reach more people," says Murphy, who splits his time between Emmaus and Rodale's New York offices. It'll be no small feat to deliver Rodale's organic gospel to the masses, especially via television and the Net, where the company has little experience. If Murphy can launch some businesses and strike partnerships to promote the brand, he'll go a long way toward knocking down perceptions that Rodale is just for the nuts-and-granola crowd. The challenge will be not losing the "emotion and sense of mission a sole proprietorship like Rodale brings," says J. Alec Gerster, CEO of media buying firm MediaCom.

That sense of mission dates back to when the founder, accountant turned organic farmer J.I.Rodale, started preaching that people can control their health by eating wholesome food from chemical-free farms. His son, Robert, Ardie's husband, continued to champion those tenets until his death in a 1990 van crash in Moscow, where he was launching an organic-farming magazine. The family still operates an institute near Kutztown, Pa., where farming techniques are studied on a 330-acre tract.

When Murphy arrived, he quickly realigned the company for modern times. He created content groups--organic living, men's and women's health, and sports--each of which has its own editorial director to oversee all forms of media, from books to online. This way, a popular March cover story in Prevention about a peanut-butter diet is quickly being turned into a Rodale book to be published in October, aimed at a much wider audience. To enter the broadcast fray, Murphy is developing a cable-TV program based on Rodale's star act, Men's Health magazine, which has hit a home run by adapting the women's- magazine formula of offering advice on sex, fashion, and exercise for male readers. And Rodale has drafted alternative-medicine guru Dr. Andrew Weil, a Prevention board member and contributor, to create a syndicated radio program.

One potential moneymaker: selling books directly to consumers for other publishers. Rodale has a reputation as a savvy direct-mail operator, and Murphy hopes to offer that service to publishers and perhaps jointly develop health and fitness titles with larger houses. He is in talks with several publishers.

SICK LIST. Still, Murphy's pet project is what he calls Rodale's "village green," a database tracking Rodale's 25 million customers that includes not only demographic information and buying patterns but also people's ailments. Staying on top of that kind of information about its customers will help Rodale identify new businesses, he says, and lure other companies into partnerships, because they'll get access to the database. Rodale says it protects customers' privacy by offering them a chance to "opt out" of having their information shared. More than half of the 25 million have opted out so far, says Murphy.

Clean soil may have given Rodale its start, but these days it's washboard abs that are delivering the revenues. The company's top performer is Men's Health, whose covers always feature a hunky guy with rippling stomach muscles and which features plain-spoken advice on sex and relationships, nutrition, fitness, and fashion. More than one-third of its 1.6 million U.S. readers grab it off the newsstand. And it has 25 local language editions in 33 countries, with rollouts planned this year for five more countries. Even as most magazines have suffered double-digit declines in ad dollars this year, Men's Health is up 7.5%, to $27 million, through May, from the same period in 2000.

Murphy will need some of that success for his latest venture--Organic Style, a magazine due out this fall. The slick bimonthly will cover beauty, fashion, home, garden, and travel. "We want to break down the stereotypes of organic," says Maria, who came up with the idea. "[Organic] can be pretty, and it can be tasty." But the launch has been bumpy, with ad sales sluggish so far, insiders say, and an 11th-hour editor shuffle before its premiere. If Murphy can sell a quirky title like that to mainstream advertisers, he may yet be able to prove that the distance between Emmaus and Manhattan isn't all that far.

By Tom Lowry in Emmaus, Pa.

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