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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Thomas A. Florio

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-06-08

Thomas A. Florio, publisher of Vogue, is a supremely self-confident man. These days, he has every reason to be that.

"There are people who love to win, and there are people who hate to lose," Mr. Florio said over lunch. "I expect to win. I'm not modest about my ambitions for Vogue. I'm expected to deliver. But I also have perspective."

That perspective suggests that the 49-year-old Long Island-born son of second-generation Italian immigrants, and the 112-year-old magazine whose financial health he's responsible for, both have never been in better shape. But Mr. Florio knows that in the face of increased competition for ads, especially from the Internet, he cannot afford to let up on his relentlessness concerning one of the world's best known brands.

Consider this: At 609 pages - including 457 pages of ads - Vogue's March issue was the largest March issue in the storied history of the publication, America's leading fashion magazine in revenue and circulation. The September 2004 issue was the biggest monthly consumer magazine ever produced: it had 833 pages, including 631 pages of ads. While he gives Vogue's editor, Anna Wintour, effusive credit for her savvy and skills, every one of those ads was brought in by Mr. Florio and his youthful staff of 68.

Vogue's parent company, privately-held Advance Publications, doesn't release financial details; but its annual revenues last year were reportedly $6 billion. With incomings in the hundreds of millions, the iconic Vogue is the top ad revenue earner in the stable of 17 magazines that Advance Publications churns out from its Conde Nast unit.

"We've been the world's biggest selling fashion magazine for five years in a row," Mr. Florio said. In the three years since he came to Vogue from GQ - another prosperous and venerable title owned by Advance Publications and its two main proprietors, S. I. "Si" Newhouse and his brother Donald - Mr. Florio and Ms. Wintour have pushed Vogue's monthly circulation beyond 1.2 million.

"One out of every 10 American women reads the September issue of Vogue," he said. That conservatively translates into at least 10 million readers each month.

And the news is getting better for Vogue, even at a time when most American magazines and newspapers are struggling to retain, let alone increase, their ad revenues as more and more advertising money goes to the Internet. That advertising reality inspired Mr. Florio to create a highly successful Web site, www.ShopVogue.com, which contributed to the advertising gain for Vogue in 2004. The site had 11 million ad views last March alone.

"I can tell you that Vogue's ad revenues so far this year are already 7% above a comparable period last year," he said.

His self-confidence could be interpreted as hubris, but Mr. Florio's "perspective" on his success is such that he comes across as level-headed and accessible. The assured manner as well as the amiable approachability flow from his upbringing in Wantagh, L.I., where he grew up with his older brothers Michael and Steven, former CEO of Conde Nast. His father Steven Sr. was in the retailing business, and was always proud of the fact that he was in the lead American military team that liberated the Buchenwald concentration camp.

Both his father and mother Sophie - who worked as a top stylist for Kenneth - inculcated in their children "very strong values," Mr. Florio said. "I learned from them the work ethic. I got from them a strong sense of what's right and wrong. I learned from them the importance of love, and commitment to one's family. Even in their old age, my parents would be holding hands."

Mr. Florio himself has been married 18 years to Lori Zelikow, whom he met when he worked in the advertising department of New York magazine. They have two daughters and a son. Lori Zelikow - a former publisher of New Woman magazine - was once asked if she was bothered by the fact that her husband - a ruggedly lean man who bikes, does triathlons, and typically runs 20 miles a week - was surrounded by so many beautiful models and glamorous Vogue types. She famously replied: "No. He hates change."

That characterization might be relevant to Mr. Florio at a personal level, but professionally he sees himself as an agent of change.

For instance, he initially set out to be a marine biologist, but decided to pursue a business degree at New York University. He began his publishing career in Esquire Magazine's circulation department, impressing his bosses early on with his enthusiasm, creativity, and doggedness. Before going to GQ, Mr. Florio was president of The New Yorker, when its then editor Tina Brown transformed a dowdy magazine into a snap-crackle-and-pop editorial engine that spawned dizzying buzz. Mr. Florio is credited with instituting better business administration at the publication.

"After The New Yorker, I can never have anxiety again," he said, recalling the creative chaos of his time there. At another Tina Brown-edited magazine, Vanity Fair - also a Conde Nast publication - Mr. Florio increased fashion ad revenues from $36,000 per issue to $2.5 million in barely two years.

So how does he do it?

The answer: A combination of endless energy and self-discipline, total dedication to the brand, and exceptional people skills.

"I'm good with people. I can motivate my staff," Mr. Florio said. "I'm good at developing teamwork. I acknowledge the accomplishments of my colleagues. I make them see my vision. I engage with people, I am able to put them at ease. I try to create a work environment of very high energy - but also of fun. Success is about a lot of people getting together for a common purpose."

His success at Vogue can also be explained by his appreciation of the brand's influence.

"Other fashion magazines just follow the runway; the power of Vogue is that it's a window into the soul of American culture," Mr. Florio said.

Now Mr. Florio is extending the Vogue brand as part of an effort to "transcend the magazine category." He produces a TV series called "TrendWatch." In collaboration with director Douglas Keeve, he's just produced a documentary, "Seamless," which follows the work of up-and-coming fashion designers who compete for the Vogue Fashion Fund Award. In a few months, he will launch Men's Vogue - there's already a successful Teen Vogue - with a guaranteed base of 300,000. He's created an in-house ad agency at Vogue, which is increasingly taking on outside clients.

"My future? Bigger playing fields, stronger cross-media platforms," Mr. Florio said. "I'm always focused. It's always a race in the publishing business, but at Vogue there's no finishing line."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist


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