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Lunch at the Tribeca Grill with: Christie Hefner

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-05-09

Millie Gunn's daughter, who heads one of the world's best-known brands, studied English and American Literature at Brandeis University, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year, and graduated summa cum laude. Unlike many of her fellow CEOs, she did not obtain an MBA. Instead, she has something that she finds even more useful -- an MBWA.

What, the reporter asked, is an MBWA?

"That's management by walking around," said the woman who's better known as Christie Hefner, and is chairman and CEO of Playboy Enterprises. "I learn by walking around and listening to people. I learn by being open to their ideas. I learn by having an open-door policy, where my colleagues are always free to come into my office, express their opinions, ask questions, and think out aloud."

That management style may explain, at least partly, how Ms. Hefner -- who's also the daughter of Playboy's legendary founder and editor in chief, Hugh M. Hefner -- has been able to turn around the fortunes of a 52-year-old company whose financial performance had been languishing. Last year's revenues of $329.4 million yielded a profit of $10 million, Playboy's first profitable year since 1998. Ms. Hefner expects that revenues for 2005 will rise to $350 million, or 6% above 2004.

"This is a reflection that our strategy is working," Ms. Hefner said over lunch. "It's also a reflection of how we stayed on course. It's been an opportunity to translate the cache of the magazine into a branded lifestyle."

The "strategy" involved expansion into pay-TV and the Internet (in 1994, Playboy became the first national magazine to have a presence on the Web). It has involved expanding the Playboy brand overseas: there are now 17 foreign editions of the magazine, including a new one in Ukraine; at monthly sales of 3.02 million, it's the world's biggest selling men's magazine. Playboy is also expanding with its first video game, and concept stores; it recently announced plans to open large multi-faceted entertainment venues in Las Vegas and Shanghai in 2006. There has also been cost-cutting, a reflection of Ms. Hefner's emphasis on running a tight ship.

The "course" has reflected her aptitude of what she characterized as "analytical problem solving." Although she never went to business school, Ms. Hefner has always been good at math; she scored higher in math than English in her SATs.

She started at Playboy at the invitation of her father. "He saw it as a chance of us becoming close," Ms. Hefner said. "I had been brought up by my mother, after my father left her. My mother has always been fantastic, the most important influence in my life. She gave me unconditional love. She taught me a love of books. She made me believe that I could do anything."

That "anything" did not necessarily mean entering her father's business. She had graduated at a time of great social upheaval in America. The deeply divisive Vietnam War was winding down. Young people were more interested in public service than commerce. Ms. Hefner considered studying law, and perhaps even becoming a journalist.

Indeed, Playboy wasn't her first foray into journalism. At Brandeis, she wrote movie and theater reviews for the campus newspaper, The Justice. After graduation, she wrote for the Boston Phoenix; her contributions included a memorable first-person piece based on her experiences in South Boston.

While at Brandeis, Ms. Hefner taught youths in an Upward Bound program. That engagement represented the start of what's been a three-decade-long concern with education and social issues, including poverty alleviation and HIIV/AIDS.

At Playboy, Ms. Hefner made a special effort to reassure colleagues who were sensitive to the fact that she was the founder's daughter. She contacted business stalwarts such as Warren Buffett and Katherine Graham to solicit advice.

In 1982, she was named president of Playboy Enterprises; she was 29 years old.

"I discovered a lot of people of great heart and goodwill," Ms. Hefner said. "It wasn't so much the pressure of my background as it was the desire to get things right. I knew that thousands of people depended on me." She formed an office of the president, a sort of brains trust, to enable her to develop better governance.

In 1988, she was elected chairman and CEO. She recapitalized the company, making it the first corporation listed on the New York Stock Exchange to issue a second class of stock with disparate voting rights, a move that allowed the Hefners to retain control of the company.

"People understood that I had a long-term stake in the company," Ms. Hefner said. "But I found that leadership wasn't easy. Making a decision isn't the same thing as implementing it."

One technique she used -- and still does -- was to ask a simple, direct question of everyone she met: "What's going on?"

"This became a kind of report card for me, a good way to find out about company matters," Ms. Hefner said. "I developed a collaborative style. I like bringing people together. I like hearing ideas. I like to challenge people. I like having smart people around me. I'm adept at building partnerships. By being curious, you empower your people. To a great extent, I've always thought that the point of being a CEO is to try and get the best out of people. At Playboy, everyone feels they can make their case. People can ask me any question they want."

But didn't such a style of leadership mean that she would have virtually no privacy, no unguarded personal territory?

"I decided early on to set boundaries as to how much of me would be public," Ms. Hefner said. "I would be a public spokesman for the company, and I would involve myself in social and charitable causes. But I would not become a public personality. That's why, for example, I don't do celebrity media. I preserve my private life."

That private life includes African safaris with her husband, William A. Marovitz, a real estate developer and attorney, and a former Illinois state senator. It includes skiing. It includes quiet dinners with friends in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, where Playboy has offices. It includes working out regularly at the gym. And it includes voluminous reading.

She's also involved in philanthropy through the Playboy Foundation. Recently, Ms. Hefner hosted the awards party for the annual Tribeca All Access (TAA) Connects, the Tribeca Film Institute's program for fostering relationships between U.S.-based filmmakers of color and the film industry.

Is there anything about her success that surprises her?

"A part of me thinks that it's astonishing that 30 years have gone by since I started at Playboy," Ms. Hefner said. "I'm proud of what I've been able to do with the company. You've got to have unwavering confidence that you can do it. You've got to be unyieldingly positive."

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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