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So What Do You Do, Mary Berner?

After a year-long hiatus, the former president of Fairchild Publications turns her publishing prowess toward restructured stalwart, the Reader’s Digest Association.

- March 7, 2007
Mary Mary Berner left Condé Nast in January 2006 when the unit she led, Fairchild Publications, was fully absorbed into Condé, and the company was reorganized. She spoke little of her future plans at the time, beyond saying she wanted a position in which she could be an unfettered leader. Last summer, she started working behind the scenes to help private equity firm Ripplewood Holdings acquire the Reader's Digest Association. She formally assumed the helm of Reader's Digest this week.

Entering her 27th year in publishing, Berner has poised herself as a leader, strategically repositioning staff and resources to increase profits and expand the reach of her brands. The winner in 2004 Advertising Age's "Publishing Executive of the Year" award, Berner is known for a no-nonsense approach that inspires both fear and admiration. In conversation, she is equally direct, and openly talks of her goals and ambitions.

She spoke with on her first day on the job about how she ended up at Reader’s Digest, what makes a successful leader and what she hopes to accomplish in her new position.

Position: President and CEO, the Reader's Digest Association, Inc. (privately owned by investor group Ripplewood Holdings)
Publication: 77 magazines worldwide, including 50 country-specific editions of Reader's Digest, and eight other magazines of circulation of 1 million or more, including Every Day with Rachael Ray.
Education: B.A., College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
Hometown: Winnetka, Ill.
First job: Sold advertising for Citizen Group Publications in Boston, Mass.
Last three jobs: President and CEO, Fairchild Publications; Vice president and publisher, Glamour; senior vice president and publisher, TV Guide
Birth date: June 24, 1959
Marital status: Married with four children
What's your favorite TV Show? American Idol. "It's like a family spectator sport for us."
Last book read? A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
Any books you suggest others should read? A Hundred Years of Solitude, and anything from John Irving
Guilty pleasure? Reading for hours at a time (on a beach).
Most interesting media story right now? How the print companies are reinventing themselves for the digital world.
First section you read in the Sunday paper? Book review

What are your goals for the first year? Long term?
I'm going to talk in generalities. This is a strategy of building on a platform that's here. The company has done an excellent job of diversifying both products and geography, so it will be a time of moving forward in the leveraging of that and building of that.

You mentioned that the digital medium is something that you will be researching at Reader's Digest. How would you incorporate it into the current structure?
Essentially, we are a publishing company with a depth and breadth of content that is one of our biggest strengths. How to leverage that digitally is one of our first initiatives.

I came across a story from Mediaweek in December 2006, where they quoted an industry observer who said that one of the difficulties you might encounter that you haven't in the past is the challenge "of managing down while building the other magazines up." Do you consider this an accurate observation?
Whoever wrote that, the magazine part of the business is just part of the business. This is a company that is a book publishing, a magazine, a music, and video company. We operate in 70 countries. I would say that for me to be successful, I will need to work with everybody here. It's as simple as that -- as I always have. If you look at my track record, one thing that I am acutely aware of is that the whole company has to be running in the same direction.

Speaking of your track record, your leadership qualities have been widely recognized within the industry. What would you say are some of the qualities that make a good leader versus just a manager or a boss?
Being a leader is something that you can always get better at. For me, personally, I certainly don't think I have it nailed. It's the type of question of what I think works for me, rather than what works for leaders. You have to have clarity of vision; you have to be able to communicate that. You have to be able to work with the organization and the management team to figure out how to execute that. It's pretty straightforward.

Have you ever been aware that you are a leader?
It's certainly been my role in several of my last jobs. Do you mean if I have the attributes?

I don't really think like that. I really believe... that you're as good as the people you have around you. People talk about that, and that's kind of a lot of lip service or rhetoric, but I think that if I've done anything well, I try to act on that and show that. I tend to [deal] with issues about who's doing the work, who's the person in charge. A lot can get lost when you just sit in rooms and develop strategy, because that's all it is -- strategy on paper -- unless you actually have the right people.

Speaking of those right people, you are known to bring your own crew along with you in your various posts. Is that something we're going to see at Reader's Digest?
If you look back, I've always brought some new people in, and always worked with the best of the talent that I inherited, as well. It's always been a combination. So, when I left Fairchild, six years later, the management team was about half and half. There's a lot of hoopla about people I bring in, but there's not much hoopla about who stays and works with me.

You left Condé Nast last year. What have you done in the past year?
First, I spent some time trying to figure out exactly what I wanted to do, and then I've been involved in the due diligence process of this particular job since August [2006]. For six months, I've been working on Reader's Digest.

I think good leaders have to have some good strategic ability. It's the ability to assess what's there, to have a clear sense of what the possibilities are, and then a very, very focused point of view on how to get there.

Were you recruited by your brother?
No, actually it was Harvey Golub, who is the executive chairman of Ripplewood [Holdings].

What drew you to Ripplewood?
What I did in the beginning was I was talking to a lot of private equity firms, because I knew for sure that I wanted an ownership stake in whatever I did next. I knew for sure that was a way to go. Probably for the first couple of months, I talked to 20 private equity firms. I picked them for the ones that had interests like mine. (The brother thing came up as coincidence; it's been a wonderful coincidence, actually, and a wonderful experience for me. My brother had been introducing me to private equity firms because that's the business that he is in.) My brother called me about Ripplewood -- [which had] been trying to purchase Reader's Digest for several years. They've been really working at it; They thought it was a wonderful acquisition, and they could see the possibilities. [My brother] said, 'We're doing this thing, would you ever want to talk to us?' I talked to Harvey, and I could clearly see what the possibilities were, so I agreed to work on the due diligence team.

Why do you think you couldn't get an ownership stake otherwise?
Well, you could, but this is because I wanted to be at the beginning. Whatever my initiatives were going to be, I wanted to be with my partners at the beginning. Obviously I couldn't at Condé Nast, because it was a private company.

Can you talk about why you left Condé Nast?
Yeah, because there was no more Fairchild.

Because there was no more movement for you?
No, because Fairchild was absorbed, there was no more Fairchild. The things I liked doing -- I like having a breadth of responsibilities as opposed to a depth. It just didn't fit, what I wanted to do, the opportunities were not a match.

Is this the ideal situation for you at this point in your career? Or, did you always seek this type of opportunity?
I always knew I would end up with this; All my experiences were worthwhile and prepared me for now. The time is right.

Reputation-wise, do you think this next step is going to continue to expand your reputation as a quality leader?
Oh, I don't know; I'm not in it to do that; I'm in it to get the job done.

Do you recognize that the media are all looking at what you're going to be doing next?
I suppose. I don't really think that way. Really, what I think about is -- what's the opportunity; Do I think I can add value to whatever's there; How am I going to go about doing it, and who do I need around me to make sure it's successful; What partners do I need. As for my reputation: I'd like to think it wouldn't hurt my reputation, but I don't even think that way.

Do you hope to raise Reader's Digest to the level of playing field that you left?
The publication itself is less than 15 percent of the revenue of a $2.5 billion company, so I will certainly focus on the flagship, but that's one part of the many, many different parts of what the strategy will be.

It seems juggling all these different divisions will probably be your next biggest challenge.
The way I've approached it is you focus on what's there -- and I did six months of work on that -- you get a strong point of view of where we need to be, and then the question becomes how do you get there. It's pretty straightforward. So, I don't look at it in the context of juggling divisions, I look at it as what do we need to do to get from here to there. The people running the divisions are running the divisions.

It sounds like you've had a lot of time...
Well, I have. It's been amazing. The best thing about this is you have six months to do everything you do in the first six months of your job, but you don't have the responsibility.

I read in one of the industry blogs back in December 2006 that morale at Reader's Digest was pretty low...
By definition, when there's change it's stressful for people; and this is kind of a funky period. As nice as it was for me to be able to prepare, it's really difficult for people who don't know what the future's going to be. People wonder what's going to happen with me, so that's understandable.

And how are you dealing with that?
I can't deal with it other than just do the job and give people clarity on where we are. Most people can get their arms around things when they understand what's happening and how it affects them, and that's my job in the next couple of months.

What are some of the tips that you can give people who want to be successful in undertaking some of the challenges that you have encountered in your career?
It can't be culled down like that. Everybody has their own ways of leading, but I think the common thread is you have to have the clarity of focus, you have to be -- I think good leaders have to have some good strategic ability. It's the ability to assess what's there, to have a clear sense of what the possibilities are, and then a very, very focused point of view on how to get there. If you have those three things, then you overlay that with the ability to work with people to get that done in a collaborative way. I think that's usually what works.

Do you think that success has to do with someone who has those traits?
No, I don't think so, because when you look at people who have been successful, there's a range of personality types. If you read the book, Good to Great: [Why Some Companies Make the Leap... and Others Don't]," which was a study of what makes high-performing companies, one thing they found, which was counter-intuitive, was that some of the best-performing companies had leaders who were introverts. But I think the common thread with those people is that -- introverts or extroverts -- what you have to get is that no one person can do everything.

Maya Avrasin is a freelance writer living in New York City.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview contains excerpts, and has been edited for clarity.]

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