Visit the Kiplinger media company’s elegant Bay Tree Lodge on Florida’s storied Treasure Coast, and you will understand why no one leaves the company.
The resort’s spacious waterfront lodge and five cottages hung with original works by Florida artists are nestled on 10 manicured acres shaded by palm trees. The century-old property includes a tennis court, a pool, two boats and three year-round employees tending the grounds, which were once owned by the family of the legendary financier Bernard Baruch.
It’s monied Old Florida, and it’s free for any employee, as well as family and friends, for two weeks a year.
“It’s good for the esprit de corps,” says editor-in-chief Knight Kiplinger, the steward of Kiplinger Washington Editors.
But how long can the company’s share-the-wealth culture last?
The 93-year-old shop is an outlier: a family-owned, mission-driven journalism company surviving in an industry upended by the digital age.
One by one, families from journalism’s Golden Age have bowed out. The Grahams sold The Washington Post to Jeffrey P. Bezos, owner of Amazon.com, after surrendering Newsweek to a local businessman for $1. Bloomberg bought Businessweek from the McGraws. David Lawrence’s U.S. News & World Report is run by a real-estate mogul. Even the august Forbes family is sniffing around for a buyer for its 97-year-old biweekly.
Washington-based Kiplinger — famous for its weekly Kiplinger Letter that forecasts trends — continues to punch after three generations.
“We finished comfortably in the black for 2013, thanks to a record million-dollar-plus operating profit on Kiplinger.com and a tiny operating loss on the print magazine and healthy profits at our letters,” Kiplinger said.
But the company, whose content is read by 5 million people each month, is approaching a crossroad. Knight Kiplinger, hale and healthy at 66, will not be around forever. And his three adult children have chosen other careers.
“Someday it might make sense for this company to be a division of a larger company doing the same thing it’s doing now,” Kiplinger said in his corner office. “I can’t rule that out.”
The specter of a sale, no matter how distant the horizon, could wreak havoc on Kiplinger’s progressive philosophy, which has permeated the firm since his grandfather, W.M., known as “Kip,” founded it.
He shares profits through a 4 percent contribution to every employee’s 401(k) retirement plan. The company still matches its employee and retiree charitable contributions toward education by a factor of 2 to 1. Twenty-year employees, known as the Survivor's Club, are feted at a dinner by Knight and his 95-year-old chairman emeritus father, Austin, who still pounds away on his Underwood typewriter.
“It’s a throwback,” said Carol LePere, a retired associate publisher. “Collegiality is the reason the company works so well. And it works because everyone stays so long and is treated with utmost respect.”
Kiplinger said, “We try to provide an office environment that is positive and supportive of our colleagues’ needs, where they feel respected, can thrive — and help make our company successful. And finally, everyone shares financially in the company’s success. This isn’t altruism. It’s good business.”
Although pretax profit is less than half the 30 percent the company saw in the decades-long run from World War II to the 2000s, Kiplinger is keeping the company in the family for now.
“As a closely held company,” he says, “we have the luxury of accepting highly variable earnings without the tyranny of having to please Wall Street.”
Kiplinger seems to have navigated the changing landscape with some success.
With 607,000 subscribers, Kiplinger’s flagship Personal Finance magazine preaches a slow-and-steady investment philosophy characterized by dollar-cost averaging and attention to low-cost mutual funds. It offers consumer advice on topics such as whether to lease a car or which mortgages and insurance to buy.
A handpicked internal “think tank” launched a new letter called Investing for Income, and the publication has gained 14,000 subscribers and $1 million in revenue in 18 months. Kiplinger’s profitable Web site saw one of its most successful months — by visitors and by revenue — in its 17-year life in November.
“We are an unusual combination of old media and new media under one roof,” Kiplinger said.
Richard LePere, Carol’s late husband and a retired media consultant who worked with Kiplinger on several business deals, including selling off company subsidiaries, wondered in an interview before his death how long the company can keep its throwback values.
“The Internet happened to them, and the world of finance changed,” he said. “They made choices and stuck to their knitting — journalists first. Thirty or 40 years ago, that was right. In today’s world, it may not be right. Twenty years from now, we will know.”
The Kiplinger company was born in the Roaring Twenties. “The great journalism start-ups of the 1920s were not by businesspeople saying, ‘How can I make a fortune?’ ” Kiplinger said. “They were started by people who saw a need for a new kind of journalism and started publications to fill those needs.”
The Wallace family launched Reader’s Digest, an anthology of articles from various magazines. Briton Hadden and Henry Luce invented Time, the first news weekly. Business was a hot topic, and Kip saw a niche while covering economics for the Associated Press. He invented the weekly Kiplinger Letter, the Twitter of its time. It introduced a crisp, conversational style with industry-specific takeaways and made political and economic forecasts.
Kiplinger, whose staff was deeply sourced with the Roosevelt administration of the 1930s, flourished in the Depression by signaling to its subscribers the vast effects that the coming New Deal legislation would have on the economy.
“It was wildly successful because he was the only person doing it,” Carol LePere said.
The company gradually added a biweekly tax letter, still the most widely read tax periodical in the country, and several others on subjects like agriculture and investments for income.
The four-page, weekly Kiplinger Letter, signed by Knight Kiplinger, forecasts everything from wars to wildfires. A recent issue proclaimed a Democratic whispering campaign to urge Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to quit the Supreme Court while also predicting a long forest fire season in 2014.
“We stick our neck out every week,” Kiplinger said.
His father, Austin, worked for the San Francisco Chronicle and was a rising TV star at ABC and NBC in Chicago the 1950s before he joined the family business. Austin helped expand Kiplinger, launching in 1947 the magazine now known as Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.
As the money rolled in, Kiplinger went on a four-decade roll. The family built its Washington headquarters for $1 million in 1949. It started a printing business outside the city. Flush with cash, the Kiplingers bought the Florida compound. They bought a Montgomery County farm.
“My grandfather was a capitalist/socialist,” Kiplinger said. “He gave a third of the company to the employees. He thought the owners and the workers should both do well.”
In 1948, W.M. Kiplinger founded the Kiplinger Foundation, which now has an $11 million endowment. Over the years, the foundation has given grants to WETA, which W.M. co-founded in the 1950s, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Levine School of Music and the Historical Society of Washington, among others.
Knight Kiplinger was born that year. He attended Cornell during the heyday of the anti-Vietnam War protests. After graduation, he studied international affairs at Princeton but quit to be a newspaper reporter in Rockville, Md.
He had a brief stop at the Montgomery County Sentinel, where a reporter named Bob Woodward took over his desk and local beat. Eventually, Kiplinger became Washington bureau chief of the community news division of Dow Jones, called Ottoway Newspapers.
Kiplinger joined the family business in 1983, which by then was a diverse enterprise. Buoyed by the bull market of the late 1990s, the magazine briefly outpaced the newsletters in profit.
The first wave of crisis hit print publishing when the 20-year bubble burst in the early 2000s. The magazine’s advertising pages dropped from more than 900 a year to around 300.
Magazine ad revenue nose-dived and is now surpassed by revenue from the Web site. Even as its digital operations grow, three-quarters of the company’s $37 million in revenue still comes from subscriptions, a very high percentage for a print media company.
The rise of the Internet in the late 1990s crept up on print publishing. In the early 2000s, “a mass of people started using the Internet as their dominant information source and no longer saw the need to pay $40 or $50 a year for something,” Kiplinger said.
As subscribers dropped, advertising did as well — a death spiral that became highly visible in the Great Recession.
For several years starting in 2008, Kiplinger lost money for the first time.
It responded by eliminating dividends to Kiplinger family share owners. It froze salaries, starting with top managers; then came pay cuts. There was a modest downsizing through attrition and what Kiplinger called “compassionate termination,” which included severance pay and job counseling.
“The pain starts at the top,” he said.
Slowly, the company came out of the red and is now modestly profitable.
“We're not wildly profitable, but we’re profitable,” Kiplinger says. “Compared to the carnage of the Great Recession, this is wonderful.”
“I know they are weathering some difficult financial times,” said Davis Kennedy, a friend who owns the Current Newspapers in Northwest Washington.
Its aging print readership is forcing the company to look for digital strategies while watching its loyal readers die off. That, Kiplinger says, is the great problem the company will face in the next decade.
“You have to be introducing your products to a new audience,” he says. “And our products are an acquired taste.”
The 10,000 baby boomers retiring every day are new readers of the Kiplinger Retirement Report and Kiplinger’s Social Security Solutions.
“For the magazine, older folks — 40s and up — have the money and need personal finance advice,” editorial director Kevin McCormally said. “Kiplinger’s Investing for Income also appeals mightily to an older audience.”
The lucrative Kiplinger Letter, on the other hand, “is problematic” as its readers leave the work force, McCormally said. “They’re loyal. They buy subscriptions for their adult children, . . . but since they’re no longer running a business, they can’t take as full of advantage of our forecasts.”
“Like other print publishers, the big question is, where does the next generation of subscribers come from?”
The Kiplinger culture oozes out of every corner after you pass through the glass security doors in its seventh-floor offices on 13th Street NW.
“The personality of the company is politeness,” Richard LePere said.
Walls are covered with Kiplinger memorabilia, including a signed letter from Herbert Hoover and old magazine covers. On a shelf, Max Kalish bronzes commissioned by his grandfather salute the labor movement.
The boss parks himself at the end of a conference room, places his rimless glasses on the table and picks his fingers. It’s 10 a.m., and the Kiplinger Letter meeting begins with a disquisition on the state of the nation’s energy.
There is a flat-screen television, and off to the side is a model of a Saturn V rocket. The table is covered with legal pads and one editor sips a purple smoothie.
The discussion rolls forward among the eight participants, starting with the nation’s oil supply, a prediction about the Keystone XL Pipeline — likely to go forward, eventually — and turns to the new health-care law, the budget sequester, holiday shopping and labor statistics.
Kiplinger fires a few questions. “Do you think we’re going to see any more delays of deadlines?” he says about budget negotiations. “We can’t write too much about the impact of the sequester.”
After the meeting, Kiplinger explains the collegial back-and-forth. “We talk and think more than we write,” he says.
The company’s big profit centers, the Kiplinger Letter — which reaches 120,000 readers every week — and the Tax Letter receive lots of discussion. The editing process goes through several iterations.
“If it’s not clear to us, it’s not going to be clear to 120,000 readers next week,” he said.
“Look at my bio,” Kiplinger says. “I am not a media mogul. I’m a journalist. I have to be a publishing executive to run Kiplinger.”
Dressed in a gray suit with a camel’s-hair sweater vest, red necktie and argyle socks, Kiplinger could be a tweedy English baron puttering around his country home. He has few affectations, and although he loves talking about the business of money he disavows any obvious pursuit of things that it buys.
“I don’t buy expensive watches. I don’t travel first-class. I drive a Subaru,” says Kiplinger, who proudly displays his Igloo lunch pail.
But even if he is for the people, he is not cut from them. He still has his restored 1955 Mercedes Gullwing 300 SL, a red two-seater that he bought in 1969. He has participated in the most blue-blooded institutions in Washington — the Chevy Chase Club, the Landon School, the Potomac Hunt, the White House Historical Association and the Washington Chorus, where Kiplinger and his wife, Ann, met and for whom both still sing.
Kiplinger clearly relishes being Knight Kiplinger. He is a chatterbox who will opine on his favorite subjects — journalism, antiques, history, music, money. He practices yoga, and his cellphone ringtone is Mozart’s “A Little Night Music.”
“I don’t know anybody who dislikes him,” Kennedy said.
His vantage atop a venerable Washington business has imparted a store of historical and business knowledge.
“He is a great talker,” said Larry Lamade, his close friend and Landon classmate who is a partner at Akin, Gump, Strauss Hauer & Feld. At the same time, said Lamade, “he is very imitable.”
Kiplinger doesn’t lack confidence. Lamade ran against Kiplinger for Landon student council president their junior year. They tied three times before Kiplinger won on the fourth ballot.
“I voted for him and Knight voted for himself. He said, ‘Larry, if you take a job, you’ve got to believe in yourself. And I believe in myself.’ ”
The question is whether he has the same moxie to pull off what may be the most difficult pivot of his long career: guaranteeing the survival of the family business without him.
Kiplinger would not detail his firm’s value, but it has evolved into an unusual business hybrid that probably gives the journalism side some room to breathe.
Aside from its print and digital properties, the company owns nearly 4,000 acres of valuable Florida real estate, which for the time being is agricultural. It owns a 12-acre commercially zoned property next to a Metro Green Line station in Hyattsville. The company maintains an investment portfolio that includes cash, bonds and stocks worth millions, maybe even tens of millions.
Kiplinger also owns properties that house two Walgreens stores and a WaWa convenience store, which it bought a few years ago with $16.5 million it made from the sale of its downtown headquarters. There is also the 10-acre Bay Tree Resort along the Atlantic Ocean.
At the top of the media market, Kiplinger repurchased one-third of the ownership of the company from a trust owned by its employees, spending tens of millions from the family’s share of the firm. Some longtime employees walked away millionaires.
“Our ‘Knight gets hit by a truck crossing the street’ succession plan is that the business would continue to be run by our executive committee,” which includes Kiplinger, McCormally, chief financial officer Corbin Wilkes and Denise Elliott, the vice president of sales.
Kiplinger said the company has some liquidity challenges ahead. About a dozen family members own shares. Knight has sole voting authority over them.
Kiplinger puts on his journalist face and speaks as if he is writing for his magazine, saying:
“With smart estate planning, successor managers for the company and the Kiplinger family members would work out probably a gradual ‘buy-in’ of the Kiplinger family shares by employees. Or they could shop for some outside equity.”
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