Remaking Fortune

John Huey has been everywhere, done everything, and written about everybody—from foreign dictators to Sam Walton. But the success story he's writing as managing editor at Fortune may be his best ever.

B Y - K E N T - H A N N O N

John Huey is late for his 10 o'clock meeting, a consequence of lingering too long in the Time-Life cafeteria telling tales about his days as an oddball at North Fulton High and about the best-selling autobiography he later co-wrote with Sam Walton. Huey's claim to fame at North Fulton was creating a fictitious candidate for student body president who ended up winning the election. The story made Look magazine. Writing Sam Walton: Made in America earned Huey a lot of money, and he came to respect the Wal-Mart founder as a true business pioneer. "People ask me, 'Was Sam brilliant?'" says Huey, who is sipping a large fruit smoothie. "Hell, he made $26 billion. Let's set $1 billion of that aside and call it luck."

Fortune was No. 3 behind Forbes and Business Week until Huey took over and boosted ad pages by 22 percent.
This is how Huey talks—in short bursts of street-smart, Southern-inflected sarcasm that cut to the heart of the matter. It's pretty much a foreign language in the journalistic bastions of New York City, and some Time Inc. blue bloods still don't cotton to the man who, by all accounts, has restored Fortune magazine to its rightful place at the center of America's business conversation.

Huey is one of those ex-newspapermen who doesn't look dressed up even when he's dressed up, and he detests ties—which doesn't sit well with the blue bloods, who also see themselves as dress-code cops. One of them approached Huey at a meeting and said, "I remember when people around here wore ties." Huey looked him in the eye and said, "Yeah, well, that was then. This is now."

These minor skirmishes notwithstanding, Huey (AB '70) wears pretty well on most people. He can be crotchety with staff members who disappoint him. But he manages to be popular with most of those he's hardest on, in part because he's so funny—and because a lot of his sarcasm is directed at himself. "I'm the guy who called Jimmy Carter's '76 presidential campaign quixotic," says Huey, who was covering politics for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution back then. Huey also remembers telling a college professor to forget about running for office because he had a high-pitched voice. "The guy asked me, 'Am I ready to run for Congress?' and I said, 'Don't do it!' His name was Newt Gingrich. Next thing I know he's Speaker of the House."

Reminded that he's late for a meeting, Huey heads for the cash register, pausing to assist a woman with a sprained arm who is having trouble extracting a bagel from a toaster. With a roomful of editors waiting upstairs for his instructions on how to trim 44 pages of excess business news from the next issue of Fortune, managing editor John Wesley Huey Jr. is wielding a mean pair of tongs in the 8th floor food-service line. This is not the way Time Inc. M.E.s have traditionally conducted themselves from their pedestal at the top of the masthead. But then, when has John Huey ever conducted himself the way people expected? Even a simple question about his resume can turn the conversation blue.

"My first job was on a weekly newspaper in Atlanta," says Huey, who studied English at UGA when he wasn't organizing students for McCarthy. "A friend who worked there called and said that the editor of the paper got caught in the sack with the owner. The owner's wife fired the editor on the spot, my friend became editor, and that's how I became a news reporter."

Years later, when Huey flew to Dallas to see about working for the Wall Street Journal, his job interview took place in a topless bar. "The bureau chief had driven tanks for Patton," says Huey, by way of an explanation. "He picked me up at the airport in an orange VW Beetle that didn't have a passenger seat. I had to sit on this bucket. He threw peanuts at the strippers the whole time he was asking me questions."

Huey got the job—though he didn't know how to read a stock ticker or a balance sheet. "But if you could survive two weeks of writing business news," he recalls, "the Journal gave you three weeks to write about anything you wanted." Huey's WSJ territory stretched from New Mexico to New Orleans and from Wyoming to the Panama Canal. Given the ratio of writers per square mile, he saw it as the opportunity of a lifetime.

Never one to kowtow to authority figures, Huey recalls an interview that took place in a Nicaraguan military bunker. "I don't remember what I asked General Somoza," says Huey, "but I must've made him mad because I later read in a book that he wanted to squash my private parts."

Actually, Huey didn't say "private parts," but it's not always possible to quote this ex-sailor verbatim.

Huey violates other canons of M.E. behavior on a daily basis. This morning, for example, he drove to work instead of taking the train because he needed to drop off his five-year-old son Cole at school. Some Time Inc. M.E.s have been known to take limos to and from work. But when Huey zipped out of the driveway of the "big Tudor house" he's trying to sell in Bronxville so he can move to Charleston, S.C., he was driving a remnant of his I-285 days.

"An '86 Toyota," says Huey. "Bought it on Buford Highway, and I'm not going to buy something better until I have a nice place to drive it." Hence, the intended move to Charleston, which, as weekend getaways go, is a bit farther than the Hamptons. How did Huey swing the long-distance commuting arrangement with management?

"I didn't ask permission," he says, punching an elevator button for the 16th floor. "I just told 'em I was doing it."

That last part—the telling-people-without-asking-permission part—is an example of Huey actually exhibiting normative behavior for a Time Inc. M.E. The publications produced in this building—which besides Fortune include Time, Life, Sports Illustrated, Money, People, and Entertainment Weekly—are among the most widely-circulated in the world. And the men and women who run them have almost total control over their content. What the M.E. says, goes. And what Huey has been saying and doing since taking over at Fortune in 1995 is pure genius, according to his boss, Time-Inc. editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine.

"John has orchestrated the great magazine turnaround of the 1990s," says Pearlstine. "This was a magazine in competition with the Harvard Business Review to see which one could be duller, but John has delivered on my mandate—which was to make Fortune the most interesting magazine in the world that's about business."

To attract new readers, Huey went looking for established pros whose writing had real flair. He found them at magazines like Time, GQ, Money, and archrival Forbes, which didn't win him any friends there.

In print since 1930, Fortune had slipped considerably when Pearlstine promoted Huey from executive editor.

"We were No. 3 by any measure you wanted to look at," says Huey. But what a difference three years can make. On the wall in Huey's office is a framed copy of Ad Week's "Hot List" of the top 10 magazines for 1998, ranked by ad revenue and ad pages. Fortune holds down the No. 7 slot, with the other two giants of American business journalism—Forbes and Business Week—nowhere to be found. And no one on Huey's staff, or upstairs in the corporate offices, doubts who's responsible for this reversal of fortune.

"John is a departure," says Carol Junge Loomis, who sits on the magazine's board of editors. "He's made Fortune looser, and more fun to read."

"We used to be very clubby, erudite, and stuffy," says picture editor Michele McNally. "But John brought in great writers, which attracted younger readers. The magazine is so engaging now."

In the pre-Huey days, Fortune was dedicated to extolling management principles and handing out investor advice. Profiles—one of the magazine's strong points these days—didn't score well on reader surveys, so the magazine didn't do that many. "Reading Fortune back then was a lot like doing homework," recalls senior writer Patty Sellers. "It was more about companies and management ideas—and not about the people who ran those companies."

Huey changed all that. "Some people view business with the reverence of being in church," he says. "But I see it more like a sport—and I don't mean the gentlemanly kind. People hit in business—like in the NFL."

To attract new readers and recapture old ones, Huey went looking for established pros whose writing had real flair. He got them from Time, GQ, Money, WSJ, and from archrival Forbes, which didn't win him any friends there.

"John is into casting," says Sellers, "and he knows what kind of stories each writer is good at."

Huey's covers reflect his philosophy that "business is sexy, dramatic, and driven by real people." To illustrate a story about American men spending $9.5 billion a year on their looks, art director Margery Peters posed Claudia Schiffer in a come-hither dress. She is caressing a man's face. The cover line, reads: "He's so vain." To hype a story on "How Levi's Trashed a Great American Brand," Peters photographed a woman's derriere in tight jeans. Other stories which likely would not have run in the old Fortune include a cover story entitled "Addicted to Sex: Corporate America's Dirty Secret" and a feature on a gay executive at Ford who was twice passed over for CEO.

"Our best-selling cover was 'The Internet or Bust,'" says Huey, who keeps a strip of miniature covers near his desk, their sequence determined by newsstand sales. (Surprisingly, "Addicted to Sex" was dead last for the first two quarters of '99.) Looking them over, Huey admits he's "attracted to winners"—like Bill Joy of Sun Microsystems, whom Fortune dubbed "The Edison of the Internet." But when the subject is a high-profile failure, Fortune comes down hard. A cover on "Why CEOs Fail" was accompanied by photos of a dozen chief execs who flamed out in corporate America.

Conde Nast CEO Steve Florio still has his job, but fared even worse in "Conde Nast: The Buzz." Fortune got a look at the company's financials and learned that Florio's performance as publisher of Conde Nast's most prestigious title, The New Yorker, from 1985-94, was abysmal—to the tune of 1,300 lost ad pages and $114 million in red ink. Even those CEOs judged by Fortune to be doing a good job come under intense scrutiny for how they achieve results, as evidenced by the cover story on Lou Gerstner, who was billed as "The Holy Terror Who's Saving IBM."

Huey's somewhat radical views of how a business magazine should read and be illustrated have yielded dramatic results. Fortune's ad pages have increased more than 22 percent over the past three years. ("But we still don't have IBM!" he says.) Newsstand sales for the second half of 1998 averaged 78,000 per bi-weekly issue, a 90 percent increase from the pre-Huey days of 1994, when sales averaged 41,000. The latter figure is about where Business Week is now, says Huey; Forbes is somewhere in the middle.

Huey plans to relocate his family to Charleston, S.C., and commute to New York.

The rise in popularity extends from advertisers to those who work at Fortune.

"John's a comedy act," says McNally. "We try to get some work done at senior staff meetings, but some days all he wants to talk about is the Allman Brothers book he's reading. Or Deano Martin."

"John has a short attention span," says Loomis, whose seniority—she started at Fortune in the 1950s—enables her to extol her boss's shortcomings without fear of reprimand. "He has a short fuse," she continues, "and a tendency to send flame-mails to everyone on the staff. But John is one of the most articulate people I've ever met, and he has this incredible sense of what makes a story interesting to readers. He's the best M.E. I've ever worked for." That's high praise, considering Huey is her eighth.

When Huey walks into the 16th floor conference room at 10:05, the staff is munching gourmet cookies. Right away, he starts with the repartee.

"I guess I missed the black t-shirt memo," he says, surveying a roomful of high-paid business minds who take dress-down Friday to heart. No one would mistake this crew for the staff of the Village Voice, but editors definitely didn't T.G.I.F. this way before Huey, who looks overdressed in an open-neck plaid shirt. The meeting is a quick one by Fortune standards—only 35 minutes. Retreating to his corner office which looks down on Radio City, Huey plunges into yesterday's unresolved intrigues. Principal among them is the question of whether Compaq chairman Ben Rosen, who recently fired the company's CEO, will allow Fortune's Atlanta-based writer Betsy Morris to recount the inside story of how a headhunter helps a computer giant recruit a new chief executive. Both Huey and Morris assumed the story was a go, only to discover that the PR people at Compaq hadn't clued in Rosen.

"We got sandbagged on that one," Huey mutters as he hangs up from talking to Rosen and awaits a call from Morris, who is not going to be happy. A moment of calm enables him to contemplate a question about what extravagances he allows himself in exchange for all the hard work.

"I own one Hickey-Freeman suit that cost more than $1,000," says Huey, "but I never wear it because I'm afraid I'll spill something on it." He yawns, tosses a brightly colored juggling ball into the air several times while collecting his thoughts, and eventually comes to the conclusion that he has no real extravagances—except for the big Tudor house in Bronxville.

"And that was a big mistake," says Huey. "I'll probably have to take a loss on it—and it's not even in Bronxville. My P.O. is Bronxville, but the house is actually in Yonkers. Randy Jones [ABJ '77 and publisher of investor magazine Worth] lives in the real Bronxville."

One of the motivations for moving to Charleston is the opportunity to go boating on the Intercoastal Waterway—and to provide a more enjoyable lifestyle for his third wife, Kate, and their five-year-old. Huey's first marriage ended in divorce after producing a son, Jake, who is a student at Loyola University in New Orleans. His second wife died of cancer.

"I'm going to buy a big boat," says Huey, who never dreamed he'd make M.E. "I'm not from the Ivy League," he says. "I don't look right. I don't talk right. I wasn't even on the long list."

When Huey spoke at a writers conference in Atlanta in May, he recalled one of his principal motivations for becoming a journalist.

"Every Wednesday, at my elementary school, someone put Ralph McGill —that great thundering moderate editor of the Atlanta Constitution—on the school radio," Huey told his audience. "Of course, back then, being a moderate meant your house could get shot at."

Huey says McGill's radio addresses contained messages about race relations that he and his classmates weren't hearing from their teachers or parents. "He told us things were going to change—and here's why," says Huey. "Ralph McGill had real moral authority."

Classmate Doug Cumming remembers Huey as the "expression of cool" at North Fulton High. "He played guitar in a rock band, he listened to Thelonious Monk—and he could already see decades ahead of everybody else," says Cumming, now an education reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Huey's AJC days included some weird assignments involving characters like "Mad Dog" Knowles, a serial killer who dictated the grisly details of each new crime onto cassette tapes—which he then mailed to his lawyer, Sheldon Yavitz, whom the judge seemed to believe was collecting them in anticipation of a tell-all book. When the police apprehended "Mad Dog," it was "Maximum Wilbur" Owens who heard the case.

"Maximum Wilbur threw a bunch of us in jail because he got tired of reading stories leaked from the lawyers," says Huey. "Except it wasn't really jail. He sequestered us in a Hilton hotel where we were served Thanksgiving dinner with all the trimmings. The story ended when Mad Dog was shot on I-20 for allegedly trying to escape from the police."

If Huey makes good on his plan to move to Charleston it won't be the first time he's left New York to revisit his roots. When Fortune hired him as a contributing editor in 1988, it was with the understanding that he might use the position as a springboard to start a new magazine about the South. He got that opportunity when the Southern Progress Co., a subsidiary of Time Inc., bought Southern magazine. Huey reworked it according to his vision of how a hip, business-lifestyle magazine about the South should look and read. Located in Atlanta and rechristened as Southpoint, the magazine lasted less than a year, but readers still have fond memories of stories written by James Dickey, Winston Groom, Howell Raines, and Tom Junod.

Huey still has a special place in his heart for Southpoint, the hip, business-lifestyle magazine he started in Atlanta in 1989. It lasted less than a year.

Carol Loomis was at a dinner party not long ago where people were singing the praises of Fortune—among them, Alan Spoon, president and CEO of the Washington Post. "He said to me, 'I've got to have this magazine!'" says Loomis, who also remembers Larry Tisch, the former chairman of CBS, telling her, "Fortune is a heck of a lot more interesting than it's ever been."

Hearing such applause brings a smile to Huey's face. But only for a moment.

"I'm very wrapped up in this magazine, but it's a pay-for-play kind of business . . . you gotta produce," he says. "The company is run by great people, but they ask a lot. And there's a lot at stake when every dollar you spend is a dollar someone else in the corporation would like to spend."

Fortunately, Huey and his all-star staff are putting out one of the hottest books in the business—and he has a number of well-placed allies, beginning at the top with Pearlstine, who brought him to Brussels to kickstart Wall Street Journal/Europe when Pearlstine was editor of that fledgling publication. Don Logan, chairman and CEO of Fortune, was also Huey's boss at Southpoint.

Logan is from Alabama (an Auburn man), the M.E. at Sports Illustrated is from Coral Gables, the M.E. at Time is from New Orleans. Which suggests that Southernness may be acquiring a certain chicness at Time Inc.

"I don't know if we're considered chic," says Huey, who is leaving work early on this particular Friday to attend a carnival at his son's school. "But I do know that the Time-Life Building is one of the few places in Manhattan where you can order grits. That must mean something."

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