“Never fall in love with your business.” That is the best advice I offer, but I did not follow it.
In the “Know When to Fold ’Em,” chapter of my business book, I posited that the time to exit a business is when there exists a looming adverse change to the industry. I cited Jeff Smulyan, a brilliant and aggressive competitor in the radio business, who failed to exit that industry before it nosedived. He compared that judgment to his perfectly timed sale of TV stations and said, “I parachuted from the Hindenburg and landed on the deck of the Titanic.” Jeff will admit he was a “radio guy” who was too emotionally involved to contemplate a rational exit scenario.
I understand Jeff’s attachment. I have the same addiction to the “Indianapolis Business Journal” and, I am pleased to say, made the same mistake. Ten years ago, print journalism came under attack from the digital world. The popularity of tangible reading material faded along with advertising and subscription revenue. Did we see that coming? Of course, but I lacked the willpower to break the addiction. IBJ was a special enterprise. It still is. It’s an organization populated with bright and curious people who work hard every day to deliver quality business news and more. How do you give that up?
A number of years ago, our youngest reporter was researching a story about Marsh Supermarkets. As the story developed, she attempted to interview the CEO, Don Marsh. Her premise was, although Marsh Supermarkets was one of the community’s finest corporate citizens, it had not been quite so kind to shareholders. Don Marsh was furious. He was a large advertiser in IBJ and on our three Indianapolis radio stations. He was also a shareholder and a customer at The National Bank of Indianapolis, where I served as chairman of the board. In addition, Marsh Supermarkets sold a stack of IBJs every week.
Don demanded, “Either you make this a flattering story, or you pull it altogether. If you don’t, we will cancel all of our advertising and kick you out of our supermarkets.”
We ran that story across the top of IBJ’s front page. Don made good on his promises. He moved his radio advertising to our staunch competitor, Emmis Broadcasting.
We survived. In fact, we received The Friend of the First Amendment Award for extraordinary support of freedom of the press from the Indiana Professional Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists. We deserved that award. I was especially proud to be associated with IBJ.
The “when to fold ’em decision” has cropped up once more. My partner, Bob Schloss, and I are almost 80. Retirement looms. We perceive our precious IBJ as a community treasure that central Indiana relies on for excellent and thoughtful approaches to the news stories of the day. Bob and I committed to each other to land IBJ in the hands of a local citizen who would carry on the tradition we so carefully nurtured. We found Nate Feltman.
I met Nate in 2004 at Mickey’s Camp, a not-for-profit institution that raises money every summer for central Indiana charities. Nate was a partner at Ice Miller law firm in Indianapolis. Later that year, I accepted Gov. Mitch Daniels’ appointment as president of the Indiana Economic Development Corp. as a prelude to being named the state’s secretary of commerce. I persuaded Nate to join me. We worked with other team members daily in a quest to attract businesses, create jobs and raise the income of Indiana citizens. We met with hundreds of business leaders and created countless opportunities for the state. It was a deal-making junkie’s dream.
When I left commerce, the governor accepted my recommendation to appoint Nate as my successor. Nate is hooked on business. This year, he became a 50% owner and president/CEO of IBJ. (I am still in love with IBJ and I just cannot let it all go.)
Our asset is in good hands. Sometime this month, we will boast a record number of subscribers. That failure to execute a timely exit from the newspaper industry was the best non-decision I ever made.•