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The Magazine Magnate

Steve Florio, the president and CEO of Condé Nast Publications, oversees one of the biggest publishing empires in the world
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High above New York's Times Square, Steve Florio has locked his hands behind his head, elbows out, and is leaning back in his chair considering his position atop the publishing powerhouse Condé Nast, which monthly divines the flow of American culture, ideas and fashion in its lineup of 17 magazines. The second-generation Italian-American, who grew up on Long Island, broke into the magazine business as a researcher at Esquire only to become advertising director of the magazine at the age of 27. He ultimately climbed to the top of the magazine tree as chief executive officer of Condé Nast.

Now, he tilts forward slightly. "The thing that resonates with me is the Grateful Dead song 'Truckin' and in particular the line 'what a long strange trip it's been,'" he says. "Being a child of the '60s, it really comes through for me." If the implication that Florio is an old flower child is a bit disingenuous, he brings the conversation back to earth with a comment that is much more telling of the self-possessed executive with the big grin. "The reason I've lasted as long as I have -- and I'm closing in on a decade as a CEO -- is I'm good at what I do and I'm a little bit lucky."

Florio is quick to remind that he was not born to the glittering sphere of magazines like GQ, of which he was once publisher, Vogue, at which his brother holds that position, and The New Yorker, which each led at different times. Yet he seems at ease with the trappings of success. He has become something of a yachtsman over the years. His vacation itineraries smack of jet-setting. He owns an impressive spread in Oyster Bay. In it, he is proud to say, the library is outfitted with an air-filter system that allows the old-line amenity of gentlemen enjoying a cigar and a brandy after a dinner party while the ladies sip tea in the music room oblivious to any smoking. Florio, who underwent open-heart surgery four years ago, allows that he is not smoking the volume that he has in the past. Typically, he reports, he has one cigar a week, usually on the weekend. But if anything, cutting back may have heightened his appreciation of a great cigar. "My choices are much more considered," he says. "If I'm going out to a barbecue in Sag Harbor on the weekend, I know I'm only going to have one cigar. I think, 'What am I going to smoke with a big red wine and a steak?'"

In the past that choice more often than not would have led him to a Havana cigar were he someplace where it were available -- his smokes of choice being the Montecristo No. 2 and the Hoyo de Monterrey double corona. "Ten or 15 years ago if I had a chance to smoke a Cuban, no matter what else was being offered, I would smoke it," Florio recalls. "Now I find myself asking for non-Cubans and enjoying them." A large reason is the improvement he sees in non-Cuban cigars. "Ten years ago if you wanted to smoke a great cigar, you had a Cuban or you settled. Now there are other choices and many of them more consistent." A trio of the non-Cuban brands that he singles out are from one company: Hemingway, Ashton VSG and Fuente Fuente OpusX, all products of Tabacalera A. Fuente. In the same breath he mentions C.A.O. cigars and one gets the drift that the man likes smokes with the flavor to match a healthy ego.

Another reason for Florio's partial falling out with Cuban cigars is a mounting difficulty in getting the genuine article. "You run into counterfeits more and more often," he bemoans. Florio relates a recent experience in the Bahamas where he was handed what was purportedly one of his aforementioned Cuban favorites. "This isn't a Montecristo No. 2," he complained. "Oh yes, it is!" he was told. As the retelling concludes, Florio's face breaks into a sardonic grin, "Well, guess what? It isn't." One gets the impression that this is a man who doesn't suffer fools gladly.

He is also a man whose position invites close scrutiny. New York is a media town. The fascination with the news goes beyond the people who make it to those who rule the industries that report it. Condé Nast Publications, with its many market-leading titles, attracts much attention, both for its mixture of glamour and lifestyle magazines and the high-profile editors, writers and artists who produce them. The interest in the comings and goings of media stars such as Graydon Carter, Anna Wintour and James Truman, who work there, extends all the way up to Florio's boss, Si Newhouse, whose family owns the company.

Inevitably Florio finds himself the subject of the media coverage in the New York dailies that treat Condé Nast as a source of business news as well as nasty gossip. "I've been killed in the press and I've been lauded in the press," he sighs, "and all in a six-week period."

Press speculation about Florio runs a gamut that includes his relationship with Condé Nast editors and publishers -- both that they are at one another's throats and having affairs; his attempts to rein in the profligate tendencies of a notoriously spendthrift company -- some say he's too strict, others that he's been too lenient; and rumors that he'll defect.

While he claims "it doesn't mean very much," the press can clearly touch a nerve when erroneous coverage affects his family. It struck home when his late father would call and ask, "Why do they say all that terrible stuff about you?" At one point the ink became so venomous that, Florio says, he called the publishing news columnist of a New York tabloid and met him for drinks to clear the air. "I said, 'Did you ever stop and think when you write these things that my wife and my kids who are away at school read them and they have to face their friends about it?' He said, 'Oh, I guess I didn't think of that.'" The confrontation hasn't seemed to have made much difference.

One particular press episode, in 1998, involved reports that he had fired his brother Tom as president of The New Yorker. Florio counters that his brother wasn't fired, rather moved to the publisher's slot at Condé Nast Traveler at his own request when The New Yorker was put under the Condé Nast umbrella in a reshuffling of the properties of Advance Publications, which owned them both. He believes that reporters' lust for a good story got the better of them in their reportage. "A great story is one brother is in conflict with another brother," he says. Cain-and-Abel scenarios notwithstanding, both brothers coexist peacefully at Condé Nast four years later.

Florio understands the fascination with the company. He quotes Newhouse, who once told him: "Think of this as MGM in 1937 and you go to the commissary where all the biggest stars and the best directors and the crews are eating side by side." However, Florio feels the aspect of star quality can be overstated. "What you read about [Vanity Fair editor] Graydon Carter taking Cheryl Tiegs on a date or [Vogue editor] Anna Wintour wearing a certain dress to a party, all these things are true, but it's not what drives the company. Craft drives the company. If you take a scissors and cut any Condé Nast magazine, it will bleed."

A press item this year involved speculation that Florio would leave Condé Nast for America Online. Apparently what prompted it was a lunch he enjoyed with Bob Pittman, who was then president of AOL, at a Manhattan restaurant. After rumors flew in the press, a reporter finally got ahold of Florio to ask what they had discussed. "The easy answer is it's none of your business," he replied, but then went on to explain that Pittman, who is also a boating enthusiast, was sounding him out on a boat he wanted to buy, with which Florio had had experience. While that part of the story never was reported, Florio remains at Condé Nast where he expects to stay for the rest of his career. Says the executive who recently inked a long-term contract, "If you sign a 10-year deal and you're 53, that's pretty much the game."

Florio came to Condé Nast in December 1979 when Si Newhouse called him at his office at Esquire to offer the publisher's position at GQ, a magazine he had just bought. With Florio at the sales helm, it quickly became the market leader for men's magazines, and by 1985 had more than doubled the number of advertising pages it sold. Then one day, Newhouse called Florio, who happened to be considering an offer from a rival magazine group, into his office. "He asked me if I would like to be president of The New Yorker. I said, 'That's the greatest magazine in the world, but there's just one problem: you don't happen to own that magazine.' I quickly learned that 'you don't own something' is not a phrase you use with Mr. Newhouse." Newhouse had, of course, bought The New Yorker and Florio was set to run it for the next nine years.

His tenure at the tradition-bound magazine was marked by great editorial changes. Robert Gottleib, an accomplished book editor, would replace the legendary William Shawn and would himself be succeeded by Tina Brown, who had resuscitated Vanity Fair for Condé Nast. Brown even brought photographs to the venerable gray lady of publishing. Florio oversaw a rise in circulation from 500,000 to 800,000, but there was always speculation that the magazine was losing money. (Advance Publications, a privately held company, does not divulge profits and losses.)

Then in 1994, Newhouse once again tapped Florio, this time as president of Condé Nast with a mandate to turn the business around. (He added the title of CEO in 1996.) Florio put the company on a cost-cutting regime, which became the stuff of tabloid gossip, and he cut heads to the point where he quipped he had to have a food taster. He also brought the company, which had been littered about town in several different offices, into one building on Times Square.

Back in his office that overlooks much of New York's garment district for which his company holds so much sway, Florio comments, "If I have one gift, it is that I can hire great people and present a unified front against the competition. And if need be I can also go out and pitch. You earn people's respect that way. They say, ÎYou can count on the guy.'" His wish as to how people might think of him goes something like this: "He made a difference. He wasn't a bureaucrat. He went at his job with passion."

While Steve Florio might have his detractors, few would claim that he has no passion. He is his company's biggest booster, ticking off its titles and claiming: "We publish the best magazines in the world. Vogue is the best fashion magazine. Architectural Digest is the best design magazine. GQ is the best men's fashion magazine. They're all industry leaders. You go to the ASME [American Society of Magazine Editors] awards with The New Yorker and see writers winning awards. It's like one studio winning five or six Oscars in one night.

"I love it here at Condé Nast," Florio concludes. "As a result, I have a misguided sense of proprietorship. I keep thinking it's my business. It is not. It is Mr. Newhouse's business."

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