All in the family Featured

7:05am EDT May 24, 2005
What does one do with a doctorate in physics? You might work for NASA, or develop new medical devices, or even teach young astronomers.

But if you're Kent Johnson, your degree takes you in a slightly different direction. This Harvard-educated physicist uses his advanced scientific knowledge to ... publish a children's magazine.

Two years ago, Johnson was well along the road to success, managing operations of a biotechnology company. Then, Garry Myers III, then CEO of Highlights for Children and the grandson of founders Garry and Caroline Clark Myers, called on Johnson -- a great-grandson of the founders -- to join the family business as a member of the Highlights board. Myers III wanted to name Johnson his successor.

"I was impressed with what I saw," says Johnson.

In fact, he was so impressed with the company's children-first philosophy and management style that he joined Highlights full time as vice president of strategic management. Myers III was equally impressed with Johnson.

"He accelerated his thinking, making more near-term plans," says Johnson. "I think he was feeling very comfortable that I was a good choice for the position."

Shortly after this decision, in January 2005, Myers III died unexpectedly of a heart attack, a loss that was felt companywide.

"Personally, it is a great loss," says Johnson. "He was the leader of our family as well as the company."

So while the company mourned Myers III, Johnson honored the succession plan and moved to the top spot.

For Highlights, Johnson's story is a bit of déjÀ vu. In 1949, three years after the first issue printed, Johnson's great-uncle, Garry Myers II, left his job as an aeronautical engineer to close down Highlights for his parents, the founders.

At that time, magazines were still sold door-to-door, and getting out the work about a magazine required a lot of time and money. And while the founders were well-equipped to produce the editorial side of the magazine, the day-to-day running of the business side was not their expertise.

But when Myers II arrived to begin closing down the business, he saw potential in the struggling company and decided to make it work.

Highlights flourished under his leadership, as well as the leadership of his son, Garry Myers III, leaving Johnson -- a member of the fourth generation of the family -- some very deep footsteps to follow.

But Johnson is ready for the task.

"So far so good," he says. "One of the things that went well is that Garry [Myers III] involved as many board members, senior executives and shareholders as he could with the succession plan. It created a smooth transition."

Johnson says the company's dedicated staff also contributed to the ease of the transitional.

"There are a lot of talented people committed to making Highlights successful," he says. "That makes it easier. I've gotten a lot of support."

And it is not just the children's magazine that Johnson heads. Under Myers III's leadership, Highlights expanded to include a family of eight related companies, with a common denominator of high-quality products for children and educators. These companies include a publisher of children's books, a publisher of educational classroom materials and a company that sells books and toys through in-home parties.

Johnson says Highlights' philosophy in choosing these new revenue streams was always children first and profit second. And that philosophy is still rules today.

"When we take a proposal to the board, the first thing they ask is, 'What good does it do for children?'" says Johnson, "[That's] before we even explore the idea of its profitability. But we are always looking for ways to add revenue."

Widening the scope

When Garry and Caroline Myers founded the company in 1946, their goal was to provide an advertisement-free venue for children. The Myers' worked for a similar children's publication for 12 years before starting Highlights and felt strongly that their editorial content should remain untouched by influential marketing.

"Philosophically, we are not against advertising," Johnson says. "We have a magazine for teachers that does contain advertising. We don't advertise to children. We do not want children to be the target of marketing messages."

But without advertising, the company needed to explore additional revenue-making opportunities.

"It is a challenge in a hard business to compete with publications that advertise," he says. "Not having that source of revenue makes it harder."

To keep Highlights a profitable competitor, Myers III instituted new marketing techniques for the publication and acquired other child-focused companies.

"The magazine had to change with the times to be relevant for kids today," Johnson says. "And we find ways to have parents, teachers and grandparents connect with the publication. As we grew more successful, the company systematically expanded into other areas."

And those other areas are proving successful additions.

"Zaner Blosser publishes textbooks for the language arts, writing, reading and handwriting," Johnson says. "When you look at the penetration we have in classrooms, we're having a significant impact on children. And children are the world's most important people. That's the original philosophy that unifies all of our products."

Johnson is confident that with continued thoughtful strategic planning Myers III employed, Highlights will continue to succeed.

"He saw strategic planning as an ongoing process," Johnson says. "We involved a larger number of people and refined the plan. It has to be a collaborative process, so you can get the necessary buy-in throughout the organization."

Myers III's three strategies -- related acquisitions, solid marketing and collaborative strategic planning --have made Highlights a force to be reckoned with. With more than 2 million subscribers, Highlights is the largest paid subscription-based general interest publication for children in the world.

A family affair

Johnson isn't the only member of the Myers clan to work for the company -- Kent Brown, grandson of the Highlights founders, is editor-in-chief of the magazine and publisher of Boyds Mills Press, which publishes children's books. Pat Mikelson, granddaughter of the founders, is president and CEO of Highlights Jigsaw Toy Factory Ltd., the in-home toy-selling company.

And the family is also present the Myers Family Council, founded in 1993 to keep family members informed about the business. The council holds meetings every three years, and publishes a newsletter and offers rotating seats on the board and a fourth-generation internship program.

"This is a family-owned company, and there is a very strong connection between the owners [the family] and the company," Johnson explains. "We take great pride in what our great-grandparents started and the impact it has had on us all over the years."

Johnson says being family-owned offers Highlights some competitive advantages.

"We have a very patient focus on the long term and we don't focus so much on quarterly reports," he says. "There is a long-term sense of stewardship and a legacy of contributing to Highlights."

While the Council doesn't play a role in the day-to-day operations of the company, Johnson says its presence is definitely felt.

"It's a way of fostering unity and consensus among the owners so they can speak with one voice," Johnson says. "The council provides the company with a shared feeling of the owners' desires."

Still, like Great-Uncle Myers II, Johnson is finding his own way and determining his legacy.

"Figuring out what to do will be my greatest challenge in the next few years," he says. "There is always change. Garry [Myers III] and I talked about how the world is changing around us. And we want to change and adapt with it -- but prudently."

Johnson says continuing to adapt the publication and company to meet the needs of children is -- and always will be -- the goal of the company.

"We are not known as cutting-edge, but we do want to change and adapt wisely, without losing sight of our mission," says Johnson. "Like our strategic planning, how to plan for the changes in the world is an ongoing process. And it's been ongoing since 1946 -- since the second issue."

How to reach: Highlights for Children, (614) 486-0631 or www.highlights.com