Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2004


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Inside the Forbes Powerhouse

Inside the Forbes Powerhouse
Forbes president and publisher Jim Berrien ´74

What drives Forbes president and publisher Jim Berrien ´74

Story and photos by Stan DeCoster

Cancer changed Jim Berrien, and for the better. The disease that so viciously attacked him during the summer prior to his sophomore year at Connecticut College set him back temporarily. In the end, it only made him stronger and bolder as he embarked on an uncharted journey into the upper echelons of corporate America.

More than three decades have passed since Berrien battled non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Today, he is president and publisher of media giant Forbes Magazine Group, and he is there largely because of his willingness to work hard and take risks, combined with a natural ability to make friends and influence people. A 1974 graduate, he also is a member of Connecticut’s board of trustees.

“It was a downer, that’s for sure,” the 52-year-old says of his bout with cancer. “I didn’t feel well, my hair was falling out, and I was traveling to Hartford afternoons for radiation treatment. But I survived, and it affected me more as time went on. When you come as close as I did, you learn to live every minute as if it’s your last. That’s where my enthusiasm comes from.”

He harbored a fair amount of enthusiasm even before he was stricken with cancer, though he admits that not a whole lot of it was directed toward his studies.

Berrien, sitting inside his Forbes office on Fifth Avenue in New York City, called himself a “very average” student, a French major who scored more C’s than A’s. He attributes his mediocre academic showing to lack of focus rather than lack of ability. Cancer wasn’t the only distraction.

“It was a time in the world when people were a little mixed up,” he says. “Vietnam was going on, we were getting our draft numbers. Nixon was getting impeached. It was just difficult to find a bearing point.”

He became one of six male students who bonded during the College’s first few years of co-education, and they remain close today. Two of those friends, Mark Vokey ’74 and Mark Gero ’74, say the group lived “a little on the wild side.”
Even in those days, however, Vokey saw something special in Berrien.

“I always thought he would be successful because if he sees something, he goes after it,” Vokey says. “It’s the same today. He doesn’t want to be on the junior varsity. He’s comfortable being a player in a high-pressure environment. Even in college, he wasn’t one to back off if it meant walking up to an intimidating character, like a dean or the college president.”

Today, Berrien has helped turn Forbes Magazine Group into a powerhouse, with a combined biweekly circulation exceeding 900,000 subscribers. Forbes ranked first worldwide in advertising pages last year among all magazines. Its international editions combine to make its circulation 1.5 million worldwide.

Berrien calls Forbes a workplace with great tradition, integrity and energy. He answers directly to Tim Forbes, who encourages creativity and risk-taking. The two share a passion for their work and for motorcycling.

“Because this is a family-owned business, we have the freedom to try things and make mistakes,” Berrien says. “Tim has told me that we’ll try anything once. You can’t succeed without swinging at a lot of different pitches.”

James S. Berrien was born outside Chicago and, along with a brother and sister, was raised in both Illinois and Connecticut. His father was the creative director for a major ad agency, and it was an upper-middle-class lifestyle.

This, however, didn’t mean that young Jim Berrien was pampered. He started caddying when he was nine and worked at a variety of jobs through his teen years.

“When I was 13,” he says, “I asked my father to buy me a 10-speed bike. Instead, he bought me a lawnmower and said, ‘Go out and meet the neighbors.’ At the end of the summer, I bought myself a Schwinn 10-speed.”

He went on to The Choate School, where he was captain of the track team. He competed in throwing the discus, hammer and shot put. At Connecticut College, however, there was no men’s track in the early 70s. He settled for club hockey. His family didn’t give him a free ride financially, and he worked in the dining room and was the first bartender at the Cro Bar at the College Center at Crozier-Williams.

Berrien says what he learned at CC established the foundation for his business career. He never did receive an MBA or any formal business education.

“What you get out of a liberal arts education is the ability to read and write and express yourself,” he says. “Going into a marketing position, it was exactly what I needed.”

His college friends knew that Berrien had to be suffering emotional stress as he battled cancer in college, but they recall that he always displayed incredible calm and confidence and carried himself with dignity.

“The amazing thing was that he never made much of an issue of it at all,” says Gero. “He didn’t draw attention to it.”

Adds Vokey, “He was determined he was going to beat it and get through it. It gave him a perspective none of us had.”

After graduation, Berrien says he had no idea where life would take him.
For starters, he co-founded Anything Inc., a general services company that dabbled in everything from painting to landscaping to small construction. Then came his first break. Through a friend of a friend, he landed a job as an ad salesman at Field & Stream, an outdoors magazine owned by CBS. He left the magazine for nine months and then returned as an account executive.

It was during this time he met his future wife, the former Mary Jane Stephens, at a sales meeting. The couple has been married 24 years, and they have two girls, ages 16 and 18.
The Field & Stream hire was the first of many times he made a pivotal business connection that advanced his career. Today, he remembers this as he sees others, including young CC graduates, starting their careers.

“It’s about luck and making contacts,” he says. “Ability counts only when you get a chance to show what you can do. I realize that today. I’ll see just about any kid who writes me a good letter.”

He spent nine years at CBS Magazines, rising to the position of advertising director for Field & Stream. He joined American Express Publishing Corp. in 1984 as associate publisher of Food & Wine magazine. He became publisher two years later and ushered in an era of unprecedented growth. He rose to the position of senior vice president and group publisher of American Express’ National Magazine Group, where he was responsible for ad sales and marketing for Travel & Leisure and Departures, as well as Food & Wine. Again, business flourished under his leadership.

While with American Express, he and his family spent three years in Europe. The Berriens hooked up with Sally Susman ’84, who was working in public relations in London.

“He was sort of like the mayor. He took all the American expatriates under his wing, and his home was sort of our clubhouse,” Susman says. “His home became the place where holidays were celebrated, from Thanksgiving to Easter. He has a real sense of family and tradition and, with Jim, you become family almost immediately.”

Today, Susman works for Estée Lauder in Manhattan, and she keeps in touch with the Berrien family. In fact, Berrien persuaded her to join him on the College’s board of trustees.

Susman calls Berrien a “peacemaker” on the board when differences arise, and chairwoman Barbara Shattuck Kohn ’72 agrees.

“He’s not shy about dealing with difficult issues,” she says. “He has an ability to communicate with board members and bring them together.”

She calls Berrien an especially enthusiastic, hard-working and effective trustee and believes that one day he would make a strong candidate to lead the board. He chairs the advancement committee and the committee on trustees.

After board meetings, Berrien is one of the regulars who travel down the hill from the campus to Mr. G’s in Hodges Square. Over pizza and beer, there is lighthearted talk, a lot of it about the old days on campus, along with discussion of the issues facing the College today.

Forbes’ offices are at 60 Fifth Ave., in an old gray building that is far from Saks and Macy’s. It is near where Fifth Avenue starts at Washington Park. On the first floor, there are the remarkable Forbes Magazine Galleries, a collection of fine art, toy boats, miniature soldiers and presidential manuscripts open to the public.

Walk up one flight and there are the corporate offices. This is where Jim Berrien works, in an office that is large and comfortable, but not extravagant. There are photos of his family on and around his desk. A pair of boxing gloves hangs near a window.

Berrien talks of his life, its joys, and its challenges. He says his major strengths in the business world are salesmanship and problem solving. He says he is prouder of his family than of any professional accomplishment. He voices amazement at what he calls apathy on America’s college campuses “when so much is going on in the world and how we’re being viewed in different countries.” And he strongly endorses the Forbes’ view of the wonders of the free enterprise system. He chooses not to get too specific about his political views. “Let’s just say I don’t always fit the straight-laced conservative mold,” he says.

During the interview in his office, Berrien talks about his passion for Forbes and says he hopes to eventually retire from there. Being a family business, he says, there are no internal politics. He concentrates on the business end of the operation, having nothing to do with editorial decisions. On this day, he is especially excited about Forbes’ international editions.

“We’re publishing around the globe in places like Russia, China and Korea,” he says. “The idea of the so-called capitalist tool flourishing in Russia and China, where communism was a way of life for so long, to me is mind-boggling.”

Berrien, who left American Express five years ago to come to Forbes, preaches the importance of effective communication in business. He quotes a droll line from the movie, “Cool Hand Luke:” “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
“I’ve seen that a million times in my career,” Berrien says. “You know, where you think somebody has heard what you said, and then they took it in an entirely different direction.”

Berrien works long hours and does a great deal of business traveling. A Westport, Conn., resident, he takes the 5:55 a.m. train into the city and the 6:30 p.m. train home at night and admits he’s stopped counting the hours. Still, he is determined to achieve balance in his life. If he’s not on the road, he’s always home for dinner with his family. When he travels, he leaves Monday morning rather than Sunday afternoon. He arranges his schedule so he makes it to a majority of his daughters’ games and after-school activities.
His interests are varied. He loves movies, motorcycling, cooking, wine, skiing, golf and travel, and somehow he finds time for all of them.

He also finds time to maintain friendships, even with those who have moved across the globe. Mark Gero keeps in contact even though he now lives in Croatia, where he is working for Abtech Industries, an environmental firm. In an earlier career, Gero was a Broadway producer, who counted “On Golden Pond,” among his credits. He was married to Liza Minnelli, and when they divorced it was a very public spectacle. Gero considers loyalty to be Berrien’s greatest quality.

“It was a tough time for me,” Gero says. “And Jim helped me through it. He’s one of the few people I can easily say I love as a friend. And I think he would say the same thing about me.”

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