Remembering my father, Malcolm Forbes, on his 100th birthday
During his 36 years as editor, Malcolm Forbes transformed the small family-owned publishing house into a world-renowned brand, steeped in power, entrepreneurship and wealth. On the occasion of his 100th birthday, we are publishing a series of articles about him and the very rich world he created and lived.
Myour father would like have been comfortable in this age of social media, a time when what we call “branding” is more important than ever. The internet is relentlessly trivializing everything, and unless you have a distinct product or service, your business will die. MSF would have prospered!
Pop’s hot air ballooning, motorcycling, boating, collecting and entertaining Pop, as well as his creation and orchestra of memorable events, all had the goal of making Forbes synonymous with entrepreneurial success and good life. It worked. When he took over the business after the untimely death of his older brother Bruce from cancer, Forbes was hardly known outside of the American business world. By the time Pop passed away in 1990, the Forbes name had acquired an overwhelmingly positive image around the world that companies many times our size could only envy. Despite all the upheaval and deep anxiety the internet has brought to older printing companies like ours, the Forbes brand is stronger than ever in the world.
My dad knew that the first task of successful branding is to produce a distinct, premium product. That’s why in 1945, when he joined the company his father had founded in 1917, after being seriously injured while serving as a machine gunner in WWII, he immediately focused on improving editorial content of the magazine. Barely surviving depression, Forbes had limped through the 1930s and the war years eclipsed by its competitors. The content was mostly independent material of varying quality. MSF began the process of hiring a top-notch full-time editorial team, rightly believing that this would greatly improve the magazine.
One of MSF’s innovations dates from January 1949, when Forbes presented what would become its annual report on industries and businesses, thus starting to build its statistical muscle. January had traditionally been the deadliest month of the year for advertising, but with the advent of this issue, it has grown into one of the best.
Pop’s best hire was James Michaels, who went on to become the publication’s longtime editor and did more than anyone else to bring Forbeseditorial dominance and prominence. We developed a well-deserved reputation for hard-hitting stories that rated companies the same way insightful critics reviewed plays. What made these pieces true was our growing sophistication in digging into corporate balance sheets in ways that no other publication could. My dad, who micromanaged this business, told me more than once that Michaels was a genius, and that’s why, unlike other key people, Pop gave him a big place.
One of my father’s most successful innovations after the war was to launch “The Forbes Investor,” a weekly newsletter that recommended stocks and analyzed market news from the previous week. His boldest move here: to set the newsletter price at $ 35 a year, a huge sum in an economy whose nominal GDP was about one-eightieth of that of today (Forbes subscriptions cost $ 4 per year or less) and production costs were only a small fraction of the magazine’s. The newsletter was an instant success and provided the capital to revamp the business.
With a stronger product and corporate track record, Malcolm set out to make Forbes a company in a class of its own.
MSF has done things that no traditional CEO would do. He put together an impressive collection of Faberge eggs and used them in advertisements to make it clear that Forbes was to business what Peter Carl Fabergé was to exquisite jewelry of unparalleled beauty. The eggs were on display in the lobby of our old headquarters, an impressive reminder that Forbes was different from the usual commercial enterprise. Eggs and other Faberge pieces were also a great investment, as Pop bought most of them before others realized how real treasures they were. He also collected American presidential and historical letters, manuscripts and memorabilia, toy boats and toy soldiers, and exhibited them along with Fabergé’s eggs and coins in a museum open to the public, which he built. and connected to the hall of the company’s headquarters. The presentations were made in a very non-museum style that delighted hundreds of thousands of visitors, especially children. Pop also acquired exotic properties in the United States and around the world, which added even more glamor to the Forbes brand.
To help garner editorial information and advertising funds, Malcolm regularly offered elaborate CEO lunches in the Brownstone house connected to our corporate headquarters. Each guest was bombarded with questions and, before leaving, was given an advertising pitch. A silver mug made by Tiffany, bearing the individual’s name and the date of the lunch and engraved on the bottom with a Forbes deer head, would then be sent to each guest, with the information that another mug with the same inscription would hang from the Brownstone wine cellar, allowing the guest to come at any time to try the wine. It was a good Scottish offer: no one ever came by because, as my father liked to say, no one wanted to look like they were ‘a lush’.
One of the most powerful weapons to woo advertisers was to entertain influencers and ad makers on board. the mountain dweller. Almost every night of the week, a group of about 80 guests, hosted by our vendors, cruised around Manhattan. After the event, each guest will soon receive a diploma-like certificate designating them as Honorary Captain of the mountain dweller. No competitor could match that. Every few years a new, bigger and more spectacular version of the ship was built. Pop looked at the designs and furnishings with the kind of intense care Steve Jobs gave to his Apple devices. Surprisingly, the business gained by this use of the mountain dweller Way over spending until the 2008 economic downturn, then we finally sold it.
Pop has always sought to market in an imaginative way. For example, in the 1960s, China’s murderous dictator Mao Zedong published countless copies of a little red book titled Chairman Mao’s words, which the Chinese people were supposed to own and wield at public gatherings. In response, my father issued the President Malcolm’s words, its colored cover in silver green and gold and its pages filled with several of his lapidary aphorisms. To get it off to a good start, he dedicated it not to a person or two, but to some 5,000 influential friends, family, relatives, business associates and advertising makers. That’s right, much of the book has been devoted to listing all of these names. Now, who wouldn’t keep – or, better yet, buy and distribute – a book dedicated to him? Needless to say, while its volume never matched Mao’s forced distribution levels, it has performed quite well in the open market.
This playful creativity and marketing was also displayed in several land development projects Forbes had on a huge Colorado ranch that we had purchased. These businesses required the construction of many roads. How to call them? Once again, the names of important businessmen, children, grandchildren, in-laws, friends and business colleagues were chosen. The lucky nominees were mailed a sturdy and beautifully designed road sign with their name, along with a letter announcing the honor and a map showing where “their” route was.
Forbes’ special events have also gained a reputation for spectacular excitement and imagination. For example, Forbes celebrated her 70th birthday at MSF’s home in New Jersey. Customers still remember the 70 bagpipers descending a hill, appearing to emerge from the mists of the nearby woods. Dozens of helicopters had ferried into the company tycoons. It’s no surprise that the biggest helicopter belonged to Donald Trump.
Such events have not met with universal approval. To some foreigners, this business seemed like an unnecessary extravaganza. But, in fact, they were the opposite: they helped create Forbespowerful global image. Even today, many businessmen and artists consider that by making the cover of Forbes as the ultimate proof of their achievements. Talk about brand!
I mentioned at the beginning how my father would have embraced today’s new media world like a duck in the water. It would also work well in other respects. He was a very generous and compassionate man, donating considerable sums to many causes – including those then not fashionable at the time, such as prisoner rehabilitation efforts – and to individuals (in large numbers case, the beneficiary never knew who his benefactor was). But he wouldn’t have a truck with bad business practices. He believed, like his father, that the ultimate goal of business is, indeed, to produce happiness, not to accumulate money.
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