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If Organic Were a Country, Maria Rodale Would Be Her Queen. The Mr. Magazine™ Interview with Maria Rodale, Chairman and CEO Rodale, Inc.

December 19, 2014

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“I’m a firm believer in print; I love print and my kids love print. My eight-year-old daughter asked for magazines on her Christmas list, which I think is a good sign. But I think every media finds its place in our lives.” Maria Rodale

CEO, Chairman, businesswoman, activist and mother; Maria Rodale is all of those things and a woman passionate about her family’s business, Rodale Inc. Devoting her life to her grandfather’s vision of an organic lifestyle, Maria believes strongly in the fundamental principles of bettering the planet for future generations and our own. She is a woman who definitely practices what she preaches, a rare trait these days.

Maria worked herself up in the ranks of her family business, learning it from the circulation aspect first, and then direct marketing, all the way up to her position today as Chairman and CEO. In 2013, she created and launched Rodale’s, an online shopping destination that offers healthy solutions for a happy life. Her tireless dedication to her legacy is honorable and was recognized recently by the 21st International Quality of Life Awards where she was one of the recipients of this year’s IQLA Laureate Award.

Upon receiving the award, she gave a moving speech at the United Nations about her passionate beliefs and hopes for our planet and its people. Maria is a woman who truly cares with a deep sincerity that cannot be questioned. Rodale’s success is proof of that.

I spoke with Maria recently about her thoughts of the past year and her vision and the innovations planned for Rodale in 2015. It was a heart-to-heart with someone who presents herself both professionally and as a comfortable friend. I’m sure you will enjoy reading the interview as much as I did participating in it.

So, sit back, relax and read the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Maria Rodale – enjoy!

But first – the sound-bites:

PV0115_NEWS HI On her perceptions of 2014 and her vision for the New Year: This past year for all of us was very challenging, but I also feel it was a very pivotal year. We’re continuing to see our brands, and the healthy active living message, resonate overseas. We’re finishing really strong and are totally prepared for an awesome 2015.

On any unexpected surprises of this past year: Everybody in the industry was probably surprised by how the advertising industry’s year wasn’t their best when it came to magazines.

On her thoughts about print and print plus digital: Magazines used to serve the role that Google does now, but it was a more passive way of helping people find things and get answers. Now magazines are more of a relaxing enjoyable, inspirational and motivational experience.

On service journalism and its impact on Rodale’s success: The idea of service has changed. And it’s a lot more about things that you might not think you want to know, that we’re helping you discover.

On where she sees the majority of Rodale’s revenue coming from in five years: Print will always be a hugely significant revenue and contribution margin source for us, but the growth will be coming from digital, e-commerce and new products that we have not launched yet.

On what motivates and drives her, both professionally and personally: The mission of the business, my personal mission and the mission of the family are all so aligned. And I’m so passionate about that.

OL-TempLogo-BBlueOn her involvement with the relaunch of Organic Gardening as Rodale’s Organic Life.: I don’t have a formal, official role, other than Jim Oseland, who is the editor-in-chief, is coming to me with questions and I’m sort of trying to guide him, but I’m also trying to give him a lot of freedom.

On her expectations for 2015: I believe it’s going to be a good year; I just have this feeling that it is. I could be wrong, I don’t want to jinx it, but as I said, things seem to be stabilizing a bit and we have some great indicators of that.

On the biggest stumbling block she sees for the New Year: That’s a good question. I don’t tend to worry too much about the future and when you asked that question, the first thing that came to mind and the second and third thing, are those unexpected happenings that crop up, those are always the most challenging.

On her thoughts about magazine media’s future and the launching of new titles: I’m inspired by a lot of the really beautiful, high-priced magazines that people are doing today. It’s not the creativity or the spirit of a magazine that’s broken; it’s the whole industry around it.

On the Internet’s capability of satisfying a need with a click of the mouse and how magazine’s need to compete with that: What the Internet has done is made that commerce frictionless. I want something, I push a button and I have it. The magazine industry hasn’t done that yet.

On her preference at home, print or digital: If it’s before my kids go to bed, it will be a laptop, because we’re all together in the kitchen or on the couch. But after they go to bed and I get into bed, I’m a book reader, a real book reader. I do not read on devices unless for some reason I can’t find a book.

On what keeps her up at night: I’m a really good sleeper. (Laughs)

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Maria Rodale, Chairman & CEO, Rodale, Inc.

Samir Husni: First, let me congratulate you for receiving the International Quality of Life Laureate Award, you’re one chairman and CEO who actually practices what you preach.

Maria Rodale: Thank you. I’m constantly attempting to do that, yes.

Samir Husni: As we are approaching the end of 2014 and looking forward to the New Year; how would you evaluate the year that has passed, in terms of Rodale and your print and digital products?

Maria Rodale: This past year for all of us was very challenging, but I also feel it was a very pivotal year. We’ve been working to continue to strengthen our leadership in the health and wellness space by expanding our digital businesses and extending our global footprint – while continuing to cultivate our core publishing areas – and it is paying off.

Thug Kitchen Cover As we’ve worked to broaden its scope this year, Bicycling is a great example of how an enthusiast brand can thrive in a changing media, and it is now number one among monthly magazines in advertising growth. In the books space, we’ve been seeking some edgy titles and we were delighted to see Thug Kitchen: The Official Cookbook land on the New York Times bestseller list.

And we’re continuing to see our brands, and the healthy active living message, resonate overseas. In addition to launches like Men’s Health Mongolia, Women’s Health Portugal and Runner’s World Turkey, we are seeing great success licensing our brands in Europe and with expansion of our events programs. Men’s Health Urbanathlon was held in 20 cities in 14 countries in 2014.

We have brought some great additional talent on board to help grow our business- Beth Buehler joined as our SVP of Digital Operations last winter, Bruce Kelley is the new Editor-in-Chief at Prevention, and we are excited to have Jim Oseland back at Rodale to help launch Rodale’s Organic Life in 2015.

We’re finishing really strong and are totally prepared for an awesome 2015.

Samir Husni: Did you experience any unexpected surprises during 2014?

Maria Rodale: Everybody in the industry was probably surprised by how the advertising industry’s year wasn’t their best when it came to magazines. And one thing that surprised me in a good way was that digital, especially digital books and digital magazine subscriptions seemed to be finding their place. I think people were sort of returning to magazines as a print product and everything has stabilized today.

Samir Husni: As an advocate for everything organic and as someone who is remaking Organic Gardening into Organic Life; how do you foresee the future of print and print plus digital? Are you more for one versus the other, or integration of the two?

Maria_Rodale_0189a Maria Rodale: I’m a firm believer in print; I love print and my kids love print. My eight-year-old daughter asked for magazines on her Christmas list, which I think is a good sign. But I think every media finds its place in our lives. Magazines used to serve the role that Google does now, but it was a more passive way of helping people find things and get answers. Now magazines are more of a relaxing enjoyable, inspirational and motivational experience.

We have to be in close touch with our readers; who they are, what they want and what inspires them. And also bring them in to help us create the product that they want.

Samir Husni: As a publisher of service-oriented magazines, because all of your products, without exception, are service-oriented magazines that require interactivity from the audience. You don’t sit down and read Men’s Health and say, “Oh wow, that’s a great way to lose weight.” You have to work on it. Do you think the service journalism aspect helped Rodale with its success of those titles and also with bringing in new titles?

BI010215_NEWS HI Maria Rodale: I think it was both a plus and a minus. We use the example of: if you want to learn how to change a tire on your bicycle, you’re not going to wait for a copy of the magazine to tell you, you’re going to go online and find out how to change a tire. You need to know at that moment.

So, the idea of service has changed. And it’s a lot more about things that you might not think you want to know, that we’re helping you discover. And it’s also making sure that they can find us when they do need to change their tire. And at bicycling.com we make that very easy. It’s kind of moving the service information around.

Samir Husni: You are expanding in both directions, print and digital. Where do you see Rodale’s major revenue coming from in five years, print or digital?

MH010215_NEWS HI Maria Rodale: Print will always be a hugely significant revenue and contribution margin source for us, but the growth will be coming from digital, e-commerce and new products that we have not launched yet, but are in the works.

Samir Husni: Such as?

Maria Rodale: I would put Rodale Organic Life in that category.

Samir Husni: When I told people I was interviewing Maria Rodale, they said what I said at the beginning of our talk: here is a woman who practices what she teaches. And the speech that you gave at the United Nations; there was a lot of merging of your business and personal life in that speech. What drives you, Maria? What makes you tick? What makes you say “Wow” when you wake up?

Maria Rodale: The mission of the business, my personal mission and the mission of the family are all so aligned. And I’m so passionate about that. It may sound funny to a lot of people in the industry, but it’s really love of doing what we do and love of seeing us make a difference in people’s lives and seeing the progress.

When my grandfather started the organic movement, people said he was crazy and now everyone wants organic. That kind of change that you see over the long-term, and the fact that we as a family are in it for the long-term, is what drives all of us to be passionate about what we do.

For me personally, there’s not that much of a distinction between work and family. I love my family and I love my work and I love our company and our brand. When you operate from a place of passion, it just makes everything more fun.

Samir Husni: Are we going to see more of that passion in the new magazine Organic Life? And how much will you be involved in that?

Maria Rodale: I don’t have a formal, official role, other than Jim Oseland, who is the editor-in-chief, is coming to me with questions and I’m sort of trying to guide him, but I’m also trying to give him a lot of freedom. I love to give people freedom to express their own creativity and he has tons of it, so I’m as excited as everyone else is to see how it comes out. I know it’s going to be amazing because he’s so passionate about it.

Samir Husni: What are your forecasts for 2015 and your expectations for the coming year?

Maria Rodale: I believe it’s going to be a good year; I just have this feeling that it is. I could be wrong, I don’t want to jinx it, but as I said, things seem to be stabilizing a bit and we have some great indicators of that.

The hardest thing to deal with is people’s mindset about change and getting them to be open to doing things in a new way. I feel as a company we’re in a place where everybody is really ready and excited about doing things in a new way. And I believe that’s where you have to be have a good year.

Samir Husni: What do you believe will be your largest stumbling block in 2015 and what are you prepared to do to overcome it?

RW0115_NEWS HI Maria Rodale: That’s a good question. I don’t tend to worry too much about the future and when you asked that question, the first thing that came to mind and the second and third thing, are those unexpected happenings that crop up, those are always the most challenging. Whether it’s an environmental crisis or a weather crisis, some kind of political crisis; those are the types of things that tend to impact the industry and the entire world and sometimes make people stop buying or selling and you can’t control that. You just have to be prepared to keep moving forward, no matter what happens.

And to me the most important thing is that we make ourselves really useful to people and to our advertisers and continue to do everything with as much integrity as possible.

Samir Husni: You’re known for your Tweets and the industry follows you from them. If you were going to compose a Tweet for people who want to start a new magazine or for those who want to enter our profession; what would you tell them in a Tweet?

Maria Rodale: Have cash. (Laughs) Have creativity and don’t give up.

Samir Husni: You sound on the positive side, that there is still room for more new magazines.

WH010215_NEWS HI Maria Rodale: Yes. I’m inspired by a lot of the really beautiful, high-priced magazines that people are doing today. I actually had a conversation with one woman who launched a magazine, one that I would call from the Brooklyn (New York) publishing scene, and was very inspired by her passion and creativity and the scrappiness, but yet the beauty of it. But, in prompting her, I think we both realized it’s not the creativity or the spirit of a magazine that’s broken, it’s the whole industry around it. It’s newsstand and how people buy magazines and what they expect from the whole process.

What the Internet has done is made that commerce frictionless. I want something, I push a button and I have it. The magazine industry hasn’t done that yet. And that’s where I think we need to get to.

Samir Husni: How do you propose to solve that?

Maria Rodale: I know that we’re planning on undertaking a whole series of different tests this year. Creative tests and offer tests, because if we just hand the business over to Amazon or other third party people who know how to do that, we lose quite a bit. The whole value is in the sort of multi-opportunity for sale. And we lose that when we let a third party do it for us, at least for Rodale.

Samir Husni: Let me shift gears a little and ask you: if somebody comes to visit you at home in the evening and you’re sitting on your couch; what will they see in your hands, a printed magazine, an iPad, or a book? What do you prefer when it’s your “me time?”

Maria Rodale: If it’s before my kids go to bed, it will be a laptop, because we’re all together in the kitchen or on the couch. My kids are doing their homework and I’m doing mine and we’re all in the same room together, all on our own devices.

But after they go to bed and I get into bed, I’m a book reader, a real book reader. I do not read on devices unless for some reason I can’t find a book and that’s the only way I can read it. Magazines for me tend to be more: it’s the weekend, all my chores are done and my work is done and it’s my reward. Or I just need a break.

Samir Husni: Anything you’d like to add?

Maria Rodale: Just that I’m generally optimistic about the future and I’m even more optimistic about the human ability to be resilient and to adapt. And I believe in our power to create a positive world, if we think in a positive way. So, I don’t let things worry me too much. I’ve had so much tragedy in my life and one thing that teaches you is to just enjoy every day as if it’s your last because you never know. Every night when I go to bed, I’m just so thankful that I’ve had another day to make a difference in the world.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps Maria up at night?

Maria Rodale: I’m a really good sleeper. (Laughs) Not much keeps me up.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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