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Little Big Man

Chris Meigher sold his dream of a brave new publishing company to friends, financiers, and employees, who anted up $30 million to make it happen. But when Meigher Communications, so did his reputation.

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"Hear ye, hear ye!," cried Chris Meigher, glowing with pride through his palm Beach tan. It was May 1996, and a few hours earlier, Saveur, Meigher's fledgling high-end food magazine, had won two National Magazine Awards. His tie loosened, jacket off, French cuffs rolled up on his perfectly tailored and starched shirt, Meigher faced the staff of the magazine and raised a glass of champagne to their success.

His success. Uptown at the awards, Meigher had shelled out for two tables for his nascent magazine company, the one that was supposed to be different, noncorporate, nonheirarchical. After giddily toasting editor-in-chief Dorothy Kalins and creative director Michael Grossman, he moved on to rally the rest of his staff, who crowded into a back corner of the scruffy Sixth Avenue loft that served as headquarters for Meigher Communications.

Meigher, a 23-year Time Inc. veteran, went on to deliver a folksy speech stocked with his favorite catchphrases -- "shoulder to the wheel . . . nose to the grindstone . . . sliding into home" -- delivered with the buoyant enthusiasm of a QVC pitchman. His audience ate it up.

"You could see these Moonie-ish young kids looking up at this guy," recalls one former employee. He sold them the print version of what became the dot-com dream. One staff member remembers him talking about building "a different kind of company, and everyone is going to benefit from having a piece of the pie. Everyone was going to get rich."

Many of the employees present that day were what Meigher called "stakeholders" -- they all owned a piece of the company. "My proudest moment," he liked to tell them, "will be when I have 50 people here who are millionaires when we go public in four years."

"The funny thing is, I still like Chris," says Quest founder Heather Cohane. "But for some reason, he seemed incapable of making any money."

At the time, Meigher's company published a grand total of three small magazines, Saveur, Garden Design, and Quest. But that, Meigher had assured his staff, was only the beginning. Meigher Communications was founded as an egalitarian, no-frills antidote to bureaucratic behemoths like Time Inc. and Condé Nast. In an industry producing mass-market blockbusters like In Style, Meigher pitched itself as "the Tiffany of publishers," delivering high-quality products to discerning readers. The idea was to bring "passion" back to magazines, so readers (and advertisers) would pay more for them.

Well spoken and charismatic, Meigher sold this vision to eager investors, including old friends from Time Inc., old tennis pals, AT&T Ventures, Allen & Co., even the Dartmouth Alumni Fund, not to mention many of his employees. One woman who worked in the personnel department even anted up (and lost) her quarter-million-dollar divorce settlement.

"We were all refugees from big corporations, coming here to start a different kind of company," says Michael Grossman. "We were going to be smart and cheap and not pay ourselves much, and then when it succeeded -- we'd have our stock warrants."

And for a while, it looked like they would succeed. Lavish and literate, Saveur and Garden Design seemed to prove that it was possible. They launched in 1994 at 100,000 each, growing every year in both buzz and circulation; today, Saveur's circulation is 375,000 and Garden Design's 425,000. But they were recognized for quality too: Garden Design has been nominated for three National Magazine Awards and Saveur thirteen. In 1997, Ad Age named Saveur Magazine of the Year, commending Meigher for having made "a high-risk gamble in a narrow niche and invested heavily in production quality."

The company also made steady gains in advertising. Heading up a small team against larger and better-funded rivals like Gourmet and Cooking Light, publishing director Joe Armstrong coaxed national advertisers into boutique books and showed that a gardening magazine could traffic in ads for Tiffany instead of just Garden Weasels. Whenever a big sale was made, he clanged a cowbell, bringing work to a standstill in the crowded SoHo loft that served as the company's headquarters. "It was fabulous," says Dorothy Kalins. "It was almost too high not to fall."

And then, to the dismay of all those stakeholders, the company did fall -- amid a flurry of nasty charges and countercharges that may end up in court. As the founders began feuding, Armstrong angrily departed, followed by much of his sales team, and advertising plummeted. Through 1999, Meigher Communications was limping, running out of cash and the confidence of its backers. Earlier this year, the company was finally sold at a fire-sale price to a Florida-based publisher that specializes in water-sports magazines. After a $30 million investment, Meigher's shell-shocked stakeholders got $7 million for Saveur and Garden Design. Meigher managed to raise an additional $800,000 to hold on to the third and smallest title, the society chronicle Quest.


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