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Little Big Man

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As Meigher's financial situation worsened, the founders began plotting their own (and one another's) exits. First to go was Joe Armstrong, who in the fall of 1997 defected to Worth Media. Meigher insists he planned to fire Armstrong but was beaten to the punch. "As it turns out -- how do I say this? -- Joe's Rolodex, which is part of his own persona, doesn't sell ad pages," says Meigher. "I brought in $60 million in ads with a staff of six," sputters Armstrong. "How can he say that?"

As soon as Armstrong announced he was departing, Meigher banished him from his office and shut off his voice mail. "It was like a divorce," says one ex-employee. Armstrong's departure seemed to coincide with the end of Meigher Communications' honeymoon with the local media. Some blame the subsequent bad press on Armstrong. Armstrong vehemently denies this. "I never went out and trashed the company," he says. "I had my savings in there. What would be the point?"

In any case, the departure preceded a mass exodus. By then, Meigher's business model had broken down, too. Alarmed at the deteriorating situation at the company, Meigher's top investors demanded out. Veronis Suhler, a leading magazine broker, was hired to try to sell the company. The initial asking price was $70 million, a figure that plunged dramatically as the company ran out of money -- and time. "People loved the magazines but didn't want the overhead that went with them," says a former executive. "Our big mistake was in not having a strategic partner who would have been more comfortable with the situation," says Meigher. Instead, he ended up with investors who wanted "fast returns" -- not likely in the magazine business.

Meigher wanted a buyer who'd let him stay at the helm. "Hearst, Condé Nast, Time, Newsweek . . . I don't think I missed a one," he says. "Everyone thought the scale was too small."

But if Meigher was too small for Condé Nast, it was just the right size for Terry Snow, the soft-spoken CEO of World Publications. Snow started his Florida-based, fourteen-magazine empire 21 years ago, when he was two years out of the University of Florida, and launched a magazine called Water Skiing. Afterward, he says, "we launched a windsurfing magazine, then Sport Fishing. We've had no failures on any of our launches," he adds.

Initially, Snow offered Meigher $14 million for his company, an offer he declined. By year's end, the offer had dwindled to $7 million. "Their back was against the wall," admits Snow. "So they sold. I marvel at how little it sold for. Those are two good magazines." A rival publisher notes thatSaveur's subscriber list alone was worth more than Snow paid for the company.

But Snow had no use for Quest. "Um, it didn't really fit with what we do," he says, adding pointedly, "I think it fit well with Chris Meigher and maybe his personal lifestyle. But my focus is on building a business." His plan? More synergy. The Internet. Marketing. "It's not so much that they didn't have the money to do things," he says. "It's just where they chose to spend their money." He laughs. "Car services, charity functions, stationery. Stuff that didn't have a return."

These days, a chastened Meigher is busying himself with a pared-down Quest. He has a brand-new partner, Susan Obrecht, an Erin Brockovich-like divorcée who used to own Baltimore and some weekly newspapers in the Washington, D.C., area. She'd wanted to buy Quest herself, but Meigher beat her to it, with the help of a pal who kicked in $500,000.

"I am an investor, business partner, and turnaround specialist," says Obrecht, who also is the COO. "It's a terrific business." Meigher says she's the "minority partner."

Last March, Quest hired a new editor, Sean Murphy, the 35-year-old head fact checker at Vanity Fair. Murphy says he has no qualms about going into business with Meigher. "I believe that people are able to redeem themselves," he says.

Meigher and Murphy are now working on a new, improved Quest -- bolder, glossier. Listening to him talk about it, one can easily see how he persuaded Kalins and Armstrong to join him. "Quest will become a portal to enjoy their lifestyle more and more," he says. "They'll get their stocks and photos and hyperlink to Tiffany's or make reservations at Swifty's or '21.' "

The five people who started Meigher Communications are now scattered through New York's publishing world. Peabody is CEO of Weider Communications, a company that publishes physique magazines. Armstrong is vice-president of Talk. Kalins and Grossman have remained with Snow's company, where their magazines continue to earn praise, if not yet profits. Last May, Saveur won its third National Magazine Award; Kalins took the stage and thanked Snow for "giving us our dreams back."

Meigher, of course, has new dreams of his own. The past three years, he says, have been "very tough," and his tan seems a bit faded. When he thinks back about the first award, back in 1996, he turns a little weepy. "Now," he says, "you're making me feel nostalgic!"


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