Little Big Man

“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.

All of this has made Chris Meigher, now 53, one of the most controversial publishing figures in New York, praised by some as a visionary and denounced by others as a slick huckster. An immaculately groomed, perpetually tanned man who favors Saville Row suits and spit-shined elevator shoes, he is prone to Napoleonic bouts of grandiosity. “I don’t know what his blood pressure is, but it looks high,” says his friend Graydon Carter. “He’s a very type-A personality.” But even his detractors concede that he is a skilled salesman and canny fighter whose skills have earned him a succession of high-profile magazine jobs. In the early eighties, he was even in line to become CEO of Time Inc. but was exiled from the company after a bruising power struggle. “He’s like this character out of Greek mythology,” says a former colleague. “Every time he comes close to succeeding, his arrogance and hubris do him in. Ultimately, Chris is his own worst enemy.”

Meigher is aware, of course, that more than a few people blame him for the demise of his company – and their dreams. Now ensconced at Quest, whose offices are a few floors above his old one, Meigher pushes back from his L-shaped desk, an ankle crossed over the other knee. Surrounded by bookcases, boat models, and stacks of the antique leather briefcases he collects, he has little room to move.

“I’m mad, too!” he counters. “I think in a lot of ways we were all betrayed.” He blames, among others, his investors for cutting off the cash, his partner for losing faith, and his former publishing director for not producing enough revenue. And he argues that his magazines “got caught in a time warp of a changing industry.”

But even as Meigher presses on with his new project, he’s still cleaning up after the old one. He frets openly that the publicity over Meigher Communications’ downfall might prompt the “doctors and dentists” who invested in the company to sue him for malfeasance. Quest’s founder claims that Meigher still owes her money. Meigher mutters darkly that it will all become clear in court.

For most of his life, Stephen Christopher Meigher III led a charmed existence. His father was a wealthy surgeon at New York Hospital who moved the family upstate when Christopher was young. Chris was sent to Albany Academy, a military school, where he was quarterback and lettered in football, swimming, and baseball before following his father to Dartmouth.

He joined Time Inc. fresh out of college in 1968. “His was a meteoric career,” remembers a colleague. “He carried himself with this incredible high-Wasp confidence.” Starting as direct-mail manager for Time in 1968, he became circulation director of Fortune, then Sports Illustrated, then Time, then all of Time Inc. In 1982, he was appointed publisher of People. “He was part of that last generation that rose in the company because of their social polish, the clubs they belong to,” says a colleague. When he ran the corporate circulation department, he stocked it so full of Ivy Leaguers that other employees nicknamed it the Yacht Club. “He always seemed like someone who didn’t need to work,” remembers one editor.

But it was Time Publishing Ventures, which he took over in 1988, that solidified Meigher’s reputation as an entrepreneur. During his tenure, he bankrolled Parenting, Cooking Light, and Emerge, and acquired Sunset, a successful West Coast lifestyle magazine. But his biggest score was Martha Stewart Living. When Stewart approached Time, Meigher says, she had already been turned down by Condé Nast and was “little more than a Westport caterer who’d written a successful cookbook.” Within two years, her magazine was selling 725,000 copies and had spawned its own multimedia empire. By the late eighties, Meigher was mentioned as a possible contender to take over the job of Time Inc. CEO Reg Brack. Meigher heard the rumors, too. “It wasn’t just in the back of my head,” he says today. “People whisper things to you.”

Not everyone at the company was whispering nice things. “Chris embodied the best and the worst of Time Inc. culture,” says one of his former colleagues. “He had the right background and breeding. He was very smart. But he was the most political animal at Time Inc., which was a very political organization.” Meigher’s ambition for the top job put him in competition with two other executives at the company. Like Meigher, Bob Miller and Don Elliman were ambitious young men with impeccable résumés, and their ill-concealed rivalry transfixed the company.

But as time went on, there was a consensus that Meigher had taken it too far. “Chris spent 95 percent of his energy managing upwards,” says another executive. “Anyone who came into contact with him knew he’d do anything to attain that end.”

In time, Brack became tired of the infighting and fretted that Meigher was trying to destabilize him. In June 1992, knowledgeable sources say, he called the shocked 45-year-old into his office and fired him. Meigher insists he left of his own volition, but on the day Meigher announced his resignation “to pursue other opportunities,” Brack gave the president’s job to an uncontroversial dark-horse contender named Don Logan, who had headed up the company’s Southern Progress division in Birmingham, Alabama.

Meigher took his multi-million-dollar settlement and set out in search of new opportunities. His role model, says one associate, was Michael Bloomberg, who used his $20 million severance package from Salomon Brothers in 1981 to build his own media conglomerate. “Chris was sure he would show them up someday,” says one longtime associate. “He wanted his new venture to be a big fuck-you to all his old colleagues.”

When Meigher started his new venture in 1992, he envisioned an entrepreneurial kind of magazine company, one that would somehow encompass the synergistic innovations he’d learned from Martha Stewart. He partnered with a venture capitalist, Doug Peabody, whom he’d become close to while they both served on the board of America Online. Meigher invested $1.5 million; Peabody put up $1.2 million, and Meigher Communications was born.

At first, the two men seemed like ideal partners. While Peabody was the back-office man, the gregarious Meigher was the company’s public face. “Chris is a dazzling salesman,” says a colleague. “I never cease to be amazed by the way he works a room; it’s like he’s on fire. He looks in people’s faces and gets off on their energy. By the end, he has people eating out of his hand.”

Among his first hires was Dorothy Kalins, a well-regarded editor who had previously headed up Apartment Life and Metropolitan Home. When Meigher first approached her, Kalins was on maternity leave and trying to develop a new kind of food magazine – an unpretentious glossy she wanted to call Real Food.

Installed at his usual table at The Four Seasons, Meigher wooed the editor furiously. Like Kalins, he believed that magazines were in a slump partly because readers had become disaffected. And if you could make magazines that were powerful, well-executed editorial products, people would pay a premium for them. Kalins signed on as Meigher’s editorial director.

Meigher next approached Michael Grossman, the talented design director of Entertainment Weekly, who became creative director. Joe Armstrong, an impeccably connected Texan and a former publisher of Rolling Stone and New York, was tapped as Meigher’s publishing director. Working for reduced salaries, the three channeled their own savings into the new company, with the promise of an IPO down the line. “We thought we were building a better world down there,” says Armstrong. “We took his promises and combined them with our hopes.”

In June 1994, the team moved to an all-white, full-floor loft at 100 Sixth Avenue, decorated with heavy bookcases and Mission-style furniture. “At first, we thought we’d start or buy two magazines a year,” says Armstrong, adding that Meigher told him he had huge lines of credit – hundreds of millions of dollars. So it made sense when he talked about buying Fairchild or starting a stateside edition of Hello!

Early on, Meigher passed on Wallpaper* and Fast Company, both of which went on to be hugely successful. “We did prototypes for about a dozen other magazines,” says Kalins, including a shelter magazine and a travel-adventure book. But none of them seemed to work.

Saveur, loosely based on the French magazine Saveurs, was intended to be a plusher, more sophisticated answer to how-to food magazines like Bon Appetit and Gourmet. Garden Design was originally the in-house magazine of the American Society of Landscape Architects, relaunched to capitalize on baby-boomers’ obsession with their own backyards.

Also in 1994, the company purchased Smart Health, a venture that developed publications and in-house newsletters for hundreds of hospitals. A few years later, Meigher teamed up with Ikea to publish the design store’s in-house glossy, Space. And in an attempt to curry favor with Ralph Lauren, Meigher agreed to counsel Lauren’s son, David, on Swing, his ill-fated generational monthly.

But nothing consumed Meigher more than Quest, the society magazine he purchased from its founder, Heather Cohane, a combination of social dish, party pics, and real-estate ads that is distributed free in upscale buildings, primarily on Manhattan’s East Side.

Snow had no use for Quest. “It just didn’t fit,” says the company’s new owner. “It fit well with Meigher’s lifestyle. But my focus is on building a business.”

A charmingly eccentric British-born socialite, Cohane ran her magazine on the cheap; presiding over a staff of three, she sold ads and snapped most of the party pictures herself. But Meigher had grander plans for Quest: He wanted to convert the 10021-based magazine into a nationwide must-read for the socially ambitious, an Americanized Tatler.

According to Cohane, though Meigher promised to keep her on as editor, one morning “this guy shows up at the office and says Meigher had appointed him editor. Chris never told me a word. I cried for hours.” The guy was Brooks Peters, an art writer and Princeton graduate who lasted at the company for a year.

Cohane, meanwhile, remained at Quest – often in the company of her four little dogs, says one colleague: “I’d be trying to sell an ad to ABC Carpet & Home, and one of the dogs would be yapping or throwing up. It was a circus.” One of the dogs happened to be named Peabody, a source of great amusement to the staff.

Quest, however, was no laughing matter to Meigher, who colleagues say took an obsessive interest in its editorial content, putting his family and friends in its pages and pulling photos and articles he didn’t like. “He was a horror show,” says one former employee. “He micromanaged Quest in the worst way. He frittered away countless hours rearranging party pictures while important things went undone.”

In time, Peters departed and was replaced by former Hamptons editor Kristina Stewart, a teetotaling Mormon with an encyclopedic knowledge of New York’s social mores. Stewart spiked Quest’s usual quotient of social fluff with more pointed pieces, including an exposé on the city’s top private schools, and the magazine gained in both circulation and clout. But sources say the 29-year-old editor came to resent Meigher’s meddling and the general loopiness that had descended on Quest’s offices. She left this spring to become society editor at Vanity Fair and declined to comment for this article.

By 1998, employees began leaving in droves. Even Cohane recently left Quest for Gotham, a new start-up by Hamptons publisher Jason Binn. But shortly after the sale, she reminisced about her wild ride with Meigher. Seated in the living room of her penthouse on the Upper East Side, she wore a pair of sunglasses, her face swathed in floral scarves to conceal a fresh face-lift. “The funny thing is, I still like Chris,” she said, choosing her words. “But he’s prone to these extreme extravagances and character changes. For some reason, he seemed incapable of making money.”

Making money wasn’t Meigher’s sole motivation. The magazines, especially Quest, provided him and his wife with the social entrée he seemed to crave – from a prominent table at Swifty’s to seats at benefit dinners, often paid for by the company.

One acquaintance describes the Meighers as the picture-book family, tanned, aristocratic, and rich. Meigher’s wife, Grace, is a notable beauty whom Meigher’s admiring colleagues at Time Inc. dubbed Grace the Face. His two daughters, social and attractive, went to St. Paul’s and followed their father to Dartmouth. In New York, the Meighers live in a second-floor co-op on East 72nd Street, with canoes and oars and animal heads on the walls. In Palm Beach, he owns a Spanish-style mansion close to the ocean that he rented out during his troubles last winter to millionaire David Koch. His family also owns an island compound in the Adirondacks, close to Lake George and Graydon Carter. Still, he seemed dissatisfied with his social standing. His prolific name-dropping is much remarked upon by friends and colleagues. “He was always talking a big game,” says one socialite. “It was so unnecessary.”

Early on, Meigher had talked about acquiring dozens of magazines, but after Quest, no new deals took place. In fact, in order to pay off a short-term loan, the company sold its most profitable title, Smart Health, in 1997. Another early failure was Meigher Communications’ $1 million bet on a Web venture called Europe Online. Founded in 1995, it was to be the America Online of Europe, but the project, overseen by Peabody, got bogged down among the various countries and companies involved. With each failure, tensions between Meigher and Peabody increased; by the end, they had escalated into full warfare. One day, Peabody showed a copy of Meigher’s expense report to a colleague: It totaled $300,000 a year. In a company founded on frugality, this kind of extravagance rubbed his employees the wrong way. Some complained that he had a limousine waiting for him all day outside the office. Meigher points out that the “limousine” was actually a chauffeured Mercedes station wagon. “It’s ten years old and has 172,000 miles on it. I let the garage guy drive it. He won, I won.”

“He would say we were doing Saveur on a shoestring,” says one embittered veteran. “Bull. There was no shoestring. There was never any money to do anything. You couldn’t take a taxi to midtown. There was a feeling that he didn’t share in suffering.” Meigher replies that the criticism of his spending and style is “foolish” and “unfair.” His partnership agreement, he says, limited his salary to $200,000 a year, much less than CEOs of comparable publishing companies. He claims his expenses added up to “just $3,750 a month.” “My lifestyle is secondary to my professional goals,” Meigher says. “It’s important to be around in the community when you’re expanding in these areas.”

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!”

Little Big Man