Who Was Your First Career Gamechanger?
Malcolm Forbes proved that you have to change your life to change your career.
“To measure the man, measure his heart.” ― Malcolm Forbes
In 1990, a yellow taxi dropped me on lower 5th Avenue a block or two where Greenwich Village meets Little Italy. It was bitterly cold, and I yanked the belt on my trench coat. A red Mercedes honked the horn for no particular reason. He might have been a jerk or simply a New Yorker who enjoys this sort of thing. It worked. Next thing I’m stumbling forward trying to prop myself on an umbrella when a dog walker passes by and kindly asks, “are you okay?”
I say, “I’m fine. Do you know where I can find Forbes Magazine?”
He wears a funny expression like I’m pulling his leg. Instead of making a snide remark, “really, you’re kidding, right?” which would have been appropriate, he replied, “Good news. You’ve arrived.”
As if I had a rendezvous with destiny.
In front of me stood a tall, elegant building in the Beaux-arts manner with pillared architecture and handsome casement windows> It overlooked a background of old trees lining St Presby’s nursery school across the street. The rain-dampened limestone facade was dark gray, creating an illusion of a London street near Whitehall, which was appropriate as a palimpsest of British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s name could be discerned above the entrance. He published Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone With The Wind,” making him the most successful publisher in America during his tenure. That was huge in 1936. Nearly sixty years later, the current occupant had grander ambitions.
And I was about to become a part of them.
The Gothic Cathedral next door once counted President Teddy Roosevelt among its parishioners. To fit into the neighborhood's prestige, Macmillan commissioned two renowned architectural firms to make sure his dream of grandeur would not bother the locals. Previously, Carrere & Hastings and Shreve Lamb & Harmon had completed the New York Public Library and the Empire State Building. Their latest collaboration was practically a Cole Porter song, “the Coliseum, the Louver Museum, it was the top.” A Manhattan real estate broker said it best: “aristocratic.”
It was not clear at that moment, but this would be a dominant theme of great power in the future.
The massive double doors of Forbes Magazine’s headquarters opened to reveal an interior as voluptuous as it was opulent, evocative of Merchant and Ivory’s The Remains of the Day, complete with a valet emerging from behind a curtain. I was “Alice in Wonderland,” peering over the edge of the rabbit hole. The gods of irony had tuned in as a dapper young waiter approached at that precise moment. He delicately balanced a silver tray containing a steaming Wedgwood teapot in his right hand. What now, I wondered?
“Do you prefer milk or no milk?”
The mansion was so much more than a company headquarters. Mucky-mucks who came and went as frequently as high rollers in Las Vegas viewed it as the Vatican minus the crosses and Cardinal’s biretta. They were here to kiss the ring of the Pope, Malcolm Forbes, our impresario in chief. Other attractions included the chance to gossip and promote their story while dining in a manner few outside of Buckingham Palace would have thought possible, all the while contemplating the mysteries of the capitalist universe.
What was even more improbable was the reason for my visit. I was going to ask for a job.
Malcolm ( everyone called him by his first name) was a modern Medici driven by a similar compulsion to beautify every square inch of space. Paintings that portrayed deep and occasionally dark emotions hung on walls delicately lined with old-world chic Toile de Jouy fabric depicting vintage life. His tastes ranged from the traditional to whimsical with the unifying theme, “truth is beauty,” recalling Keats. If it moved him, gave him goosebumps, it was true. It didn’t matter whether it was fashion. If he liked it, that was good enough. And because he liked it, it became fashionable. Each piece in his treasure garden of toy boats, toy soldiers, motorcycles, and priceless art scored high on the reality Richter scale.
He felt about food as he did about art. If the food was true, he ate it. Otherwise, he would mock, “not worth the calories.” Guests for dinner enjoyed fine cuisine by a chef trained at the Culinary Institute of America (or ‘CIA’ in cook land) and were given the option of any bottle from a world-class wine cellar. On the other hand, Malcolm preferred his glass of Bordeaux paired with a Big Mac. He combined highbrow sophistication with peasant tastes because that was his truth. He was equally skilled at polishing brass, referring to the high and mighty who came to visit, always bestowing a parting gift of a Tiffany stirrup cup engraved with their name.
It led to the first rule of winning hearts and minds. People adore themselves. You could give them an engraved milk bottle, and they cherish it for life.
The second rule was having a destination. Malcolm was a practitioner of Lao Tzu’s philosophy. In the 4th century B.C., he famously suggested that ‘A journey of a thousand miles starts beneath one’s feet’ (often mistranslated as “begins with a single step”). Malcolm would add one postscript. It isn’t a journey until there is a destination. That was how he found himself on the roof.
From the eighth-floor solarium, he could see the Hudson and East Rivers down to Wall Street, and it was there he began to dream of a global empire. While his initial objective was to amass great wealth, it evolved into a world-class art collection and brilliant friends. However, he developed an extraordinary passion for changing people’s perceptions of the business world. Capitalism, he believed, was true. Moreover, it was a force for good when the stars aligned correctly. That meant when people thought with their hearts as well as their wallets. But it had to be put to work, create great products and provide outstanding jobs, not just to mint money. It is why he dubbed the magazine “the Capitalist Tool.”
The way he came up with the tagline was another aspect of his character. Malcolm was an ideas person who energized his team to turn them into reality. If he had a brainstorm, he would turn to someone he worshiped competency, like his ad copywriter, and ask them to fill in the blanks. Malcolm would say to them, “I’ll give you the needles. You bring back the haystack.”
Then he made sure everyone basked in their glory. It was the third rule of Malcolm Forbes’s modus operandi, his term for systems genius, which he possessed in abundance, the science of what made people tick and what led them to be happy, anxious, or inspired. He was the maestro.
If you performed, he gave it to you poetically, “without you, we ain’t.” If you failed, he asked you to try again and again. We had a fitness instructor with a serious drinking problem (Forbes world-class gym was for employees during work hours specifically). Instead of being fired, he was sent to an expensive clinic from which he returned sober, eventually retiring from the company after a long, successful career.
Malcolm never fired anyone during my twenty years. I could never tell if it was sympathy, and his penchant for performance meant that did not make sense. More likely, he believed in the improvability of people, much as he had improved. It was the fourth rule. Find a winning formula, and don’t be too inventive.
Repeating someone that worked never bored him, any more than an Impressionist painting bored a museum. Malcolm figured out what works by trial and error, applying it consistently until it didn’t. Then he would adapt, like a classic recipe for spaghetti carbonara when the customers aren’t fans of salt pork anymore. It is why he made the journey from ordinary to extraordinary look so easy. And fun.
It was why he was my first gamechanger.
By the time I was thirty, I had climbed the corporate ladder of success at McGraw- Hill’s Business Week. I began as a space salesman (for those outside the media, this refers to advertising sales, not Elon Musk’s Martian real estate) and worked my way up to a corner office on the 43rd floor with a view of the Hudson River. It was the hilltop, or so I believed. However, a mountain awaited. Now nearing forty years old, that strangely silent impasse between youth and the great beyond we call old age, the period in which the big chance comes or doesn’t, I wanted to sail with the big ships.
What brought me to Malcolm Forbes’s attention was my name. The magic wasn’t pedigree or heritage. It was not ‘Forbes.’ He ran the company with four sons, and it was time to diversify, bring a new name onto the roster (this began before my time. My predecessor was Cap Weinberger, former SecDef). A global magazine empire could not be a one-family show.
“There is never enough time unless you are serving it.”
The Forbes publisher position sounded ideal, with chief executive and ambassadorial duties combined to woo the super influential. My assignment was simple, take the organization forward by investigating new business models and emerging technologies and transform Forbes into America’s most forward-thinking publication. I would report to the Forbes family in a manner called ‘governance-lite.’ They made polite suggestions, and I got the hint. A bevy of futuristic toys was at my disposal, including a gleaming 151’ Feadship royal yacht, a 727 jet, and sumptuous palaces in Morocco, Normandy, and London.
And let’s not forget an elk ranch in Colorado that broke every known dietary rule.
“People who never get carried away should be.”
Just then, wearing his trademark Turnbull and Asser white collared shirt with bold, colorful stripes, Malcolm descended the marble staircase holding an unlit Cuban cigar. He kindly asked if I would like a guided tour before our appointment. Charming and exceedingly gracious, he took my coat and umbrella and placed them in the closet. Then turning to me, he said, “rain makes things dreary, but your presence brightens up the place.”
I could get used to this.
As we wandered the first floor, using the cigar as a pointer, Malcolm noted amusing details while rapid firing a trove of one-liners that left little doubt each piece had special significance. The images were a tableau of human decency juxtaposed with treachery, chapters in a life story most of us would recognize. From John William Waterhouse’s “Mariamne,” also known as Herod’s wife, Malcolm helpfully noted that she was led to the executioner based on false charges leveled against her by Salome, the King’s sister. He quipped, “what was it Sun Tzu advised? ‘Keep your friends close and your sister-in-law closer.’”
Following that was an 1881 Tissot, the French painter of fashionable women who captured, in “On The Mersey,” the heartfelt longing of a young couple departing Liverpool for America. “My father came over the same way,” Malcolm chuckled, before offering, “although I don’t believe his relatives were as sad to see him go.”
“Victory is sweetest when you’ve known defeat.”
Down the corridor was the grand prize, a dozen Russian eggs proudly commemorating a shared heritage. They were, of course, Faberge Eggs, those priceless creations given to the Czarina every Easter holiday until 1917. That year, a striking irony occurred. Capitalism gained a magazine, and Communism became more than a theory. The result was that the Czarina and her husband were deposited into the waste bin of history, just like a pair of cracked eggs. To Malcolm’s eternal delight, he turned to me with a mischievous grin, “Our magazine outlasted the Commies.”
“You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who they think can do nothing for them.”
Walking past the marble staircase, he opened the door to a world-class autograph collection that included some of the most extraordinary letters ever written as well as some of the strangest. On one wall was The Treaty of Versailles, signed in June 1919. It held Germany responsible for starting The Great War and may have helped fuel the rise of Adolf Hitler. Across the room was a handwritten letter personally mailed by President Harry Truman in which the president threatened to kick a journalist in the balls: “If I run into you, you’re going to need a supporter below.” Malcolm explained, “it was not the first time for such a comment, only the first written by a sitting president.”
Nothing was too great or fanciful if it provoked a chuckle or an insight. It was why the museum was called “The Forbes Gallery.”
When you consider who came to visit, it was.
“People who matter are most aware that everyone else does too.”
Suppose you were fortunate enough to get an invitation to a Forbes lunch or dinner party. The Forbes Mansion was for business tycoons what the Playboy Mansion was for Hollywood glitterati, only the attendees came to make money and not the other thing. In that case, you would run into enough Fortune 500 CEOs to start a conglomerate. Jack Welch complained (“whenever I come here, I feel like someone is going to pick my pockets”). Liberty Media’s John Malone told us what he thought of Ted Turner (“the guy’s a nut”). Bill Gates complained about how much stock he had to sell to pay capital gains taxes ($30 million).
Secretary of State Colin Powell, Presidents Ronald Reagan, or George H.W. Bush might be on hand on any given day. Lady Thatcher told stories about the Kuwait War (she scolded President Bush, “George, this is no time to go wobbly on us.”). If celebrities were your cup of tea, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert de Niro, Harrison Ford, Paul McCartney, and Mick Jagger were on hand. Barbara Walters, Walter Cronkite, and a smattering of network news anchors always added a bit of glitter. It was a ringside seat to greatness that allowed me to learn a thing or two about how to succeed in business by really trying.
The Hot Seat
“Only a handful of companies understand that without TOP people, you cannot succeed.”
Malcolm’s office was in an adjacent townhouse. We walked over through a labyrinth of halls and corridors, past small and large offices, a conference room that would seat an entire football team. When we finally entered his office, it was the size of a squash court with yet another museum full of artifacts and honorary degrees. His pencil cup was a piece of Faberge. I shuddered to think, “what am I doing here?” Malcolm invited me to sit on the chair by his desk. He called it “the hot seat,” which should have been a sign. Our entire interview consisted of one question. “What do you think of the McCullough article?”
He was referring to David McCullough, the noted historian who had written for the publication many times, and the question was an opening gambit to reveal how I thought more than what I thought. The magazine version of a Hollywood producer asking a director, “What do you think of Scorsese?”
The problem was I had no idea what he was thinking. That was how Malcolm liked to operate, somewhat below the radar. It gave him great freedom in arriving at a decision. If I said ‘McCullough’s great,’ I would sound like a brash newcomer. It was a Goldilocks moment as I blurted out, “There is no better writer in America about history. But even the best journey needs a map.”
“What does that imply,” Forbes asked?
I said the storytelling would be more enjoyable if it contained a map illustrating the destinations with McCullough as a virtual tour guide. “Make it actionable,” I said, “so that people want to read but also to tear out the article and take it with them.” I shut up then, feeling a bit anxious, sweat beginning to pour down my back. It looked like I was about to stumble for the second time that day.
After all, who was I to tell Malcolm Forbes to tell David McCullough how to write?
The effect on my listener was inscrutable. Malcolm was nodding, smiling, grimacing, evincing so many expressions it felt like a masquerade party. He could be hard to read, it was true, especially when he was deep in thought which was most of the time. He stared straight ahead through owlish glasses, not looking at me or anything in particular, and I wasn’t sure whether he would say. “Don’t call us. We’ll call you.” But my future boss was a visual thinker.
He got what I meant. “I think David would like that.”
“When you cease to dream you cease to live.”
Malcolm Forbes was my first gamechanger long before I took up the professional study of the species. He became a template for those who followed. His habits and peculiarities became sentimental favorites. I would quote him ad infinitum to the annoyance of friends and relatives.
While my life would go on from Forbes to conquer new lands, something Malcolm would have understood had he lived longer, by the time Kristin and I were making a career out of the stories of the rich and famous, it was his memory that persisted. He helped me understand how to know reality from the glitz and to ward away the false prophets of a vainglorious society that disdained achievement and worshiped sensation.
It was a lucky day that I met him.
Forbes tempted fate at every turn, especially on a motorcycle at 90 mph or a hot air balloon at 1,000 feet. When he was in China, the authorities cautioned him not to release his hot air balloon. He did precisely that, hollering from the basket, “balloons don’t have reverse gears.” Nor did Malcolm. The race had begun. Long before he became the real Mr. Big, the world was speaking to him: “you have one life and nothing to lose but boredom.”
Before he died, Malcolm penned his epitaph that summed his worldview nicely, “while alive, he lived.”
“Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are.”
Malcolm Forbes died on Feb 25, 1990, at 4:30 in the afternoon at his home in New Jersey. Typically, he had just returned from an out-of-this-world experience. Flying back the night before on his private jet from London, the publishing tycoon had been a member of a bridge team that played against members of British Parliament. The tournament was in Old Battersea House on the Thames River in one of his other homes. After arriving on his private jet at 5:30 A.M., he fell asleep in the morning but failed to wake up in the afternoon. He was a contrarian until the last.
It was one of many things that made Malcolm Forbes a gamechanger.
“It’s so much easier to suggest solutions when you don’t know too much about the problem.”
After Malcolm played his last bridge hand, his four sons led the show with me as the jack of all trades. At that time, Fortune Magazine ran an expose, falsely alleging that Forbes was guilty of editorial favoritism. They were losing ground in the ad war, which was an act of desperation. Fortune had an addiction to puff pieces, whereas Forbes mercilessly attacked weak-willed chief executives and self-enriching tycoons. After all, we took Donald Trump down. It made the allegations all the more laughable. But the question was why, and why Malcolm Forbes? The reason was that he was dead, and Fortune thought he wasn’t going to put up a fight for his reputation from the grave. How wrong they were.
Fortune’s editor, John Huey, chose to publish an article about Steve Forbes’s presidential campaign. It was a poorly disguised cover-up for a hatchet job by a guttersnipe reporter. Her background was in exposing the underground trans movement, a ploy intended to open every crack and crevice in the life of Malcolm Forbes. She came up with nothing. She finally landed on a weak defense, a story about CIA shenanigans by a reporter named Jim Norman, whom I knew and allowed me to see through the ruse. Norman was a friend and an excellent reporter who lost his bearings. He became obsessed with a source that parlayed a story that had no basis. When Norman resigned, Fortune called it kowtowing. They did not know he was given a choice (to take some time off or leave) and chose the latter. The story was discredited and more telling. Fortune had a slump that year while Forbes had its best in history.
Fortune’s editor has not been heard from since. He was a gamesman, not a gamechanger.