The Essence Of A Breakup

When Ed Lewis and Clarence Smith cut a deal with AOL Time Warner two years ago, they were offered the promise of fresh capital and new markets for the leading black women's magazine. Little did they know it would mean the split of a 32-year-old business partnership and a fight for the soul of an institution.

American shareholders include top executives Lewis and Editorial Director Susan Taylor; board members Camille Cosby, wife of famed entertainer Bill Cosby; financier J. Bruce Llewellyn, CEO of Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co. (No. 3 on the 2002 BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with $419 million in gross sales); and venture capitalist Frank Savage, former chairman of Alliance Capital Management International. Another major shareholder is John H. Johnson, chairman of Johnson Publishing Co. Inc., publisher of Ebony and Jet magazines (No. 4 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list with gross sales of $412 million). Smith’s shares have been acquired by ECH and redistributed among its shareholders.

Smith, who Lewis and others have credited as being integral in generating millions of dollars in revenue through ad sales, developing the entertainment division, and building the Essence brand, will now be recognized as president emeritus and co-founder. Smith’s former partner will assume his duties — he was CEO of Essence Entertainment at the time of his resignation — and will also now oversee the Essence Music Festival, the Essence Awards television program, and the Website.

Smith’s exit is the latest development in a series of recent changes. Last July, Target Market News, a Chicago-based newsletter that covers African American media and marketing, reported that bed-and-breakfast and restaurant owner Monique Greenwood was replaced by Diane Weathers, a 30-year magazine publishing veteran, amid rumors of “friction” between Greenwood and Taylor. As editorial d
irector, Taylor, one of the company’s strongest brands, controls the overall vision and direction of the publication. Since the management change, “In The Spirit,” Taylor’s monthly column of inspiration, has been moved from the middle of the magazine to a page before the table of contents, signifying her long association with the magazine and her connection with its readers.

Although the revamped editorial management team was not associated with the joint venture, sources say AOL Time Warner did have an influence on business personnel adjustments. Over the past year, a number of Essence employees in sales, marketing, and research have been laid off — a sort of housecleaning after last year’s festival — and most of them were replaced with Time Inc-ers. The most prominent appointment was the instituting of Michelle Ebanks as group publisher in April 2001. She comes to the position with general-market experience and impressive credentials over her six-year tenure with Time Inc. Ebanks served as a vice president for AOL Time Warner’s publishing division, working closely with then-CEO Don Logan, the chief negotiator on the partnership on business and strategic initiatives. She also served as CEO and president of Mutual Funds magazine and as general manager of Money magazine. Reporting to Lewis, Ebanks maintains “a strategic leadership role overseeing and expanding the publishing franchise.”

Lewis says, “Time Warner is not involved in day-to-day management decisions, just long-term strategic issues as investors and board members.” The identification of such new hires, he says, is simply a function of “getting the most talented executives.”

Keith Clinkscales, CEO of Vanguarde Media, the fledgling publisher of Heart & Soul and Honey

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