ON THE JOB
The Exec Who Downsized Himself
After seven years as a Time Inc. head honcho, Henry Muller returns to his roots.
By Jesse Oxfeld
To start, a disclosure: until recently, my fondest dream was to one day work for Henry Muller. Normally that might disqualify a writer from covering a subject, but in this case it's unavoidable. You see, until recently, Muller, '68, was the second-highest-ranking editorial official at Time Inc., the world's largest and most prestigious magazine company. So it wasn't just me; nearly every magazine writer in New York dreamed of working for Muller -- except, of course, for the 2,100 who already did. All that changed, though, in mid-May. That's when Muller announced that he would step down as editorial director to become, instead, an editor-at-large -- that is, he would stop being a corporate bigshot and go back to being a writer.
It's quite a jump: leaving the fast lane, giving up a high-powered, high-profile job to become just another scribe. And, with parent company Time Warner merging with AOL, it's an interesting time to be taking that leap. But the merger didn't prompt his decision, he says. In fact, it almost made him want to stay. "I think AOL is going to make things interesting," he says one summery morning, sitting in a conference room on the executive floor of the Time & Life Building.
Muller looks the part of the Time Inc. honcho, comfortable in the patrician surroundings of Henry Luce's empire. Time Inc. has a reputation as the competent, wholesome, self-satisfied magazine company, and Muller seems plucked from central casting to sit in its executive suite: tall, graying and dressed up (for the magazine business) in shirtsleeves and tie. But it's a WASP-ily shabby sort of dressed up (this isn't Condé Nast, after all): the tie is a not-particularly-fashionable green paisley, and it's noticeably stained near the bottom.
So why leave this perch he seems tailor-made for? "I've been editorial director for seven-and-a-half years -- which is longer than I've done any single job in my life," he says. "I feel I've done it; I know the job backward and forward." Perhaps solely for the benefit of this reporter and this magazine, Muller, a University trustee, mentions that Stanford President Gerhard Casper was a factor in his decision. "When you get to the other side of 50," Muller says, "you start watching how others step down from positions of authority." Some do it poorly and reluctantly, he explains, but "some do it gracefully, like Gerhard."
Like Casper, Muller arranged things so that he could take time off before returning to work in the trenches of his profession -- "I mostly want to relax and decompress" -- and is scheduled to start his new job as a writer on October 1 (Casper plans to return to teaching). "Editor-at-large is a convenient title," he says. "It's deliberately imprecise and allows you to tailor a journalistic job to your particular skills." In many ways, it's one of the best magazine gigs: the eight Time Inc. editors-at-large can work for any title that interests them. Muller will be able to write for Time one week, Fortune the next and -- who knows? -- People the third. "I don't want to go back to Time and be, say, the environment reporter," he says. This way, "I can pretty much pitch whatever I want to the editor of any magazine."
Muller started his long career at Time Inc. in 1967 with an internship at the original, weekly Life after his junior year at Stanford. He returned to campus that fall and worked as a stringer for Time. After graduating, he took early postings in Time's Canadian bureaus and diligently worked his way up the masthead -- from European economic correspondent to Paris bureau chief to foreign editor. In 1987, two decades after he first entered the company's Rockefeller Center Headquarters, Muller was running Time. When he took the editorial director job on the corporate staff in 1993, the magazine business was in the midst of a fearful recession. But after the economy turned around, ad pages across the industry ticked up sharply and magazines again came to be seen as a thriving business.
Nowhere has that been more the case than at Time Inc. Today, Muller and editor-in-chief Norman Pearlstine oversee a thriving division of an ever-larger conglomerate. There are 36 Time Inc. titles -- about twice as many as when Muller started as editorial director -- ranging from Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated to Sunset, This Old House and Southern Living. The magazine division is among the most consistently profitable units of Time Warner, earning $627 million last year on $4.7 billion in revenue. By all accounts, Muller and Pearlstine work together closely to make that happen. Indeed, Pearlstine suggests Muller is almost a co-editor-in-chief. "He's my partner," says Pearlstine. "We divide between us the primary responsibilities for the major magazines."
That partnership is somewhat surprising. Muller might have been expected to step down not now, when things are so good, but back in 1994. That's when Jason McManus, the editor-in-chief who selected Muller as his No. 2, announced he would retire. Muller was a leading contender for the top job, but the Time Warner bosses selected Pearlstine, who'd had a long career at the Wall Street Journal.
Instead of clashing, though, the duo formed a powerful team. "From the first day we met for dinner, I found a real kindred spirit -- an extraordinarily talented editor with first-rate management skills," Pearlstine recalls. "There must be 20 times a week that somebody has an issue that he's just handled seamlessly and you never heard about it but you knew it was getting done."
As a newly minted editor-at-large, Muller plans to write about international politics and economics. "That's my strength in terms of subject matter," he says, "and I want to re-immerse myself in that." He whetted his appetite by doing a piece at the end of 1998 for Fortune's international editions on the impact of the new euro on the continent's business. He penned another for Time in January on areas of technology in which European companies are ahead of American ones. Already, says Pearlstine, "he's got a list of stories he wants to write for different magazines, and he's been talking to different editors about doing them."
Pearlstine, for his part, sounds like he's almost tempted to follow in Muller's path. "I'm going to watch Henry carefully," he says with a laugh. "If he has as good a time as it looks like he's going to have, I'm going to think seriously about it." In any case, the boss is not going to let his longtime collaborator get too far away. "He's literally moving down the hall," Pearlstine warns. "I'm sure I'm going to suck him back into some stuff here when I get into trouble." Which means he's still going to be a pretty important guy. So I guess I can still dream of working for him.
Jesse Oxfeld, '98, is a staff writer for Brill's Content in New York.
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Data is from the past two weeks.