A Matchless Man: Malcolm Forbes.
My father, born 100 years ago last month, would have been right at home in this era of social media, a time when what we call “branding” is more important than ever.
The internet relentlessly commoditizes everything, and unless you have a distinct product or service, your company will wither. MSF would have thrived!
Pop’s ballooning, motorcycling, boating, collecting and entertaining, as well as his creating and orchestrating memorable events, all had the goal of making Forbes synonymous with entrepreneurial success and the good life. It worked. When he took over the company after his older brother Bruce’s untimely death from cancer, Forbes was barely known outside the U.S. business world. By the time Pop died in 1990, the Forbes name had achieved a powerfully positive image worldwide that companies many times our size could only envy. Despite all the upheaval and deep anxiety the internet has wrought on legacy print companies like ours, the Forbes brand globally is stronger than ever.
My father knew that the first task of successful branding is to produce a distinct, first-rate product. That’s why in 1945, when he joined the company his father had started in 1917, after being badly wounded while serving as a machine gunner during WWII, he immediately focused on upgrading the magazine’s editorial content. Barely surviving the Depression, Forbes had limped along during the 1930s and the war years overshadowed by its competitors. Content was mostly made up of freelance material of uneven quality. MSF began the process of hiring a full-time, first-rate editorial staff, rightly believing that this would dramatically improve the magazine.
One of MSF’s innovations came in January 1949, when Forbes introduced what would become its annual report card on industries and companies, thereby starting the buildup of its statistical muscle. January had traditionally been the deadest month of the year for advertising, but with this issue’s advent it became one of the best.
Pop’s best hire was James Michaels, who became the publication’s longtime editor and did more than anyone else to bring about Forbes’ editorial dominance and prominence. We developed a well-earned reputation for hard-hitting stories that evaluated companies the way perceptive critics reviewed stage plays. What made these pieces ring true was our growing sophistication in digging into corporate balance sheets in a way no other publication could. My father, who micromanaged this company, told me more than once that Michaels was a genius, and that was why—unlike with other key people—Pop gave him a wide berth.
One of my father’s most successful innovations after the war was launching “The Forbes Investor,” a weekly newsletter that recommended stocks and analyzed the previous week’s market news. His boldest move here: pricing the newsletter at an outlandish $35 a
year, a huge amount in an economy whose nominal GDP was about one eightieth of today’s (Forbes subscriptions went for $4 a year or less), and with production costs a small fraction of the magazine’s. The newsletter was an instant success and provided the capital to reorganize the company.
With a strengthening product and company balance sheet, Malcolm set out to make Forbes a company in a class by itself.
MSF did things no traditional CEO would do. He put together an awesome collection of Fabergé eggs and used them in ads to hammer home the point that Forbes was to business what Peter Carl Fabergé was to exquisite jewelry of unparalleled beauty. The eggs were put on display in the lobby of our old headquarters, an awe-inspiring reminder that Forbes was different from the usual commercial enterprise. The eggs and other Fabergé pieces were also a great investment. as Pop bought most of them before others realized what true treasures they were. Additionally, Pop collected American presidential and historical letters, manuscripts and memorabilia, toy boats and toy soldiers, and exhibited them along with the Fabergé eggs and pieces in a museum open to the public, which he built and connected to the lobby of the company headquarters. The displays were done in a most un-museum-like way that enchanted hundreds of thousands of visitors, especially children. Pop also acquired exotic properties in the U.S. and around the world that added yet more glamour to the Forbes brand.
To help garner editorial information and advertising dollars, Malcolm routinely gave elaborate off-the-record luncheons for CEOs in the brownstone house connected to our headquarters. A Tiffany-made silver cup, inscribed with the individual’s name and the luncheon’s date and embossed on the bottom with a Forbes stag’s head, would subsequently be sent to each guest, along with the information that another such cup with the same inscription would hang in the brownstone’s wine cellar, entitling the guest to come by anytime to try the wine. It was a good Scottish offer: No one ever dropped by, because, as my father liked to say, no one wanted to appear to “be a lush.”
One of the most powerful weapons to woo advertisers was to entertain influencers and advertising decision makers aboard The Highlander. Just about every weekday evening a group of 80 or so guests, hosted by our salespeople, would cruise around Manhattan. After the event each guest would soon receive a diploma-like certificate designating him or her as an Honorary Captain of The Highlander. No competitor could match that. Every few years a new, bigger and more eye-popping version of the vessel was built. Pop pored over the designs and furnishings with the kind of intense care that Steve Jobs gave his Apple devices. Amazingly, the business gained by this use of The Highlander vastly exceeded the expense until the economic crisis of 2008, and then we eventually sold her.
Pop was always looking to do marketing in imaginative ways. For instance, in the 1960s China’s murderous dictator, Mao Zedong, issued countless copies of a little red book called Sayings of Chairman Mao, which the Chinese people were expected to possess and wave at public rallies. In response my father issued The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm, its cover colored in money green and gold and its pages filled with many of his pithy aphorisms. To give it a good-selling send-off, he dedicated it not to a person or two but to some 5,000 friends, family members, relatives, business associates and influential advertising decision makers. That’s right—a big chunk of the book was taken up in listing all of those names. Now, who wouldn’t keep—or, better yet, buy and distribute—a book dedicated to him- or herself? Needless to say, while his volume never matched Mao’s forced distribution levels, it did rather well in the free marketplace.
This playful creativity and marketing was also displayed in several land-development projects Forbes had at a massive Colorado ranch we had purchased. These ventures required putting in numerous roads. What to call them? Again, the names of important businesspeople, children, grandchildren, in-laws, friends and company colleagues were chosen. Lucky designees received via the mail a sturdy and nicely designed street sign with their name on it, along with a letter announcing this honor and a map of where "their" road was located.
Forbes’ special events also acquired a reputation for spectacular excitement and imagination. For example, Forbes celebrated its 70th anniversary at MSF’s New Jersey home. Guests still remember the 70 bagpipers marching down a hill, seemingly coming out of the mists of the nearby woods. Scores of helicopters had ferried in the corporate moguls. It’s no surprise that the largest chopper belonged to Donald Trump.
Such events didn’t meet with universal approbation. To some outsiders these affairs looked like wasteful extravagance. But, in fact, they were the opposite: They helped create Forbes’ powerful global image. Even today many businesspeople and entertainers regard landing on the cover of Forbes as the ultimate proof of their achievements. Talk about branding!
I mentioned at the beginning how my father would have taken to today’s new media world like a duck to water. He would also be a perfect fit in other ways. He was a very generous and compassionate man, giving away considerable sums of money to many causes—including then-unfashionable ones, such as prisoner-rehabilitation efforts—and individuals (in a great number of cases, the recipient never knew who their benefactor was). But he would have no truck with bad business practices. He believed, as did his father, that the ultimate purpose of business is, indeed, to produce happiness, not to pile up money.
MSF in front of the old Forbes building