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Michael Clinton, Hearst's Billion-Dollar Man

After being very publicly passed over for the top job inside the Tower, one could argue the 30-year publishing veteran's career is going better than ever.

Publishers at Hearst have devised a system to work with both Clinton and Carey without stepping on either’s toes. They keep both men in the loop, knowing the things to report, the things they each care about.

Donna Kalajian Lagani, the longtime publisher of powerhouse Cosmopolitan, a magazine that makes more money than all of Hearst’s other magazines combined, doesn’t report directly to Clinton, but maintains a close relationship with him. “He’s the most creative person I know,” she said. “He’s close to everyone here.”

Most of the publishers at Hearst report directly to Clinton, though, and they profess immense loyalty to him. “There are two people I don’t want to disappoint,” proclaimed Seventeen publisher Jayne Jamison. “My mother and Michael Clinton. He is always out there for me, always in front of clients, helping any way he can.”

“When you have a boss you don’t want to take everything from them,” said former Town & Country publisher Jim Taylor, who worked for Clinton for 11 years. “Usually it’s one or two things. Maybe they are particularly strategic in marketing, maybe they are good at financials, maybe he’s really a jerk in real life but great at building client relationships. With Michael, if he has a weakness, he works on it and fills the gap.”

That comment, about addressing his weaknesses, was repeated in a variety of forms in dozens of interviews with Clinton’s colleagues and competitors throughout the industry. Clinton has a practiced, well-thought-out, almost rehearsed way of conducting himself, with self-effacing phrases such as “it takes a village,” or “I always hire people who are smarter than me.”

He doesn’t lose his cool often, but when he does, colleagues know to immediately pull back. He reacts to a tough question from a journalist about the business by turning slightly red in the face; stern, tacit disapproval in the form of a momentary stare, and then, by changing the subject. He’s the opposite of many of his colleagues throughout the industry, whose personality can be defined in one or two words.

Clinton doesn’t show his cards — or, at least, those he doesn’t want anyone else to see. Yet you don’t rise to running $1 billion worth of business — and survive the shark-infested waters of both Condé Nast and Hearst — by being nothing but sweet.

Professionally, Clinton spends his time these days talking ad models, new group buys that will include the newly acquired Hachette titles, such as Elle, digital strategy, more brand licensing, TV projects (Elle just taped an episode of the “Celebrity Apprentice”) and e-commerce. Clinton said Hearst will introduce an e-commerce play in women’s fashion early next year, although he declined to reveal details.

And he’s still making house calls, spending around 25 percent of his time on the road visiting clients. “I have five advertiser meetings a week,” he said. “Think about that in terms of what’s on my plate.”

But even personally, Clinton seems like the Energizer Bunny, always moving. If he isn’t meeting with publishers or clients, he is still on a plane for fun. He’s traveled to 120 countries and has booked a personal trip to Thailand and Laos. On top of it all, he’s published five books based on his travels, with his own photographs.

His new challenge is running a marathon on every continent. “My sister and I just finished our fourth in Australia this summer. Number five will be in South Africa. Then Asia and Antarctica,” said Clinton, ticking it off like a mental “bucket list.”

It helps all his globe-trotting that Clinton has a pilot’s license. “We see things in so many similar ways,” Carey said. “Small planes with one or two engines isn’t one of them.”

If that isn’t enough to keep him busy, Clinton started a foundation, Circle of Generosity, that grants random acts of kindness to individuals and families in need. One example: a donation was made to the Borough of Manhattan Community College Emergency Fund Office, to provide students food and transportation vouchers.

Jack Kliger, one of Clinton’s mentors, serves on the board. “We’ve been friends for years. We both share an interest in wine,” said Kliger, who happens to be part of another one of Clinton’s extracurricular activities, running a winery. “We’ve invested in a three-acre vineyard in Argentina,” Kliger said. The first harvest will take place in March or April and first bottles of malbec, syrah and cabernet franc will be produced in the spring. The first vintage will be 50 cases.

He maintains his personal pursuits are just that — personal — but a closer look reveals how much of the man is his work. His book signings draw figures from the publishing industry, his foundation has industry colleagues on the board, and Kliger and Martha McCully, formerly with InStyle, are investors in the Argentinian winery. He’s as competitive as ever, still standing, having outlasted many of his detractors. There are no plans to become a full-time winemaker. When asked whether he’ll finish his career at Hearst, he pauses, and then gives the perfectly balanced answer: “I think so. I think I work with the best people in the business. That sounds too Pollyanna, doesn’t it? But it’s true.”

 

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