by Shashank Bengali
The meeting was over, and the editors of Ebony magazine filed one by one out of the conference room on the 11th floor of the Johnson Publishing Co. headquarters in Chicago. Then it was just father and daughter: Chairman and CEO John H. Johnson, the man who built the company, and Linda Johnson Rice ’80, his daughter and protégée. For years it had been their routine to sit alone in the conference room, after the others had left, just to talk. But these quiet moments had been rare recently. Health problems – arthritis, an irregular heartbeat, the stuff a body goes through after 80 – had kept Johnson out of the office for a year, the longest he’d ever been away. In his absence, she had run the show. The business trips, the meetings, the decisions big and small had all been hers. By all accounts, Rice had done a spectacular job. Johnson Publishing Co. and its famous, multimillion- dollar name brands – Ebony magazine, Jet magazine, Fashion Fair Cosmetics – hadn’t missed a beat.
He handed her an envelope. She opened it, unfolded the letter inside, and began reading a warm thank-you for a job well done. A smile crossed her face. She was touched. Then came the second paragraph. “In light of all that you’ve done, I want you to have the title of CEO.”
All you need to know about Linda Johnson Rice, those close to her say, is this: at that moment she was genuinely elated. Never mind that the job, for nearly all her life, had quite literally had her name on it, or that she’d been CEO-in-training since she first started showing up at her father’s offices at the age of 6.
Johnson groomed her to be much more than just Daddy’s girl. As a teenager, Rice went halfway across the country to earn a journalism degree from USC, spending summers back in Chicago at low-level jobs in the company. Later, while working full-time, she took night classes at Northwestern University to complete her MBA. It was then, at 27, that Johnson named her president and chief operating officer, No. 2 to his No. 1.
She was never allowed to take her pedigree for granted. And then she got the letter.
“I’ve been working toward this my whole life,” she said to him. They looked at each other, and then Johnson said, “Well, you’d better leave before both of us start crying.”
In 1942, John Johnson got his mother (top) to back his business. Today, he relies on wife Eunice and daughter Linda to front it.
The next day, April 12, 2002, in Manhattan, an Ebony-sponsored luncheon to honor black women in media turned into an impromptu coronation of Rice. Before such luminaries as activist Al Sharpton, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons and songwriter/producer Kenneth “Baby-face” Edmonds, the letter from Johnson was read aloud and Rice got a warm ovation. That night, she flew back to Chicago still buzzing.
Even months later, Rice remembers the sequence of events clearly. “There are some things in life you don’t forget,” she says, seated comfortably in a tan leather chair inside the airy ninth-floor office that she took over from her father a few years ago – and recently had completely redone. Out went the mahogany and dark tones, in came beiges and sunset-browns that actually match her shoulder-length hair. “It was so…male,” she says finally, playfully wrinkling the brow on a face that barely looks older than 30. Standing in front of an immaculate bookshelf – which is dominated by a replica of Tommy Trojan, her 1991 USC Alumni Association Merit Award – Rice fiddles with the blinds so that the wide blue expanse of Lake Michigan comes suddenly into sharp focus, seemingly at arm’s length out the window. To the south is Soldier Field, the storied home of the NFL’s Chicago Bears, where the family has a suite. To the north, though you can’t see it, is the Miracle Mile district, where Rice’s condominium is.
Not that she’s had much time lately to relish the view. “It’s board-meeting season,” she explains, “so I’ve been traveling a lot.” Besides her day job, she sits on several corporate boards of directors – including Kimberly Clark and Bausch & Lomb, as well as the USC Board of Trustees, which she joined in 1991 .
Most important, however, are her duties at Johnson Publishing, one of the country’s largest privately owned companies, with annual sales over $412 million. With her appointment, she has entered the top echelon of women business leaders, in charge of the best-loved brand in black America. Along with Christie Hefner, now head of Playboy Enterprises, Rice is one of the few women to inherit control of a family publishing empire.
Through six decades, Johnson Publishing has been synonymous with success, service and high standards in the African-American community. Ebony, a monthly magazine with a circulation of more than 1.8 million and readership exceeding 12 million, is Time and People rolled into one, and making its cover is a sign you’ve arrived. Fashion Fair Cosmetics, sold in 2,000 American department stores, is the world’s No. 1 line of makeup and skincare products for women of color. And there’s a saying about Jet, the pocket-sized newsweekly with a circulation of nearly 1 million and readership topping 9 million: “If it hasn’t been in Jet, it hasn’t happened yet.” A voice for millions of blacks whose cries were long suppressed, the company now enjoys epic stature in the community.
With Rice come other changes in the CEO’s office, revolving mostly around managerial style. “My father is the entrepreneur, and I’m more of an operations person,” Rice says. He was the tireless visionary with the fiery temper (legend has it that he patrolled the lobby in the morning to greet employees – and noted who wasn’t arriving on time). She’s more patient. “When you’re an entrepreneur,” she says, “you have a vision for the birth and growth of a business. When the business gets to this size, you focus on how to manage the growth.”
Still, Johnson Publishing is an anomaly – a family affair (Rice’s mother, Eunice Johnson, is secretary-treasurer) in an age of media multinationals. The family owns the company outright. And it feels that way. Now with more than 2,500 employees nationwide, Johnson Publishing is still a place where managers keep their office doors open, paychecks are signed by hand, and employees often stay 30 years or longer.
Meanwhile, the world outside is less certain. Rice has taken the reins at a turbulent time in publishing, with advertising revenues throughout the industry the lowest in years. And though Ebony and Jet overwhelmingly dominate the black publishing market, they face mounting competition from emerging niche magazines such as Essence, Vibe and Black Enterprise.
But many believe Rice has just the mix of passion and training to lead the company in the new century. “They sort of developed her for the business,” says William Berry, a University of Illinois journalism professor who was an editor at Ebony for seven years. “Early on she got exposure to all aspects of the business. I’ve watched her career over the years, and she’s retained the availability of an ordinary person who has extraordinary access to power and capital.”
Best of all, Rice has access to her own father, now 84 but hardly about to ride off into the sunset. “I feel 54,” he says. He is slowly curtailing his work hours but still puts in a five-day week. “He always will be my sounding board,” Rice says.
John Johnson’s success story is legendary, an up-by-the-bootstraps tale in the best American tradition. When he started his company in 1942, with a $500 loan on his mother’s furniture, he was “poor, ambitious and scared to death.”
Fifty-four years later, Johnson was invited to deliver the commencement address at his daughter’s alma mater. Standing in Alumni Park before a sea of USC graduates in 1996, he said, “If you’re not doing things you’re afraid to do, you’re not really operating at your highest level. You have to dare to do that.”
Spoken like a man who dared.
In 1933, at the age of 15, Johnson and his mother Gertrude, a widow, left rural Arkansas for Chicago. The reason was simple: there were no high schools for blacks in tiny Arkansas City. Johnson’s father had died when he was 6, and although his mother remarried, she was determined to make a success of her son, even if it meant leaving her husband behind. “She said, ‘This boy will amount to something or I will kill him,’” Johnson once told an interviewer. “And in those days we believed our mothers.”
Johnson lived up to his mother’s expectations. He was elected class president. When he graduated, the school annual beamed, “Johnny Johnson participated in so many activities that his teachers will have to find four or five others to fill his place.”
If Gertrude Johnson Williams could see him today, Johnson says, she wouldn’t be surprised. “She always believed in me,” he says. “I don’t know that she could have thought this far ahead, but if anyone had mentioned to her that I might be this successful, she would have agreed.”
His list of achievements is staggering. In 1982 Johnson became the first black man to crack Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, remaining there until 1986. He has received the highest U.S. civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He has earned more than two dozen honorary degrees, including a doctorate from USC, when he delivered the commencement address in 1996. He has dined at the White House under every president since Eisenhower. (No invite yet from the second President Bush, but no worries: “He’ll get around to me,” Johnson chuckles.) Rev. Jesse Jackson calls him “The Godfather.”
“In some respects,” says Berry, “he’s not unlike that first generation of Americans who founded companies, whose names are synonymous with quality: Pillsbury, Merrill, Ford, Firestone.”
A CEO who sweats the details, Rice meets regularly with Ebony executive editor Lerone Bennett Jr. (right) and his managing editors, putting her stamp on everything from story selections to covers.
Photograph by Todd Rosenberg
Now it is his daughter who must fill his place – no easy task given Johnson’s extraordinary track record.
John and Eunice Johnson adopted two children, Linda and John Jr. Their son died in 1981 at 21, succumbing to sickle-cell anemia after a long fight. It was years before either parent would discuss his death publicly.
Linda had always shown great interest in the family business. Beginning when she was about 6, she would often come after school to the company’s former headquarters, in a converted mortuary building south of Chicago’s downtown loop. “It was a giant babysitter,” Rice says of the company.
Berry remembers little Linda being full of energy – and opinions. “She was always asking you questions, trying to figure out what you were doing,” he says. “She had that great innocence and candor of a younger person.” Sometimes her father pulled her into meetings where editors were making tough decisions, such as which photo to feature on an Ebony cover, Berry recalls. “We’d struggle over different pictures, and then Linda would say something like, ‘Well, so-and-so’s not frowning in that picture. I like that one better.’ And sometimes you thought, ‘You know, she’s right.’”
Rice also often traveled with her mother to the fashion houses of France and Italy, where they would shop for haute couture for the Ebony Fashion Fair. “Linda loved those trips,” her father says. “It was another aspect of the business she learned about.”
One of Johnson Publishing’s top philanthropic ventures, the Ebony Fashion Fair, since 1958, has raised nearly $50 million in scholarships for the United Negro College Fund and other organizations. It’s the world’s biggest traveling fashion show for charity.
Rice indulged other interests while growing up, and she developed into an accomplished equestrian and budding opera singer. But when it came time to decide on a college, she knew two things: she wanted to study journalism, and she wanted to do it in Southern California, having fallen in love with the area since her family bought a vacation home in Palm Springs when she was 14.
The first school she visited was UCLA, and she was impressed. (Her father especially liked the Westwood neighborhood.) But the minute she arrived at USC, she knew. “It just felt so comfortable,” she says. “I liked the atmosphere. And I could tell there was a fascinating mix of people.”
She enjoyed her journalism and marketing classes and made many close friends.
“There was nothing pretentious about Linda at all,” says Tanya Turner ’79, a friend from Rice’s USC days who now lives in Oakland, Calif. “We always talked about how [her parents] did a wonderful job raising her. Everybody knew who she was, she was very popular, but she was a regular student, just there to get an education like we all were.”
After she graduated in January 1980, Johnson says, she had made up her mind. “She had been working closely with her mother on the fashion side of the company,” her father recalls, “but when she got back she said, ‘Why don’t I try out for your job?’”
Johnson made her his executive assistant, putting her through her paces. “I had her sit in on all the meetings. She was copied on all the important correspondence that came to me, plus she got my answers. She was right there with me at all times.”
It was Johnson who introduced her to Andre Rice, a stockbroker-turned-entrepreneur who had come calling on the chairman to propose a new business venture. Johnson deftly found a way for his daughter to join the meeting, where she was impressed with how the young businessman held his own. In 1984, the two were married in one of the most lavish weddings Chicago had seen in years. They had a child, Alexa Christina, now 13.
The couple divorced in 1994, but it was an amicable split. They remain good friends, sharing custody of their daughter and often going as a family to the movies. “When you have a child you love and admire, you have to put yourself aside,” Rice says. “Divorce is hard enough. You surely don’t want to make it harder and permanently scar your children.”
Nothing is as important to Rice as being a mother. “Alexa is the most precious thing in my life,” she says. And she works at carving out personal time.
“Linda has a healthy mix of both time that she spends in business circles and in her family life,” says Desiree Rogers, a longtime friend who is senior vice president of a Chicago energy company. Rogers’ daughter and Alexa attend the same school, and the mother-daughter foursome enjoy a weekly ritual: Sunday dinner out, usually at a different restaurant each week. “It’s an anchor, which you need,” Rogers says. “It’s down time that we use to talk and prepare for the week.”
Rice has shared with Alexa her love of horses – which is convenient since Rice herself isn’t able to spend as much time as she’d like on the farm in Naperville where they ride. “I live vicariously through Alexa,” Rice says. “She rides beautifully.”
What’s more, Alexa is showing the same chops for the family business as her mother did when she was young. “She already told me she wants my job,” Rice says, laughing.
Bring it on, Johnson says. “She’s very clear she wants to take over,” he says of his grandchild. “One day she said to me, ‘When I take over, I may want to make some changes.’ And I said, ‘Well, what about me?’ She said, ‘Oh, I’ll try to find a place for you.’”
“I’m encouraged by that,” he says. “I had a very strong, intelligent mother, and I always believed that women were as smart as men. Sometimes smarter. So I take great pride that I will have a female dynasty.”
In 1971 Johnson Publishing moved into its current digs – an 11-story concrete-and-glass structure on South Michigan Avenue, the first building in downtown Chicago designed and owned by black men. Even today the building radiates 1970s cool, from the red vinyl couches in the lobby to the vertigo-inducing carpeting on the floors.
The retro look fits. For the moment, Rice says, no major changes are planned at Johnson Publishing.
“It would be a mistake to come in and alter a lot of things,” she says. “We have a tried-and-true formula, but we are always making subtle changes.”
Friends say she’s given a great deal of thought to sensitively managing the transfer of power from her father, who is still the heart and soul of 820 South Michigan Avenue. “We don’t see him around the building as much. We miss that,” says Lynn Norment, a 25-year company veteran and Ebony managing editor.
But Norment says the transition has been smooth. “Linda has a vision for the company,” she says. “She had a discussion with us and said she likes what we’re doing and likes where we’re headed. She wants us to continue on the track we’re on, and do it better.”
The new CEO has spent much of her first several months meeting with groups of employees at all levels of the company. “My door is hardly ever closed,” she says. “I’m not the type of CEO that runs a dictatorship, because I don’t think that gets you anywhere.”
She also prides herself – as her father did – on an intimate knowledge of the details. She approves story lists for every issue, and makes the final call each month on the all-important Ebony cover subject, the face that will (hopefully) grab readers’ attention at newsstands for four weeks.
“Out of 12 covers a year, you want 12 hits,” she says. “You want something out there that is appealing and eye-catching. I’d be crazy not to look at them.”
Some have chastised the Johnson magazines for not being hard-hitting enough, calling attention to Ebony’s photos of entertainers and Jet’s “Beauty of the Week” feature, which spotlights a bikini-clad woman. Rice responds simply. “We are not an investigative magazine,” she says. “We are a feature magazine. We are not here to pick apart African Americans. We are here to celebrate and uplift and inspire.”
Which is not to say that Jet and Ebony shy away from serious stories. Rice says she hopes to devote more pages in the coming years to the three issues she believes are of paramount importance to the African-American community: economic parity, education and drug abuse.
On that last point, her face hardens. “Drugs are just at the root of so much that takes our African-American men and women – mostly men – off the streets and into jails,” she says.
Those challenges, and the responsibility Johnson Publishing has to report them, are more than enough to keep the new CEO from resting on the cushion of 60 years of corporate success. Besides, she says, complacency isn’t the company way.
“I get my drive from coming in this building every day and seeing people that work here putting out incredible magazines,” Rice says. “All the wonderful things that people say about Ebony – that’s what keeps me going. My father built an incredible business, and I don’t want to let him down.”
An Empire on Mom’s Sofa
Bankers laughed, friends called him crazy, but his mother believed. So she mortgaged her living-room set to finance John Johnson’s outlandish start-up: a black magazine modeled on Reader’s Digest.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was visiting Chicago in 1943 when she received a telegram from a man named John Johnson. She remembered the name – Johnson had written her several times before, asking her to pen a column in his new magazine, Negro Digest. At first she’d said no, that she’d love to but just didn’t have the time. But now she was in Johnson’s town, the telegram noted. Would she have a few minutes to dictate a column?
She agreed. In a cover story called “If I Were a Negro,” Roosevelt wrote that she would “have great patience and great bitterness” if she had to live as a black person.
On the strength of that exclusive, the fledgling magazine’s circulation doubled to 100,000. It was Johnson’s first great coup in publishing, and he was just 24 years old.
The idea for a Reader’s Digest-like magazine about black life came to Johnson while he was working for an insurance company clipping black-oriented articles from the white press for the firm’s news summary. He was told again and again that he was crazy – by bank agents, who said they didn’t loan money to blacks, and by others who said there was no market for his idea.
When he finally found a bank that would accept his application, Johnson needed to put up collateral. So his mother, still working as a domestic, mortgaged her furniture to finance the first issue of her son’s magazine. He sent a pitch for subscriptions to all 20,000 names on his insurance company’s mailing list. Three thousand people folded $2 each into envelopes and sent them back.
Three years after starting Negro Digest, Johnson launched Ebony magazine. Modeled on Henry Luce’s popular Life magazine, it was a slicker book: 52 pages of feature stories and photographs of black entertainers and sports stars lounging in tony homes and cruising in luxury cars. This was the American Dream as advertised, and thousands of blacks were hungry for it at a time when they were barred from shopping in Atlanta department stores or staying at hotels in downtown Chicago. “It was an idea whose time had come,” Johnson says.
Quite simply, there was nothing else like it.
A first press run of 25,000 copies was snatched up quickly, as was the second. And it was all John Johnson. He sold the ads, edited the stories, worked on the layout and lined up distributors. Only Ebony’s name hadn’t been his idea – that credit belonged to his wife, Eunice.
Today Ebony has an estimated monthly readership in excess of 12 million. Jet, begun in 1951, reaches about 9 million readers weekly. Together, the magazines have consistently – even in the face of competition – offered advertisers their best crack at the African-American market.
Ebony’s stature was cemented, many believe, during the social upheaval of the civil-rights struggle. Johnson typically describes the magazine’s content as “75 percent castor oil, 25 percent orange juice” – glossy photos of athletes and entertainers on the cover, hard-hitting news stories inside. But during the 1950s and 1960s, he says Ebony was 100 percent castor oil.
The magazine was one of the first to write about Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s, and during the next decade its pages were filled with photos and stories chronicling demonstrations, riots, and the deaths of Malcolm X (1965) and King (1968).
Staff photographer Moneta Sleet Jr. snapped a poignant picture of Coretta Scott King holding her daughter at her husband’s funeral and, with it, became the first black photographer to win the Pulitzer Prize.
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