One of Bonnie Kintzer’s former bosses told her she had the charm of a talk-show host and the toughness of a drill sergeant. “It’s always nice to be charming and easygoing, but, at the end of the day, you have got to hit your numbers and get the work done,” says Kintzer, CEO of Trusted Media Brands, the parent company of Reader’s Digest. “I’m not afraid to be the drill sergeant when it’s needed. People know I’m very passionate, but I have very high expectations. I expect a lot out of myself and my people. I think people respond to it.”
Those qualities have come in handy since Kintzer took the helm of what was known as Reader’s Digest Association in April 2014, leading a team of 600 employees spread across its New York City headquarters, the office in White Plains (where Kintzer works), and other locations around the world. Kintzer, a Harvard Business School graduate, started working at the company as a consultant in the early 1990s, held several leadership roles there before leaving in 2007, and ran a marketing agency called Women’s Marketing Inc. before making her return to Reader’s Digest Association.
It did not come at an auspicious time for the iconic company, which was founded by DeWitt and Lila Bell Wallace in 1922. It had only recently emerged from a 2012 bankruptcy and had seen three CEO s in as many years since then. Circulation was declining far faster than the 1.9 percent average for the 367 US consumer magazines tracked by the Alliance for Audited Media in 2014. Reader’s Digest suffered a 35.3 percent dip in paid and verified circulation, dropping from 5,241,484 in June 2013 to 3,393,573 in June 2014. Meanwhile, another of the company’s magazines, Taste of Home, saw circulation plunge by 22 percent, to 2,501,098, as of June 2014, down from 3,207,340 just a year earlier. (The company states that these declines were due, in part, to a purposeful decrease in rate base.)
But Kintzer saw the potential to reverse the trends. “There were two really critical pieces that would enable the company to grow that I saw from the outside,” she says, speaking with rapid-fire precision. “One was very strong products with very committed and engaged customers. The other was a lot of digital traffic that was not being fully monetized. I’m absolutely on a mission to grow this company.”
Big Decisions, Big Changes
One of Kintzer’s first major decisions was a dramatic one: She renamed the company Trusted Media Brands in September 2015. The new name, she believes, reflects the common thread in the company’s 12 properties, which include publications such as The Family Handyman, Country, and Reminisce.
Explaining her thinking, Kintzer says, “What really runs across our brands is trust. We’re the snark-free zone. We’re not here to tell you you’re doing a bad job, you need to lose weight, or your kids are in trouble.” Plus, she notes, the new name makes it easier to pitch advertisers on several brands at once. “Reader’s Digest is one of our biggest brands but not our only large brand,” she says. “This is a much more respectful way to talk about all of our brands.”
But orchestrating that change, and the others to come, required a deft touch from Kintzer. “Many of the employees here had been through a lot,” recalls Liz Vaccariello, Reader’s Digest editor-in-chief and chief content officer.
Fortunately, Kintzer—who dreamed of being either a psychologist or diplomat while growing up—wasn’t lacking in the people skills to pull it off.
“One of the first things Bonnie did when she came was meet with the top 100 people at the company,” says Vaccariello. “She had half-hour, one-on-one conversations with 100 employees in New York, White Plains, and Milwaukee.” The fact that Kintzer had worked at the company previously was key. “She knew our brand. She trusted our content. She understood a lot about our business and our customers,” Vaccariello says, “but she wanted to get to know the people who were running things today. She spent a lot of time connecting with people on a personal level.” The employees, she adds, “appreciate being heard, and she understands that.”
The 54-year-old Kintzer has steered this transformation of Trusted Media Brands while also going through big personal changes. Seven months ago, the Stamford resident remarried, to architect Eric Baker. “We met on eHarmony, which everyone loves,” she says.
Each brought children from previous marriages. Kintzer’s daughter Stephanie, 26, works in San Francisco for a nonprofit that helps people re-enter the workforce, and Danielle, 24, also lives in Stamford, working in sales for a recruiting firm. “I’m super-close with my daughters,” Kintzer says. “They are a very big part of my life.”
Baker also has two children, Adam and Anna, and has contributed two rescue dogs to the family, Ammo and Sammi, who now live alongside Kintzer’s pug, Zoe.
“Life is wonderful,” says Kintzer, the daughter of a salesman father and secretary mother from Brooklyn. “I’m very grateful.”
Though Kintzer is a long-time Stamford resident, today she spends much of her time at her White Plains office and can often be found trying out new restaurants in Port Chester. To unwind, she takes Vinyasa yoga classes and participates in a book club. She has also been very active in the Stamford chapter of Friendship Circle International, a Jewish charity that promotes inclusion of children with special needs by matching them with teenage volunteers. “It’s a brilliant idea, to sensitize teenagers to the needs of special-needs children,” says Kintzer, whose daughters have both volunteered with the group.
Kintzer’s sensitivity to others has been important at Trusted Media Brands, where she has had to quickly decipher exactly how to grab readers’ attention from the many digital distractions vying for it.
“Our competition is everything a consumer can spend time with on their phone,” Kintzer explains. “We have to understand this mobile environment is here to stay, is very powerful and will continue to grow.”
To do that, she has spearheaded new Trusted Media Brands initiatives like subscriptions to online classes, which have created a new source of revenue for the company. EnrichU, the firm’s education arm, introduced Taste of Home Online Cooking School in October 2014. This past April, it launched The Family Handyman DIY University.
Connecting Through Events
Another big push has been holding live events to connect readers to the company’s publications. Trusted Media Brands has held more than 200 Taste of Home Cooking School classes across the US, Kintzer says. At the same time, in a partnership with The Moth, Reader’s Digest has been holding live storytelling events in 19 cities. The Moth Radio Hour, which airs on 460 radio stations, has built a nationwide following for its story slams. (Kintzer hopes both of these events will come to our area in 2016. “I’d love to do a Moth event and a Taste of Home cooking event here in Westchester. That’s on my to-do list,” she says.)
The company also introduced an advertising program new to the US this past fall. The Reader’s Digest Trusted Brand survey of more than 4,500 Americans awarded winners in 40 product categories from hair color to pet food with the “Reader’s Digest Most Trusted Brand” title.
re these efforts driving better financial results? Asked about Trusted Media Brands’ revenue, Kintzer says the company is growing its profit line, brought in more customers in 2015 than in 2014, and is on track to hit the goals of its current three-year plan. Its brands have also been picking up fans rapidly on Facebook and other social media. “We’re doing what we need to grow,” she says.
Pulling this off has meant leading a powerhouse team that now includes Chief Revenue Officer Richard Sutton—who most recently worked at the giant newspaper site MailOnline; Chief Digital Officer Vincent Errico, a seasoned executive formerly with Everyday Health; and Alec Casey, who returned to the company in November as chief marketing officer.
Asked about his boss’s style as a leader, Sutton summarizes it in four words: Inclusive. Inspiring. Hard-charging. Successful. “I want to work hard because I am really competitive,” he says. “I’ve had a long string of successes I want to keep going—but I want to work even harder for Bonnie.”
Being positive comes naturally to Kintzer, according to Sutton. “Every meeting starts off with, ‘Okay, here’s what’s going right,’” he says.
She also cares about her entire team, he adds, citing this example: A manager who works directly for Sutton was distressed in the aftermath of a recent shooting at a Long Island mall because her husband and daughter were there at the time. (They were uninjured.) Sutton was surprised to find out that Kintzer had heard about the manager’s situation and expressed her concern before Sutton even knew what was going on.
“That speaks volumes about how she works with people,” Sutton says. “She’s got the ability to inspire you through being positive, through laughter, and by really caring.”
What the future holds for Trusted Media Brands is unknown, in an environment that is changing rapidly by the day, but Kintzer is optimistic. “One of the beauties of being a smaller company is that we are really very nimble,” she says. “If we need to shift the way we create content, we can do that.” One thing she learned at Harvard, she notes, is how to make decisions without having 100 percent of the information about a situation—a skill “that has absolutely served me well,” she says. It’s a skill that will likely continue to come in handy for Kintzer as technology continues to disrupt the media industry.
Frequent 914INC. contributor Elaine Pofeldt is a freelance journalist who writes about entrepreneurship and careers.