Enduring Leadership Interview: Bonnie Kintzer

Alexander Group will be exploring the tenets of enduring leadership, the attributes of great companies that enable their leaders to make decisions in the context of years, even decades, instead of just quarter to quarter. These tenets have four overarching categories: Mission, Talent, Culture and Operations.

To have great talent, you need a great leader. Bonnie Kintzer, president and CEO of TMB, shares with Quang Do, principal at Alexander Group, her career path, leadership style and how she hires talent that will improve the company overall.

Quang Do: Thank you, Bonnie, for joining us on today’s interview with the theme of Enduring Leadership. Very excited to have this conversation to capture some of your insights and to hear your personal story. And what an exciting story it is with a legendary brand and an amazing career that’s got you to where you are today. So with that, I want to just provide the audience and just a bit of a backdrop on your career, the steps you’ve taken to the C-suite and to your current roles as chief executive officer of TMB.

Bonnie Kintzer: Great. Well, thank you so much for having me. Delighted to be here. So I always like to tell people that my first job out of college was actually as a data entry clerk, so it can give hope to all entry-level people listening to this. And so I moved quickly out of being a data entry clerk and actually worked in the area of manufacturing on the planning side. And so nothing that I do today except that it makes you very well rounded. And I think within each opportunity there is always something to learn. And I’ve certainly had that attitude.

I left to go to business school and when I left, I actually went to work for a technology consulting firm. Went back into the telecom space and at some point, of course, as you know, I went to work for the Alexander Group. And so I actually had two stints of consulting. And I think that consulting really teaches you a lot. It teaches you to learn quickly, to be a good listener, to be a service provider. And actually, Reader’s Digest was one of my clients when I was at the Alexander Group. And when I left, after my second child was born, they actually asked me if I would do some consulting work for them. And I did that for a while and I had a whole bunch of other clients on my own and eventually started running some of the smaller magazines and ultimately the entire division.

I left Reader’s Digest in 2007 and consulted again on my own. It’s a tremendous skill set to have. I would recommend to anybody who wants to have flexibility in their lives. And I started doing some board work. I was on two boards of directors. And then from there a private equity company asked me to run their company, which needed to be fixed and ultimately sold, which I did, and I love that. And that was again, another new skill set. I had never worked with private equity investors before, and that was my first CEO job. And so while I had run a very large division, I had run an $800 million division of a public company. I was now running a very small private company, but I was in charge. And so that was great because the scope of the job wasn’t as big as I was used to. But being in charge was different. And so that, again, great experience learned a lot. And then the investors that owned the then Reader’s Digest Association asked me if I wanted to come back, which is a big decision to go back. But it was a totally different company and certainly since I’ve been here now, this week is eight years, I always like to say this is my third job in the last eight years. One was fixing. Two was stabilizing. And three, now we’re in the high-growth area and it’s been an exciting time.

Quang Do: Wow. That’s all I could really say. This sounds, I think, in many ways what aspiring MBA students go to school for. I would call it a storied career so far. So thank you for sharing that.

Switching gears a bit and thinking about TMB, in particular, 2021 was an exceptional year for you. Growth in digital. The acquisition of Jukin. What has been your mantra, your mindset for continuing to evolve and grow the brand amidst an industry that as you know and I know is constantly evolving and it’s under constant pressure? What’s made the difference?

Bonnie Kintzer: So I think we have always been committed to creating content that makes people’s lives better and celebrates the good things. We’re not a snarky company. We’re not here to tell you that your life is broken. We’re here to entertain and to teach and to celebrate. And I think that that has kept us going all of these decades and continues. So whether we’re teaching you how to cook properly or we’re making you laugh with a Reader’s Digest joke or a fail Army video or relaxing to funny videos of cats and dogs which are my personal favorite or learning how to fix things in your house with Family Handyman. We are here to make your life better. So I think that is very important. I think the second is that we have always been about the audience. We’ve always been about the community that we have created and whether or not that’s content from a magazine or from a website or from shows, OTT shows or social videos. We care about our community and they guide us in everything we do. And I think the third thing and all of these are of equal import are our employees. Because as I always like to say, that is our best asset is our employees and taking care of them and making sure that they feel like they’re part of a company that needs them and values them, is important. I think that’s from me and everyone down is it’s about the people. So I think that’s helped us to keep our true north about what it is, why we do what we do.

Quang Do: That’s amazing. Thanks again for sharing that. Honing in on the people. And one of the things I saw in some of the research that I did was around this concept of a re-startup. Where TMB has gone through different trials and tribulations. And it’s a mantra of we’re not a startup, but we’re restarting. We’re taking this fresh new focus of our business and what we can be and not just what we’ve been. Keeping those two things, both at the top of the mindset. So what does that mean for the employees and how do you keep people engaged? Don’t lose the past because you have a 100-year history, but also be thinking about the future and how things should evolve.

Bonnie Kintzer: When I first got back to the company eight years ago, I use the term re-startup all the time because I would say how lucky were we that we had millions of paying customers, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and profits, unlike a startup. And yet we had to have that scrappiness and that mission and that zest of a startup. We had to work so hard to bring that culture to a company that, as you say, has been around for 100 years. So I think people understood that. And it was about taking the best of what we had accomplished, but realizing that we were competing with startups who had that energy and we needed to have that too. I think that we brought that with a better balance of life, right? Because startups have no balance. And so I think we were able to give something to our employees. And most startups don’t make it, they don’t make the gazillion dollars. So I think there was that steadiness of the company that was a positive, but at least getting the thinking of like, okay, we were going to do something new here. We were going to create new businesses.

Quang Do: As you’re creating new businesses, how did you think about where to invest, where not to invest, where to delay? Because obviously resources are not unlimited. And there’s only so much time and again with the ever-evolving industry. How did you make those decisions?

Bonnie Kintzer: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a really great question that you’re asking because I think people think money should just be divided equally. You can’t. You just you cannot succeed. And so for us, we initially said we were going to focus on our three biggest brands, which were Taste of Home, Family Handyman and Reader’s Digest. We ultimately brought Birds and Balloons into that fold a few years later, but we just said, “Look, we cannot do everything, so where do we believe we can grow and serve the biggest audiences and the best ways?” And that’s absolutely what we did. I think we are very data-driven. That is definitely part of our history. So what is the data show? Where can you make the most money? When we bought Jukin, which is like the greatest company that most people have never heard of. I said to them, “Look, I’m happy to invest money, but I need to figure out where the money should go.” And we spent a lot of time and we actually the first time I’ve ever been here went back to the board and asked for several million dollars because there was so many great things to invest in Jukin, and that’s what we’re doing now or what we’re embarking on now. So we try to be disciplined. I have a great board. I feel like they’ve always said if it makes sense, we’ll find the money. And certainly they have stood behind that.

Quang Do: When you think of the phrase of the term enduring leadership and relative to your career, what does that mean to you? What has been the defining factor of your ability to drive leadership?

Bonnie Kintzer: I think leadership is important for everybody, even if you don’t manage a single human being. I think leadership has to be part of who you are and leadership is about serving. In my opinion. I am here to serve this organization and the people in this. And I believe that. And I think if you ask my employees, they would say that about me. I am here to hire people that are better than I am. I want people that are smarter than I am. That know more. That is how you get a great company. I have said it time and again, this is not interested in drama, right? This is no drama. This is high competency, low ego. And I have worked hard to assemble a group of people that embody that. And they have in turn hired high competency, low ego, no drama people and I think part of that just allows everyone to give back high competency.

Quang Do: Highly competent, low ego, no drama. I mean, words to live by.

Bonnie Kintzer: Words to live by.

Quang Do: Awesome. Well, I have one last, final question for you, Bonnie. What personal advice would you have for emerging leaders? And I love what you said. There’s leadership in any job, whether you manage people, manage your business or you manage no one. What personal advice would you have for those going through times of uncertainty and change?

Bonnie Kintzer: So I think one is to always learn. You can always learn from somebody, always. I think to have that as a mindset. I am thrilled that at my age I feel like I am learning every day and doing something new and different. I think for people to know, to get more clarity of what they want. I give that advice to everyone from your first job to the end. Most of the time, your management wants to help you achieve your goals. And so if you can be clear about what your goals are your team will really try to rally around that. And I have seen just incredible examples of people over the years who have shared with me, well, I’m really interested in what that person does. I’d really like to learn this. And we sit around and we’re like, “Oh, okay, how can we get that person there? We don’t have that opportunity now.” So I think if you want to be a CEO, what is it that you think you have to learn and do to be ready? And let your management know. I need experience here. I need to go to a board meeting. I need to present because, again, most good managers, good leaders will want you to succeed. So I guess that would be my advice.

Quang Do: Oh, awesome. Well, again, thank you so much, Bonnie. Really enjoy this conversation and appreciate your time.

Bonnie Kintzer: Thank you so much for the invitation. Really appreciate being here.

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