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Kiplinger's Formula Stays in Place Despite Changing Times

June 22, 1987|SANDRA SUGAWARA | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Shortly after midnight on Sept. 29, 1923, Willard M. Kiplinger labored over his typewriter on a page of telegraphic comments.

Among the issues he covered were rumors of an international loan to revive the German mark. He noted that "bankers take these rumors seriously in some cases, but they are foolish."

The letter, titled the Kiplinger Washington Letter, eventually spawned a $90-million publishing and printing company, producing Changing Times magazine and six business forecasting letters.

The Washington Letter, the granddaddy of newsletters, is an industry giant. Its latest figures show a circulation of 425,000--far exceeding that of any other commercial business newsletter, according to the Newsletter Assn.

During a time when intense competition has sunk many publications and forced others to overhaul their appearance, Kiplinger's newsletters have prospered without having to alter the basic format established on the first day.

Kiplinger Washington Editors Inc. employs 616 people; it had revenue of $60.7 million in 1986. In addition, a wholly owned subsidiary, Editors Press, had sales of $29.1 million. About 220 employees work at the Hyattsville, Md., printing company, which prints Kiplinger publications as well as other magazines, advertising brochures and special publications.

Kiplinger declined to disclose exact profits of the privately held company. But the company said that after employee profit sharing, taxes and contributions to charitable organizations, profits were about 10%.

Mission Has Never Changed

The family owned company has evolved through three generations of Kiplingers, but its mission, as articulated by founder Willard Kiplinger in a 1923 New York Times article, has never changed: to "report what businessmen need to know to look ahead, plan ahead and make the decisions that help them stay ahead."

This means Kiplinger publications do not report news but rather give advice for business decisions, according to Willard Kiplinger's son Austin, who is president of the Kiplinger Washington Editors Inc.

Accordingly, he said, he shuns the "newsletter" label, arguing that the company sells advice, not news. He refers to subscribers as clients, and says editorial meetings are "more like a gathering of partners" than like news media story conferences.

The decor of the downtown headquarters here--with its marble halls, wood-paneled rooms and leather chairs--exudes the aura of a law firm rather than a newsroom.

Austin Kiplinger's son Knight joined the Kiplinger organization in 1983 after working as the Washington bureau chief of Ottaway Newspapers, a chain owned by Dow Jones & Co.

He is editor-in-chief of Changing Times, a personal finance magazine that recently celebrated its 40th anniversary. Knight's brother Todd, who has been at the company 16 years, manages the company's assets.

Consistent Management Themes

Despite the differences in generations and professional backgrounds, the Kiplingers seem to speak with one voice about the company.

With uncanny consistency, they echo the same management themes: belief in conservative corporate financial planning, wariness of media conglomerates, skepticism of the glitzy and a devotion to keeping the company out of the hands of public stockholders.

But the strongest theme permeating each discussion is that of corporate benevolence, a theme that has meant the free use of a Florida resort and hefty profit sharing for all employees.

"My grandfather was a fervent believer in the free-enterprise system. He was just as fervent a believer in sharing the fruits of the free-enterprise system with all employees," Knight Kiplinger said.

In many companies, only the top executives receive bonuses.

But at Kiplinger, last year's profit sharing increased employees' incomes by more than a quarter of their base salaries. They received a combination of 12% in cash and another 15% in deferred profit sharing, which is invested for them.

The firm's Florida retreat, Bay Tree, is north of West Palm Beach. Willard Kiplinger bought it as a retirement home but never retired. For more than 30 years, any employee of the company has been allowed to go there for free with friends or family for up to two weeks. The retreat includes a large lodge and some small cottages.

"Again, I contrast that with the typical executive hideaway that some companies have that is used by the top executives," Knight Kiplinger said. "There is a collegial spirit, a spirit of generosity toward our employees . . . which is quite unusual. . . . People don't tend to leave."

The weekly Washington Letter costs $48 a year. Renewal rates have averaged 30% to 35% for first-year subscribers and 60% to 65% for the second year. But after that, renewals shoot up to between 85% and 90%. Nearly all its readers are outside the Washington area. "We don't write to Washington," Austin Kiplinger said.

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