Susie Carter and her family created a successful magazine on their kitchen table, then, had to fight off what they saw as a takeover attempt.
By Howard Muson in Family Business Magazine
While operating a day care center in her Anchorage, Alaska, home back in 1987, Susie Carter met many single fathers who she felt were in need of a good woman. She conceived the idea of starting a magazine to show off Alaska’s abundant supply of lonely eligible bachelors and, she hoped, bring them together with women also in search of love and companionship.
AlaskaMen was a family venture from the beginning. Susie put it together on her kitchen table, with six of her nine children growing up licking stamps and answering phones. Her daughter Cheryl Babbitt did layout and design. Her son Ephraim’s wife was the office manager. “We have all given our blood, sweat, and tears,” she recalls. “We are all part of it, and it has part of us in each edition.”
Without ad dollars the magazine was never a big moneymaker. AlaskaMen built up a subscriber base of 25,000, with newsstand sales of 48,000, and an impressive 8-to-1 pass-along readership. As many as 100 rugged Alaskan males were pictured in glossy color along with biographical data in each issue; they paid $299 for a half page and $599 for a whole page. Men were taken at the rate of three to five a month. Susie married off her father, who appeared in one issue of the magazine. Her daughter wed one of the magazine’s “calendar men,” and her ex-husband found a new wife after Susie featured him on the cover of one issue.
Her problems started when AlaskaMen began to attract media attention well beyond Alaska. Hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles were written about it worldwide, and the magazine was featured on prime-time TV shows in the United States, England, and Japan, as well as other countries. What really set off a gold rush for AlaskaMen, however, was Susie’s appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show.
She and her little company were not prepared to handle the media storm that followed. Susie liked to meet the men and women and serve as a kind of family matchmaker. She had no interest in bookkeeping. She did want to expand into helping couples on a worldwide basis. So in 1994 when a Los Angeles company, MediaMix, offered to take over the business side of the magazine—and to put up $4 million to promote it through the media—Susie thought it was an opportunity to follow her dreams. MediaMix would take the company international and give her a worldwide radio show network. They would take controlling interest in order to protect their $4-million investment and manage the revenues and finances. Susie would retain creative control to preserve her concept and ideals.
But, according to Susie, MediaMix soon began demanding changes in editorial content. They wanted the magazine to be more like Cosmopolitan, with articles on sex and relationships, which she felt was not in keeping with the magazine’s image as a wholesome personal service publication. MediaMix demanded control of which men were chosen to appear on the cover; she said they preferred to use models. When they told her to use more attractive men inside, Susie said all of her bachelors were attractive: “The women love them, even the bald and older ones.”
A clash was inevitable. MediaMix said that taxes owed the IRS would prevent the company from acquiring the magazine stock under the contract. The company withheld funds needed to produce the magazine and then sued for breach of contract. Susie said the back taxes were her ex-husband’s not hers. She counter sued.
The magazine was not published for several months while the matter was litigated. Meanwhile, women from all over the world were calling for their magazines. Susie felt she had let down her bachelors—and her family. “I was wondering what I had done to my children’s future,” she says. “It was the most horrible experience.”
Women on America’s frontier can be just as rugged as the men, and Susie was not going to surrender without a fight. “I just happen to be one determined cuss,” she says. A federal judge broke the deadlock in June when he disqualified MediaMix’s attorneys from representing Susie in the tax lien case because of conflict of interest and tabled their bid for a preliminary injunction trying to prevent Susie from printing and distributing the magazine.
Meanwhile, Susie found an Internet expert, Patrick Smutz, who stepped in to run her Web site (www .alaskamen.com). The site helped her get the word out about why AlaskaMen was not being published. Women from around the world e-mailed her for information, and with offers of help. Angry about what he saw as a takeover attempt, Smutz left his job as a political director and lobbyist for the AFL-CIO in Alaska to assist Susie with the business and the negotiations.
Shortly after, MediaMix offered a settlement, and in September, the parties finally reached agreement on terms that left AlaskaMen in Susie’s hands. (A MediaMix spokesman affirmed that the matter had been settled but said the company would have no further comment.)
“They are out of lives,” said Susie, with a sigh of relief. She and her family had double cause for celebration. She and Patrick Smutz were married October 10th. Susie, who is 5-foot-2, appointed the 6-foot-3 Patrick COO of her family company. “It’s kind of nice to have a great big guy behind you,” she says.
The lesson seems obvious, but bears repeating. “Plan your contracts as if you are going to have a major falling out someday,” Susie says. “Make sure all the ‘ifs,’ ‘ands’ and ‘buts’ are in the contract.” ▪
Howard Muson is a writer, editor and consultant, and former editor and co-publisher of Family Business Magazine.
Source: Family Business Magazine, Autumn 1998
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