Resilience highlights a strong family culture
The children's magazine publisher has grown and evolved despite constant disruption.
Highlights magazine, revered by young readers and their parents since its founding nearly 75 years ago, presents educational content in format so subtle that children don’t even notice they’re learning. Seeking out images in a “Hidden Pictures” puzzle or pondering the behavior of recurring characters Goofus and Gallant just seems like entertainment.
Today Highlights is published all over the world, in print and digitally, in addition to Hello, for children under the age of 2, and High Five, for those between 2 and 6. However, the magazine wasn’t always successful. There were a couple of false starts in the early days — times when the company struggled financially and even faced a family tragedy that would have ended a lesser business.
In 1960, Highlights for Children Inc. founders Garry and Caroline Myers were in their 70s and transitioning leadership to their son and daughter-in-law, Garry Jr. and Mary.
On a December morning that year, Garry Jr., Mary and non-family vice president Cyril Ewart were traveling from Ohio to New York for a business meeting when their plane collided with another over Staten Island. There were no survivors from either flight.
With that, a family was leveled. The company could have faced the same fate.
Instead, says Pat Mikelson, one of Garry and Mary’s five children, the family rallied. She and her siblings moved in with an uncle in Texas, and Garry Sr. and Caroline began transition plans anew.
“My grandparents would simply not let go. They literally drove [the company],” says Mikelson, the family and company historian and archivist. At that time, she says, an aunt, an uncle and two of her cousins joined the board of directors and the editorial office. “They just carried on forward.”
Once new executives were put in place, Garry Sr. and Caroline were reassured the company’s future was in good hands and the business turned attention back to a growing marketplace.
Though the crash occurred nine years before he was born, current family CEO Kent Johnson Jr. says the family and the company are still affected by the deaths — and so is he.
“The leader who took on rebuilding the team managed the company and moved forward,” says Johnson, the founders’ great-grandson. “I think the family’s commitment was only made deeper by that tragedy. My sense of resilience and optimism is that no matter what happens, we can get through it — this can’t be as tough as what they had to do in 1960.”
From the classroom to the printing press
Read more about Highlights
Garry Myers Sr. and Caroline Clark married in 1912. They met at Ursinus College, where both trained to help children, Garry as a child psychologist and Caroline as a teacher. Together they advocated for child development, writing and lecturing on the subject and training other teachers while working for a magazine called Children’s Activities.
By 1946, they wanted to take their educational point of view and aesthetic to the masses. They left Children’s Activities (which their business would eventually acquire) to start their own publication, Highlights for Children. They declared at the time that “children are the world’s most important people.” Highlights’ early content included the “Hidden Pictures” puzzle along with other features, stories and illustrations.
Just three years later, they ran out of money but found people willing to lend them funds to stay afloat.
“They were able, over the next five or six years, to find some marketing techniques to really help them succeed,” says Mikelson. She says the techniques included hitting the streets, selling door to door and getting the product into people’s hands to build interest.
That’s why so many Highlights (“for Children” was dropped from the magazine title years ago) readers have fond memories of paging through the magazine in the doctor’s or dentist’s waiting room. Winning over a captive audience helped put the company on the map.
Garry Jr. took sample issues to medical offices where children — and, more importantly, mothers — would congregate.
The magazines contained cards that mothers could send in to order subscriptions for their kids. “There was a time when we were in virtually every doctor’s waiting room in the country,” says Christine French Cully, the current non-family editor-in-chief. “It was a nice place to build awareness.”
She says the classic marketing strategy continues. In fact, it has expanded. Highlights can now also be found in car repair shops and hair salons.
Cully isn’t the first non-family member to serve as editor-in-chief. The 1960 plane crash necessitated a new plan for editorial succession. Walter Barbe was hired as an editor to replace the late Garry Jr. Barbe became editor-in-chief in 1971, after Garry Sr. died at his desk.
Third-generation member Kent Brown Jr. came in as an editorial assistant in 1971 and worked his way through the ranks, mentored by Barbe. When Barbe retired in 1989, Brown took the top job. He ran the editorial side and served as publisher of another Highlights division, Boyds Mill Press, founded in 1990 to specialize in trade books for children.
In 1991, Highlights for Children Inc. acquired Staff Development for Educators, now a sister company, which provides continuing education for teachers. Stenhouse Publishing, established in 1993, produces research-driven professional development books for educators.
In 1984, Kent Brown established the Highlights Foundation, a 501(c)(3), to support children’s authors and illustrators around the world through retreats, seminars and workshops, most on-site at the family homestead in Boyds Mills, Pa. When Brown retired from the magazine in 2007, the foundation became his sole focus.
On the business side, an interim president was installed for 18 months after the plane crash. In 1962 non-family vice president of representative sales Dick Bell was promoted to president and then CEO when the position was created in 1980. When Bell moved into the role of chairman of the board in 1981, Garry Myers III became CEO.
Garry III joined the company in 1965 as a mail analyst with an MBA and worked his way up to the C-suite. Before his untimely death in 2005, he had groomed Johnson to become CEO. When Johnson took the reins, it marked the transition to the family’s fourth generation.
A household name
A year after Johnson got the top job, Highlights printed its billionth copy and hand-delivered it to a young girl in Dallas. The milestone coincided with the magazine’s 60th anniversary.
And while there are more than a million subscribers worldwide and the magazine is translated into about two dozen languages, Johnson knows the internet has irreversibly changed the publishing industry and Highlights must adapt to thrive.
Johnson’s entry to the business was as a board member. He learned a lot there, he says.
“My experience on the board allowed me to see the company was far more diversified and complex than I realized and to know so much change and disruption was coming — change in tech, customer behavior, education,” he says. “We work very hard to evolve our culture around innovation, trying to look at changing tech not from a lens of fear, but a lens of opportunities.”
He says one of those opportunities is to help kids outside the U.S. learn English through digital platforms. The company is also developing a digital library. Johnson believes that through technology, Highlights can “reach hundreds of millions.”
“As a company, we see our brand has a lot of love and heritage in the country. [People] see us as a magazine company, but I’m also excited about the rate of growth in retail, growing even more rapidly in the global market,” Johnson says.
Growing a fourth-generation family publishing company as CEO seemed unlikely for Johnson less than 20 years ago.
Originally a high school physics teacher, Johnson returned to school to get his Ph.D. in physics. He went to a medical diagnostics company to work in research and development. As the company grew, he moved to product development, manufacturing and some customer service.
“At one point, Garry III said to me something like, ‘You are no longer purely a science guy, you have become a business guy, so you can’t use science as an excuse and you should consider the possibility of working at Highlights.’”
The two men discussed possibilities for about a year before Johnson settled into the role of VP of strategic planning in July 2004, the role he held before becoming CEO.
Johnson’s cousin George Brown, son of former editor-in-chief Kent Brown Jr., always wanted to work for the company.
“I’m a Highlights kid through and through,” says Brown, now executive director of the Highlights Foundation. “My father worked at Highlights when I was a kid, and I distinctly remember being 8 years old and hanging out in his office thinking, ‘Wow, this is cool. I want to be a part of this.’”
Brown started at Staff Development for Educators before moving to Highlights. There he worked in editorial, product development and publishing technologies. He joined the foundation in 2016 and became executive director in 2018.
Aside from George Brown and Johnson, few members of the owners group work in the business, which is why current CEO transition discussions are leaning toward a non-family executive in the not-so-near future. (Johnson is in his 40s and has no plans to leave Highlights any time soon.)
Focus on governance
The family always saw governance as an important tool and over the years has applied best practices at the board level. The business had a board early on, but it was made up of family. Mikelson joined the board as a family director in 1990.
The first independent director joined the board in 1993. Networking with other family businesses and learning best practices through family business conferences and consultants inspired the family to add more.
“By 2000 we had two or three outside directors, and very quickly we realized the tremendous benefit of outside board directors,” Mikelson says. The board is now majority independent.
“We really had no concern about having control,” Johnson says, noting that as the owners, the family elects the board members and exhibits control in that way. The relatively small size of the seven-member board helps keep boardroom conversation “more strategic,” he says.
“I think also that as we really looked for strong outside board directors, we got people with tremendous expertise who were able to ask the questions and raise issues from a different perspective, with some challenges to make management and family directors really think about things differently,” Mikelson adds.
Mikelson says board service is one way the family transitions leadership from generation to generation. Fourth-generation members now hold all three family board seats.
The board and family were united in the summer of 2019 when Highlights took a rare stand on a political controversy. In a letter signed by Johnson and disseminated over social media, the company condemned the separation of undocumented migrant families at the U.S. border. In part, the statement read:
“This is not a political statement about immigration policy. This is a statement about human decency, plain and simple. This is a plea for recognition that these are not simply the children of strangers for whom others are accountable. This is an appeal to elevate the inalienable right of all children to feel safe and to have the opportunity to become their best selves.”
Johnson said at the time that business leaders rewrote and edited based on how the draft statement sounded, how it “felt.” They ran the finished statement through a couple of departments that included human resources and strategy. Several family members outside the business were consulted, but the decision wasn’t put through formal governance channels, nor were all 108 family members notified.
The statement was in line with the family values and Highlights’ mission, Johnson said then. “We talk a lot about being a mission-driven company. We have active conversations about our vision and how we help children around the world. Our mission is trying to help children become their best selves, to help them be caring, creative, curious and confident.”
Johnson says he received no negative feedback from any owners.
There’s a power to the belief that “children are the world’s most important people.” Mikelson says she can see that in the founding of the company through today.
“Within our family, we 100% have a commitment in taking our philosophy to children however we can get to them.
“It leaves us kind of fearless.”
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