News

August 12, 2009

On the Record With Successful Risk Taker

Henry Dubroff ’72 writes about leaving a secure job to found a business journal and other career adventures

I graduated from Lafayette in 1972, amid the social upheaval and political turmoil of the Baby Boom generation’s coming of age.

I never had much of a plan for my career. But, I’ve always been able to find work doing what I liked. And I’ve been willing to take a fairly big risk if it seemed likely the outcome might be in my favor.

One of those early risks was heeding the encouragement of my professors at Lafayette to spend my junior year studying English literature at the University of Kent at Canterbury in Great Britain. It was an amazing experience that gave me a new perspective—and today I marvel at how many students take advantage of the opportunity.

(Lafayette was incredibly supportive. When I got back, I got to know William Watt, the legendary English professor. He encouraged me—over a bourbon at his home on College Hill—to look into setting up a junior year-abroad business as he thought I was onto a good thing. I really wasn’t too excited about following up on his idea at the time, but I guess he saw something entrepreneurial in me. And look at how the university-abroad business has grown—I might have made my first fortune by the time I was 30!)

In 1999, I left a solid, respectable job as editor of The Denver Business Journal. I had raised a small amount of private capital with eight phone calls, a lunch, and a few trips to Starbucks.

I formed a new, closely held corporation, left Colorado, and drove to California with a leased Saab, a checkbook, and a business plan. Six months later, I launched Pacific Coast Business Times, the weekly business journal for the Central Coast of California, including Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties.

Raising the money and making the trek were the easy part. The hard part came in April 2001, when the advertising environment was lousy and we were running low on cash.

My vice chairman is a successful entrepreneur named John Huggins who has been through the passage to profitability many times. We sat in his living room in Denver and together began to map out an expense level that would roughly approximate our revenue.

In the painful aftermath, we laid off 40 percent of our employees and I went without pay for a few months, but we really got a handle on costs. By the time Sept. 11 hit, Business Times was well on its way to breaking even and as soon as the California economy recovered a bit later in the fall, we were profitable.

That conversation in John’s living room marked the first time I moved out of the dreams-and-wishes stage and into the reality of building a business that could truly stand on its own.

It should not have surprised me that such a moment might come. For four years in the 1970s I was a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America, now part of AmeriCorps) volunteer and English/journalism teacher at the Holyoke Street School, an alternative high school in Massachusetts.

When I arrived, the school was really in its early stages and our finances were pretty sketchy. But we found a terrific executive director, Tom Osborn, who helped mold us into an effective team. By the time I left after four years, we owned our own building, an historic landmark, and we were regularly graduating a dozen or more young people who otherwise would have slipped through the cracks in the traditional public school system.

Imagine my surprise when I got a message from one of my former students via a networking site a few weeks ago. Richard is doing great, married with two kids, and working in West Hartford, Mass.

Of all my early experiences, teaching and working part time at the daily newspaper in Holyoke were my favorites. So, in 1981, I turned down a couple of opportunities to go to law school and enrolled in the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

My class was one of several in the early 1980s where the J-school offered 10 spots for a special seminar in business and financial reporting. I applied and was admitted to the class, but I was really falling behind. Then, on a particularly difficult class assignment, I had a chance conversation with a monetary economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of New York while literally waiting in a copier line. He gave me a 30-second analysis of an anomaly in the money supply numbers and it was a magic moment for me.

I turned the assignment into an article for the Columbia News Service that got me recognition in a number of East Coast cities as a budding financial writer. The job market was as bad in 1982 as it is today, but I was fortunate that Arnold Friedman, editor of the morning newspaper in Springfield, Mass., offered me a job.

A few years later I gravitated west to an opportunity at The Denver Post. That newspaper was in terrible condition and in desperate need of a turnaround. But a veteran newspaperman, Gil Spencer, formerly of the Philadelphia Daily News and the New York Daily News, took over as our editor. I worked for him as business editor for seven years and we had a blast.

We broke lots of stories about the savings and loan crisis and penny stock fraud. One of our stories on penny stock campaign contributions played a big role in a mayoral election. I evolved a teaching style that reminded me a lot of the seminars I took at Lafayette from English professors Joe Martin and Fred Closs. Their low-key interactive approach helped me to get the best out of people.

Adriel Bettelheim went from covering stock fraud in Denver to stalking the halls of Congress. He’s now the White House correspondent for Congressional Quarterly. Alex Berenson was a major talent when I hired him at The Post and I recommended him to TheStreet.com after I left the Post for the Business Journal in 1995. He’s now with The New York Times. And I helped a young woman named Judy Graham work out a job-share arrangement with The Post when she had her first baby. She’s a national correspondent for The Chicago Tribune.

As you might guess, a lot of our success at Pacific Coast Business Times has come from building effective teams. Shortly after I started the newspaper, George Wolverton, a Rutgers alum with a rare mixture of both news and sales experience, joined our staff. He’s been the director of advertising-publisher since 2001 and we have three or four conversations a day hashing things out.

I still run our newsroom operations and I’ve been impressed that the caliber of young people coming out of colleges and universities continues to be high. Their technology skills are amazing and are enabling us to compete very effectively on the web for breaking news.

We have up-and-coming alumni working all over California, including a few who work for competitors and a few more who went to law school. Carolyn Morrisroe, our first managing editor, is managing editor of the journal for the CPA Society of New York.

Despite the rush to e-publishing, I’m still a believer in the value of our print publication. It has more permanence and for a specialized publication like ours, it has that “journal of record” feel, a localized version of The Wall Street Journal or The Economist.

I’m also still pretty old school when it comes to what makes news. The blogosphere drives me crazy with its ability to turn fact-like information based on rumor into actual facts. There is danger in jumping too fast into a story that’s simply not ready for publication. I’ve often been reminded of the warnings of history professor Al Gendebien ’34 that in times of crisis, fundamentals of great policy-making quickly can be tossed out the window.

On a less serious note, I also act as emcee at the six or so awards events we produce every year. One of my favorites is 40 Under 40, where we take over a private club and host a dinner for up-and-coming leaders. In 2003, our keynote speaker was John E. Anderson, one of Los Angeles’ most successful entrepreneurs and a great story-teller.

John, who was in his 80s at the time, gave a great talk and then rushed off to his ranch in Ojai, a town nearby. He took everything off the podium, including my notes on the 40 winners. I had to ad lib 40 biographies and I reverted to standup, which was really well received and generated a lot of laughs.

I’ve done 40 Under 40 that way ever since, and now the event is a sellout every year.

posted in Alumni, Alumni Success Stories

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