University of Arkansas

Walton College

The Sam M. Walton College of Business

Episode 135: Bob Sauerberg on How Curiosity and Mentorship Led Him to Become CEO of Condé Nast

August 11, 2021  |  By Matt Waller

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In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by Bob Sauerberg, a Walton College alumnus and the current lead director and board member at Reddit. He was the former president and CEO of Condé Nast, a premier media company known for producing the highest quality content for the world’s most influential audiences. During this episode, Bob shares how his curiosity and tenacity led him from a career in finance at The New York Times Magazine Group to CEO of one of the world’s most influential media companies. Stay tuned until the end for Bob’s advice to students!

Episode Transcript

0:00:08.3 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and your life today. I have with me today, Bob Sauerberg, who is the lead director and board member of Reddit, former president and CEO of Condé Nast. And earlier in his career, he was the CFO of the New York Times Magazine Group. He graduated from the University of Arkansas, in the business school, he majored in finance, graduated back in '83. Are you sure that shouldn't be 2003? You don't look like you could have graduated.

0:01:01.7 Bob Sauerberg: Yeah. Look, I try to stay young. But seems like yesterday, that's for sure.

0:01:08.6 Matt Waller: Well, thank you so much. And I know you had a number of friends, while you were going to school that have done quite well too, you had a cohort that just seemed to do really well in business.

0:01:20.3 Bob Sauerberg: We sure did. And I grew up in Central Florida and I came to the University of Arkansas to play golf, the golfers always have a lot of relationships. And so and you learn real quickly, besides the art of the game you learn how to be a gentleman, and how to have relationships. And I think a lot of my friends in the golf team and other people we knew, sort of had those people skills to figure out how to get out and then were motivated to do so. So thankfully, foundation at the university really gave us that jumpstart.

0:02:00.6 Matt Waller: So Bob, obviously, I know you've got great people skills, what made you decide to study finance as an undergraduate?

0:02:07.9 Bob Sauerberg: I mean, obviously, finance is the language of making money. And for whatever reason, I always liked to make money. And my dad was a corporate finance person that kind of traveled around the country in different jobs. And so he had a big influence on me. And it turned out that a lot of the people at my club and people that I spent time with in Central Florida had that background. So I was like, "You know what, I'm gonna be in business, I need to really know this." And it was and my foundation of the University of Arkansas later got my MBA, which really took it to the next level, they helped me really understand the finer details of how to run a company and how to do deals and etcetera, etcetera.

0:03:01.8 Matt Waller: Your career started with the New York Times Magazine Group and Finance and Administration various roles. And later, of course, you became president and CEO of Condé Nast when I met you the first time. But I'm kind of curious if you wouldn't mind talking a little bit about your experience of New York Times Magazine Group, and also how that prepared you for your leadership role at Condé Nast?

0:03:28.0 Bob Sauerberg: Yeah, I started out actually, I had a stint at the newspapers, at the New York Times newspapers to start to, right? Before I got into magazines. So I went into media because I was enamored again, and you've already dated me 1983, right? And at the time, the media business was the hot thing, it was every media company's value was going up, the business models were very profitable and fun, interesting people. So I've got into it. I love the business model. But I think most importantly, I got attached to mentors, great leaders who took me under their wing and taught me things and told me, no question was a stupid question other than you got to learn everything from the ground up. And so what I did is I got out and I learned circulation, I learned distribution. I was a finance person working... That was my core job, but at night, the afternoons I'd befriended every peer I had, and I dug in to trying to learn everything I could about the business and I found out that I was pretty good at everything, except I wasn't a great journalist.

0:04:46.6 Bob Sauerberg: I actually went out and try to write stories and headlines and things too. And that part was not my... I figured out I couldn't really do that. But I think that foundation of having people in my life, leaders that allowed me to expand my wings, to learn new things, encouraged me to get in leadership development programs and to really get to know the different disciplines of the business. That laid the foundation, I could never have been a CEO without really understanding all the aspects of the business. And so from day one, The New York Times from newspapers to magazines, then all the media business just became one big massive change event. So we had content, we had distribution and the way we distributed the content and whether it was digital or print, whatever continued to change. So, I think that, knowing all aspects of that part of the business helped me continue to be able to change with it.

0:05:58.4 Matt Waller: That's such an important point. Several of the CEOs that I've interviewed on Be EPIC podcast have brought this point up and they made an extra effort. In some cases, they took lateral moves to broaden their experience, because they knew they wanted to be a CEO at some point in the future.

0:06:18.0 Bob Sauerberg: I definitely did that. I was a finance expert and I went in, I ran. I was an art director for a while. Then I went into the consumer marketing and learned all that part. So, I took a variety of things that were critical, and you know what? And they were risky at the time, because you didn't know if you could get back into some other thing, but I was curious and interested. And again, I kinda felt like the leaders that encouraged me would look out for me. I feel like I had that trust and foundation. But nothing's guaranteed, and so, I think that's exactly right. You gotta take risks, you gotta learn new things. Hopefully, you also gotta pick your bosses very carefully.

0:07:06.7 Matt Waller: Well, that's true. Your bosses really have a big impact on your future. Well, you know Condé Nast has an audience that includes some of the world's most influential people, given its titles of Vogue, Vanity Fair, Glamour, GQ, The New Yorker, Condé Nast Traveler, Wired and Pitchfork among others. I would imagine this in and of itself created some challenges.

0:07:32.2 Bob Sauerberg: Here I'm a Central Florida young man, going to the University of Arkansas, and all of a sudden I have 1.2. Million square feet and I'm in the World Trade Center, the first person that moved in after 9/11, and I have all the fashion people, who didn't like that and were nervous about this, and culturally, very interesting. Anna Wintour worked for me. She's very close with the Clintons. She's in the world with every CEO Fortune 500 company and politics. So yes, there's a lot of personalities and a lot of influence. And our brands had probably more influence than you had in terms of business acumen. It was just an important part of the company's history and culture. So, for me, honoring that history and that culture and the fact that every editor came to work to try to find the way the world would work in their specific genres, but also help them learn how to make it a better business. I felt really good about having them learn how to do that in print and digital. Then, actually, more focused, or used to be more focused on advertising, be more focused on consumer revenue. And then, video. Right now, Condé Nast video is probably one of the most important content types [0:09:03.4] ____ which are published, and Cosco and big businesses, but the video, consumer pay, those are the future in content types and business models for the company.

0:09:20.3 Matt Waller: While you were at the helm of Condé Nast, you were able to triple the audience. This was during an interval of time in history when media was undergoing huge upheaval. How did you go about doing that?

0:09:35.2 Bob Sauerberg: Well, I'm just gonna piggyback on what I just said, is that their editors... The greatest headline is the most interesting thing that happened today in the industry, and they knew it, because they were defining it. So, we taught them there's an art and a science of it too. They knew what was important, and we taught them, through all the digital teams that we... We brought in a new team of digital experts who were good at figuring out how to distribute it at the right place, get it in front of consumers so they would connect with it. And so, that's the science of it. And I hired a whole new team to do that, and they were experts at it. And after we went through the cultural... It's kinda easy doing that, so it took a while for them to really assimilate that once they get it, it really took off. I would just choose the New Yorker as a prime example, thanks to the editor and thinking more about how their readers were going to be consumed, rather than how it might work with the advertisers. It really did change their mindset, and they're very proud of it.

0:10:39.1 Matt Waller: Bob, you have a reputation for developing leaders. How do you go about developing leaders?

0:10:45.3 Bob Sauerberg: The first thing you do is you find technically competent, motivated people. And if they've got the foundation and they're motivated, then you just gotta take away the things that de-motivate people. So keep the culture, so that they can grow and do their thing, encourage them. Any really bright person can learn anything really quick if they're motivated So, I spent more time on the human attributes of that than I did in other metrics in terms of humans.

0:11:22.6 Matt Waller: So Bob, you're now on the board of directors of Reddit. And for those listening who may not know, Reddit's a social news aggregation discussion website, has over 200 million monthly visitors. And I have to say, Bob, it's remarkable to me that you have been on the board for 11 years. Were you on from the very beginning?

0:11:47.1 Bob Sauerberg: Yeah. Condé Nast bought Reddit 12 years ago, for... It's been reported at 10 million, so I'm just gonna stick with the public reporting of that. We actually operated it for a while, so when I took over operating it, the founders had quit, we had three people in an office who were all threatening to quit, and we had a site that had no revenue, but it was doubling every month. So, I was like, "Wow." And it was a website, it wasn't the mobile, it was all this stuff, wasn't happening. So, we start from there to what we have today, which is... Actually now, since we talked it turn that we have 400 million monthly users.

0:12:28.7 Matt Waller: Wow.

0:12:28.7 Bob Sauerberg: Sixth largest site in the US, growing massively around the world. Publicly, it has been reported that we fundraised just a few months ago at six billion dollars. Both the founders have been back from time to time. The founder that did most of the development is the CEO, he's back and leading the effort. And we will end up more than doubling our revenue every year the last three years. Gearing up to go public next year. Another example of just find good people and let them do their thing, not trying to stifle their innovation, and I'm real proud of it, and let's see if it will become a billion-user global business before you know it. And my guess is we'll blink and know about 10 billion users throughout the world in just a short period of time. So, it will be one of the next big digital businesses.

0:13:28.5 Matt Waller: It's really remarkable to see what Reddit has done in such a short time. And it's really neat that Lumvartt College is the lead director on the board. You've been involved for so long. Quite remarkable.

0:13:46.4 Bob Sauerberg: Thank you, it's definitely... Look, for all the people listening, you know what? You can do it. You get a great education, Dean Waller, and you're gonna move things forward, and don't let anybody tell you you can't do anything. That's what I'd say to everyone, is that anything is possible, so our aspirations are just go for it.

0:14:10.6 Matt Waller: Well, Bob, that's great advice for our students and for everyone else. Thank you so much for taking time to visit with me today. And at some point, I'd like to talk even more about Reddit and especially as the future unfolds here, but I wish you the best in that endeavor as well.

0:14:32.6 Bob Sauerberg: Thank you, and I'd love to do that.

[music]

0:14:36.8 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of the Be Epic podcast from the Walton College. You can find this on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us. You can find current and past episodes by searching, "beepicpodcast," one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.

 

Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.

 

Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.

 

Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.





Walton College

Walton College of Business

Since its founding at the University of Arkansas in 1926, the Sam M. Walton College of Business has grown to become the state's premier college of business – as well as a nationally competitive business school. Learn more...

Be Epic Podcast

We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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