Business bible has taken a battering

While Taoiseach Enda Kenny was downing the saki and talking up Ireland in Japan, the Government was receiving a PR boost from a US publication that is frequently described as America’s business bible.

Business bible has taken a battering

The description by Forbes magazine of Ireland as “the best place in the world in which to do business” may have caused snorts of derision in certain quarters, but any boost to our foreign investment drive will surely be welcomed. It certainly beats the sort of press that Ireland was garnering a few years back when developer Sean Dunne was famously caught by a New York Times journalist picking coppers off a pub floor while former taoiseach Brian Cowen became the butt of jokes on Jay Leno’s chat show.

In reaching its verdict, Forbes listed 11 factors including property taxes, innovation, taxes, technology, corruption, freedom, red tape, investor protection, and stock exchange performance. Ireland edged out New Zealand, Hong Kong, Denmark, and Sweden to grab the prize.

One of the ironies is that columnists in Forbes have not been slow to lambast our lax tax practices.

This from contributor Martin Sullivan last June: “If Ireland is not a tax haven, it is a bagel.”

As the writer noted, “lax US transfer rules are allowing Irish plants to book inordinate profits. In effect, the US treasury is subsidising investment in Ireland.”

Forbes editor-in-chief Steve Forbes, for that matter, has never been slow to air his opinions, which are best described as to the hard-right of centre. The bespectacled publisher spent — some would say, blew — $75m of the family fortune on two unsuccessful runs at the Republican Party presidential nomination in 1988 and 1992. An enthusiastic supporter of flat taxes, deregulation, and Ronald Reagan, Steve Forbes has always been a serious character, the sort of figure that tends to fare poorly in the US presidential bear pit. He looked out of his comfort zone in the media spotlight. One journalist described him as a “dork robot”.

Those heady days are long gone for the family business has been in deep trouble, battered by those horsemen of the media apocalypse, recession, and the internet. People have been buying fewer glossy magazines; Forbes, which devotes itself to the lives of the über successful, has been forced to ingest the sawdust of failure.

Last month, Bloomberg.com — one of the publication’s successful rivals — reported that Steve Forbes had put the magazine up for sale, having engaged Deutsche Bank to test the waters. The family are looking for around $400m (€292m), it is reported. Market sceptics suggest they would be lucky to get even a half of that.

The hope is that an overseas mogul or technology king will be keen to pick up the publication as his or her plaything. There are only so many palaces and mega yachts that a fellow can own, after all. The recent acquisition by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos of the Washington Post may have stirred up hopes.

The family have gradually been selling off the silver since the Forbes heyday in the late 1990s when the dotcom bubble boosted ad revenues to record levels.

Back in 2000, Forbes could boast 6,000 ads and 300 pages per issue — this has fallen to just over 100. As its troubles mounted, Steve and his brother Kip sanctioned the sale of key family assets including the Fabergé egg collection built up by their larger-than-life father, Malcolm. The collection, the largest in the world outside the Kremlin, realised $110m. They received $175m for a vast ranch in Colorado while the Forbes headquarters on New York’s Fifth Avenue was offloaded for $65m to NY University in a sale and leaseback deal. Most painfully of all, the family sold 40% of the company to a private equity group, Elevation Partners, in 2006. Among the key investors in Elevation is Bono.

Over time, the family has attracted enemies among the legions of managers and reporters who once worked for Forbes. Its former managing director, Stewart Pinkerton, has penned a wounding account of the family’s modus operandi, entitled The Fall of the House of Forbes: The inside story of the collapse of a media empire.

It is said to reveal “the hidden machinations, disastrous decisions, and personal foibles of a century-old dynasty that rose to glittering heights and crashed just as spectacularly”.

Pinkerton may have over-egged the pudding; Forbes, after all, is still standing and has staged a modest recovery recently.

What cannot be denied is that the family has had a colourful history, starting with the career of the Scottish-born Bertie Charles Forbes, who arrived in the US in 1904 after a stint in South Africa. BC Forbes founded the magazine in 1917 as a “mix of stock tip sheet and fawning profile rag”. The real hero of the family tale is Malcolm, a larger-than-life character who understood how to massage personal image in support of the business.

Malcolm would become famous for his lavish personal lifestyle, culminating in a 70th birthday party in Tangier in north Morocco in 1999, which cost $2.5m and to which 800 guests were flown by Boeing 747, DC-8, or Concorde. Among the guestlist: Actress Liz Taylor, Fiat boss Gianni Agnelli, television anchor Barbara Walters, and Henry Kissinger.

The ceremony’s climax involved a cavalry charge by 300 Berber horsemen firing muskets in the air.

Malcolm collected Harley Davidson bikes and was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

After his death, soon after, it emerged that his sex life was every bit as adventurous as his hobbies. He was supposedly ‘outed’ by a gay rights activist, Michelangelo Signorile.

One thing is clear, Malcolm was not boring. He was also canny, amassing a large real estate and art portfolio. His sons have found it hard to match their father, but the times have been far less propitious.

Malcolm thrived during the ‘Mad Men’ cocktail swilling era of post-war America. Steve, in particular, has had to cope with the implosion in traditional publishing when famous print names have been swallowed up by large conglomerates.

Newsweek, once a staple on the international magazine stalls, no longer exists in print form while the International Herald Tribune has been swallowed up by the New York Times.

Forbes has produced an online strategy, but making it work has been an uphill struggle. In 2010, Mike Perlis became the first non-family member to run the business as chief executive. There are signs of a modest comeback, with the group increasing revenues in its latest financial year following a long period of decline. Digital, licensing, and conference revenues are driving the comeback, along with a content marketing strategy under which marketeers get to plug their products using the Forbes name plate. However, the era of unlimited expense accounts is over. Staffers have largely given way to outside contributors and the magazine packs less of a punch.

Sadly for Forbes, it now has more in common with struggling middle-income types than with the mega rich it so frequently profiles. The businessman’s bible is looking more than a little bit battered.

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