I didn’t have time to google Christie Hefner beforehand so I had no idea what she looked like. When this gorgeous 57 year old woman, came up to me and extended her tiny hand for a handshake, I was astonished. Honestly, part of me expected a young, blonde bomb shell with an enormous bust and a tiny waste to breeze into the Miron room at Newhouse–maybe as Hugh Hefner’s daughter, I thought, she’d look something like a slightly older version of the Playmates in the magazine. I was wrong. She reminded me a lot of Michelle Obama. Through fashion, she rocks her feminine side in a once-male dominated professional world . She appeared to be in great shape, and at 57, shes definitely wasn’t afraid to show off a little leg in her designer cream skirt-suit.
I was also very impressed because unlike some important people who don’t take the time to meet us students, she met my eyes and gave me a bright smile. Her too-firm grasp in my hand suggested that as the first female CEO, she’d been shaking too many male hands over the years, perhaps overcompensating her grip to make them take her seriously right away.
Her Chicago, midwest accent came through in her “ohs” and “ahs” right when she started talking about her career. In the 1980’s as popularity in cable TV skyrocketed, Playboy Enterprise was doing really well. TV’s success in the 80’s was more than just a promotional extension of the magazine. Playboy enterprises had a whole media group and owned the only casino in England (with exclusive gambling rights).
After the initial boom in success, the company started to realize it was losing money, and losing money fast. It had spread itself too thin and couldn’t keep up with all of the outlets it had invested in– casino, magazine, cable TV, merchandise, the mansion, the playmates, the photographers, everything. At this point Hugh was still CEO but was mostly concerned with the editorial side of the business and had let the money side slack off.
Christie was fresh out of college, she was 22 years old and interested in law, journalism, and politics. Her parents split when she was 5 years old and she lived with her mother, her step father and her younger brother in Chicago. Back in California, Hugh invited her out one weekend just to show her the business after graduation. He knew she needed a job and according to Christie, probably wanted to spend some time together, so he asked her to work for the company for a year while she sorted out her other interests. “I said okay, sure, why not, and that’s when I learned your life never goes in the direction you think it’ll go in.” So she signed on and worked all over the company–branding, marketing, research, advertising, sales.
One year turned to two, and she watched the company lose millions under the previously hired (and shortly thereafter, fired) CEO. The company needed a savior, and Christie stepped up to the plate. “I was in my early 20’s, I didn’t have a graduate school degree, I only knew the business from talking to people and observing, and I said to my dad one day, ‘Dad, I think I can help you, why don’t you let me run things for awhile and I’ll try to pull us out of the slump.’ I don’t know what came over me, because all the odds where against me, and after I pitched myself I sort of thought ‘what the hell am I doing!'”
At the same time the company went under, Hugh had a stroke. Christie got a call from Hugh’s assistant that her dad was in the hospital, so she insisted on flying out from Chicago, even though Hugh refused to see her. She stayed there at the mansion while her dad recieved in-hospice care. One day went by and he refused to see her. Then another day went by. Then another. Finally, Hugh let her come in: “I walked into my dad’s bedroom and he was propped up on the pillows watching TV and reading the TV Guide. He looked completely normal and great, but as I got closer and closer to his bed I realized he was reading the TV Guide and holding it upside down, and he didn’t know it. It was really, really scary.” So after that Christie became CEO of Playboy Inc. and began her daunting task of digging the company out of the hole.
“I’ll tell you what I did in business terms first,” she says. “I eliminated the facets of the company that weren’t generating sufficient revenue and inhibited brand expansion.” She pauses dramatically, and the audience is still. “Which means I cut the losers,” and the audience erupts into laughter.
She sold the casino in England, cut down on other company expenses, built a team of diverse associates to help her, and then proceeded to spend the next 20 years saving and restructuring the company from a top-down model to a platform model.
Christie stepped down in 2008 because as the longest serving CEO of a multimillion dollar company, she finally, 20 years later, wanted to return to her original interests of journalism, law and politics through charity work and working on the Obama campaign.
“I learned a lot from those years at Playboy. I learned a lot about people and about business, and how to be a good leader. I tell people I didn’t get my MBA but I got my MBWA–my ‘masters by walking around’. I learned that life never leads you where you think you’ll go and even though it’s good to have goals, never set a 10-year plan for yourself because it just won’t happen that way. Just as shit happen, so does good stuff.”
Stay tuned for more on Christie’s view on the magazine industry, how she restructured advertising and editorial teams, and what she thinks you can do to become a good leader.