Malibu’s man of letters


Folio, the magazine industry’s magazine, has compared Bill Curtis’ office, with its floor-to-ceiling picture windows, white carpet, black Italian leather sofas and a seemingly endless blond-wood wall hiding a bar, cigar humidor and a home theater setup, to a set from a James Bond movie.

There’s even a salt-water aquarium, the main star of which is a poisonous lionfish. Most of his 100 employees filling 32,000 square feet of the Malibu Pavilion on Heathercliff Road (everything but the post office) also look like they were hired from Central Casting for their terrific, 30-something good looks.

But make no mistake; there is nothing make-believe about the business Curtis is running. His privately held CurtCo Freedom Group magazine company is one of the most successful publishing operations in America. With its near-$80 million annual gross, it’s almost certainly Malibu’s biggest independent business, too — and growing daily by leaps and bounds.

Publishing magazines, of course, is a notoriously perilous venture. Curtis’ secret for avoiding the pitfalls was to concentrate tightly on interest-specific “niche” publications. Although they don’t come anywhere near the circulation of People or Sports Illustrated, such CurtCo Freedom monthlies as Home Office Computing (circulation 501,000) and Small Business Computing and Communications (circulation 151,000) give a community of readers — a community joined by interest instead of location — exactly what it wants. CurtCo Freedom’s other publications are Knowledge Management Magazine, Sales Force Automation, and Field Force Automation; Customer Relationship Management will start up later this year. For advertisers like Bill Gates’ Microsoft, Intel or IBM, they’re the silver bullets of media, aimed straight at the bull’s-eye of the target audience.

Reflecting on his success just before leaving last month with 40 employees for a company-paid ski vacation in Beaver Creek, Col., Curtis, 42, said: “We’ve been incredibly fortunate with the magazines we’ve developed. They’ve all had a significant value. We’ve seen markets coming in and made sure we were directly in their paths.” In fact, only three of 17 start-up publications have failed.

After spending several years as an advertising representative for The Financial Times of London and CBS Publishing, Curtis opened his own firm in 1982 in Marina del Rey, representing clients like Inside Sports, Stereo Review, and Popular Photography. Three years later, CurtCo Publishing was launched with Car Audio and Audio Video Interiors, both of which were aimed at markets Curtis says “simply cried out for representation.” Both were sold after they reached top positions in their fields. In 1989, Curtis entered the computer and communication market by launching such magazines as Mobile Office Magazine and Portable Computing and Cellular Buyers Guide; again, after they achieved significant circulation, they were sold. The eight-figure deal enabled Curtis to launch Home Theater and, soon after, he formed a 50/50 partnership with Freedom Communications (publishers of the Orange County Register, 27 other dailies and owner of eight TV network affiliates), with Curtis remaining as president and CEO. Last December, “Home Theater” was sold to Petersen Publishing for $60 million.

Staffing such a publishing mini-empire in Malibu has not been easy, says Curtis, who, with his wife and three children, moved to the beach after the January 1994 earthquake seriously damaged their Woodland Hills home. “California is not friendly to publishing,” he says, “so, for the more senior publishing and advertising people, we have to actively seek them in New York.” Curtis admits he never planned an 80-employee office in New York either; it’s a direct result of the Big Apple’s talent pool. (There are another 20 employees in San Francisco, and everyone is linked together with a state-of-the-art computer network.)

Even though Curtis pays New York-level salaries, convincing East Coast talent to move west has been tough. “Frankly, L.A. has a lousy reputation,” Curtis says. “We’re known for earthquakes, riots, O.J. Simpson, mudslides and fires. Because CNN positions their cameras in such a way on PCH that 50 feet of mud and water looks like miles and miles, all that New Yorkers seem to know about Malibu is that it slides into the water. So when we go to a senior executive in New York and say, ‘We’d like to move you out here,’ we have to go through quite a few backflips to convince them that Malibu is not necessarily L.A. and that it hasn’t slid into the ocean. When they come out here,” he adds with a sly smile, “they get enlightened pretty quickly.”

There is more to CurtCo Freedom than magazine publishing, too. Offering growth potential as exciting as the magazine group (and certainly more mainstream) is Malibu Post & Production, a film- and video operation specializing in trailers, music promos, commercial shows, CD-ROM authoring and much more. It is currently expanding its facilities to enable the many stars who live in the Malibu area to loop their feature and television movies essentially in their back yard.

“It’s not easy making this work in Malibu,” he muses, “but I’ve never seen the experience and camaraderie we have in this building matched in any company, anywhere. It’s not uncommon to walk through these offices at 9 o’clock at night and see that half the people are still here. We’ve been marvelously successful, and they’re proud of that, too, and have shared in some of the wealth.

“I never thought when I was slogging through a New York winter to sell ads, I’d be fortunate enough to work in what I believe is America’s most beautiful location,” Curtis says. “Despite the challenges, every day is inspiring.”