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A CEO who loved the outdoors, flying and his employees — Ted Meredith dies at 69


Deep in the cavernous basement of Meredith Corp.’s headquarters building at 1716 Locust St. is a piece of Des Moines aviation history, the first civilian plane to touch down at Des Moines International Airport.

Flown in 1931 by a then-25-year-old E.T. “Ed” Meredith Jr., the plane has been undergoing restoration. Handling much of the work was the pilot’s son, E.T. “Ted” Meredith III, who died last week at the age of 69.

“He was an accomplished craftsman in the area of woodwork, and that extended to all things mechanical, such as planes, cars and boats,” said Bob Burnett, a former chairman and chief executive at the media giant who worked with Ted Meredith for more than 30 years.

Meredith’s expertise at building and rebuilding extended to the company that bears his name. When he joined the family business in 1956, Meredith had roughly 1,300 workers and fewer than a half-dozen magazines, including Successful Farming and Better Homes and Gardens. It owned three television stations and a handful of radio stations. Profits that year totaled $4 million.

By fiscal 2002, the most recent full year that Meredith oversaw, profits had climbed 22-fold to $91.4 million. It publishes 16 subscription magazines and has 300 book titles in print. Its 11 television stations reach 10 percent of American households. The company today has more than 2,800 employees.  

Though he may always have been destined to take the reins of the company, Meredith spent years learning every aspect of its operations.   Meredith joined the company in 1956, and over the next 11 years he rotated through a series of management positions in the company’s magazine, book and printing groups, learning through hands-on training. He was named to Meredith’s board in 1965.   In 1966, the company’s stock began trading on the New York Stock Exchange. Five years later, Meredith was named president and chief executive. He served as chairman of the board from 1973 until 1988, when he became chairman of the executive committee, a title he held until his death.

One of Meredith’s most significant accomplishments happened early in his tenure on the board. In 1968, he orchestrated the ouster of his uncle, Fred Bohen, who had led the company for more than 30 years.

Bohen, who assumed the helm following the death of Meredith’s grandfather’s death, had steered the company successfully through the Great Depression. The tightfistedness that served him well during those lean economic years would serve to stifle the company during the economic boom of the 1950s.

Meredith, which didn’t pay its workers as well as the competition, became known as a great training ground for young talent that could be easily poached, according to “Meredith: The First 100 Years,” a recently published book that details the company’s history.

Darwin Tucker was named to succeed Bohen, becoming the first non-family member to head the company.

“His great talent was hiring great talent and supporting those people,” said Jim Autry, a former editor of Better Homes and Gardens who served as president of Meredith’s magazine group.

Meredith was not an outspoken man, friends and co-workers said. But he did what was needed for the company.    “He had a vision for the company that centered around enduring value,” Burnett said.

Meredith was also a tremendously supportive leader.

“He felt a deep connection with his family and a deep connection with the company’s employees,” Autry said. “He could go out onto the plant floor and call each of the pressmen by their first names.”

When the company celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, it was Meredith’s idea to give each worker $100 in dollar coins, a symbol of the $20 that his grandfather was given as a wedding gift that later helped finance the company’s founding.

“One of his major contributions was that he endorsed and sponsored a culture of caring for employees, and he was very very supportive of what I would call a people-oriented organization,” Burnett said.

Autry remembers a time when an employee’s child was sick and needed special care that wasn’t available in Des Moines.

“Ted was quick to let the Learjet go to take the child for treatment,” Autry said.   That the company had the jet at all can also be attributed to Meredith’s quiet influence.

In the early 1970s, Burnett wanted to move some of the company’s top executives to New York City, the capital of the U.S. media and publishing industry and the headquarters to many of Meredith’s top advertisers. Ted Meredith, as well as others on the board of directors, opposed the move. Still, Meredith recognized New York’s importance to the company. He ordered what was the first of several jets that the company currently operates.

One of the initiatives Meredith lent support to was the growth of the company’s special interest magazines, former co-workers said. The company’s first special interest title, Better Homes and Gardens Home Building Ideas, was developed in 1938. During fiscal 2002, the company published 130 special interest magazines, which deal with specialized topics and a typically sold on newstands rather than by subscription.

Beyond the company, Meredith found joy in the outdoors. He was an avid pilot, boater and hunter. His childhood was filled with safaries in Africa and other adventures. He was an excellent bird hunter, frequently taking fellow employees, friends and sales associates on hunts throughout Iowa, Missouri and Wyoming, where his family owns a 5,000-acre ranch on the edge of the Big Horn Mountains near Sheridan.

Meredith is survived by his wife, Katie; a son, E.T. “Tom” Meredith IV; a daughter, Mell Meredith Frazier; and eight grandchildren.

“He took seriously the fact that the Meredith name was on that company,” said Autry. “I admired him a lot, and I liked him. He was a person of a generous spirit who was easy to get along with. He was quick to laugh. He was all of the things that you wanted in a boss.”

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