01 Dec 1997

Multimedia Martha: Sharon Patrick Cooks Up A Winner


As president of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO), Sharon L. Patrick (MBA '78) oversees business strategy and operations at one of the country's most talked-about enterprises. She is a former partner at McKinsey & Co. and former president and COO of Cablevision's Rainbow Programming Holdings, Inc.

When did you first meet Martha Stewart?

Climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in 1993. I had completed my time at McKinsey and Rainbow, where I had become a startup and turnaround person. I was finishing a year off, and I was undertaking entrepreneurial business ventures with ideas and people that interested me. The timing was right.

You've been credited with turning Martha Stewart Living into a multimedia corporation. What was it like when you first arrived in 1993?

When I met Martha she had various fragmented businesses and business arrangements. Some were hers, independently, and some were partnerships with others, like Time Warner. Martha had lots of ideas and a great sense of the possibilities of the businesses and the potential for brand building, but what was missing was a real game plan for getting there. Conversely, I had a lot of ideas about multimedia. So we started to build MSLO, which combined all of Martha's business interests into a single, integrated, synergistic company.

What has your business strategy been at MSLO?

A key piece has been building a core creative and editorial content that we spin out across all of the media windows and merchandising channels. This lowers development costs on a per-unit basis.

We also focus on providing information, not entertainment. Although she's written and talked about as a celebrity, Martha is really a teacher. We put our how-to content out there, and we let people learn in the way that they want to learn — so they can watch it on television, listen to it on the radio, read it in the magazine, look at it on the Web.

And with all of our elements combined into a single company, we can take advantage of economies of scale. Our writers write across the board; our editors edit across the board; and so forth. This is also really great for brand building, because we all think brand. We don't think piece, we think whole.

MSLO has $130 million in revenues, a daily television show, a magazine with 2.3 million subscribers, and a new presence on the Web. What is it about Martha that makes her so successful?

She fills a need. She's teaching domestic arts — skills that have gotten lost over the last few decades. She's extremely good at simplifying the steps required so that people can do these things despite the pressures of modern life.

MSLO is a company whose top executives are women and whose audience is mostly female. Does that influence its working atmosphere?

Probably. It's much less political and more collaborative. Power is not much of an ingredient in the day-to-day activities here, but values are. But I don't know what degree of that is women and what degree of that is Martha. Martha really demands perfection, and she attracts people who are like her.

What are you most proud of at MSLO?

That we've created a company that is viewed as a leader. We've managed to keep and extend all of the partnerships without offending anybody. We bought ourselves out of Time, Inc., for example, but they are now a shareholder in our business. I think we are really showing that horizontal integration and synergies can work.

I am also very proud that we are one of the first real cars on the information superhighway. People talk about it a lot, but we are actually doing it.

Why do you think people react so strongly to Martha?

First, she's a celebrity, and celebrities are often lightning rods. Second, the fact that she is focused on the home and hearth is sort of counterculture. She has the guts and the talent and the insight to take that on. People find her perfection maddening - they feel competitive, they feel jealous, they feel inadequate.

But people also love her because she organizes life for the rest of us in very helpful ways from which we can pick and choose what works for us. She offers tools and techniques and tips that are doable.

How do you feel about home decorating, cooking, and gardening?

I'm interested in those things — you have to be interested to be here — but not all to the same degree as Martha, and certainly not with her expertise. But I consider myself a gardener, and I have terraces here in Manhattan. I take a lot of these ideas home and try them out.

Have you ever cooked for Martha?

Yes, I've given parties and cooked and she's come. It's funny how people get nervous when they cook for or entertain Martha; she's really a delightful and interested guest.


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