Journal Communications Inc.'s Chairman and CEO Steven J. Smith Steve Smith's Portable Gospel

By Kirchen, Rich | Editor & Publisher, April 3, 1999 | Go to article overview

Journal Communications Inc.'s Chairman and CEO Steven J. Smith Steve Smith's Portable Gospel


Kirchen, Rich, Editor & Publisher


Extolling employee ownership, first-ever broadcast-side CEO reveals growth strategy for Milwaukee's Journal Communications

The crowd at the downtown Milwaukee Athletic Club luncheon, hosted by Tempo, a professional women's group, is a large and lively one. Expectations run high. After all, the group will be among the first to hear Journal Communications Inc. chairman and CEO Steven J. Smith since he was named the top executive of this diversified media company, which includes broadcast properties and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the most influential newspaper in Wisconsin.

Without any opening flourishes, Smith moves right into his set speech: a straightforward, upbeat rendition of the special advantages of employee ownership (the company has been employee owned since 1937).

Smith, a Milwaukee native, clearly sees himself as a caretaker of that tradition, as well as a growth-minded CEO. Most of the audience at the Athletic Club no doubt is aware that Smith is the first publisher of the Journal Sentinel, as well as first CEO of the company, to come up through the broadcasting ranks.

And that he, a Milwaukee native, is a member of many of the city's leading civic groups.

So where is the media mogul Sturm und Drang? Where are the lightning bolts? Certainly the 49-year-old Smith understands the pervasive power of media today. And just as certainly he must know that he is one of the most influential individuals in the thriving state of Wisconsin.

Yet at the podium and off, among employees or with business partners, Smith is his own kind of media mogul: unassuming; loyally dedicated to company, city, and family; and intensely hardworking, having become at age 48 the youngest CEO in the company's history.

Smith's speech left more than a few people echoing the woman at the Tempo luncheon who said after it was over: "That's it?" In terms of charisma, yes it is. Smith himself says: "I'm a low-key guy who just loves to work for this company."

But results have their own volume, and during the years since Smith has been a key member of the management team, Journal Communications has grown into a $730 million diversified media company.

Smith joined the company 23 years ago, making his first mark as a manager with Journal Communications in 1980. At that time, he was promoted from salesman to station manager of the company's Milwaukee FM station, WKTI, which was a middling rated and highly automated pop music station. Smith led an ambitious conversion to live broadcasting and built a new image for the station using a "hot adult contemporary" program format. WKTI-FM remains among the top billing stations in Milwaukee.

Smith's next task was to increase the profitability of the company's television station in Las Vegas, KNTV, an American Broadcasting Cos. affiliate. He was general manager for 17 months, starting in May 1985. The project gave him first- hand lessons on the TV side of the business.

He returned to Milwaukee in 1986 as executive vice president of the Journal Broadcasting Group. Then in 1987, at the age of 37, he was named president of the group. In 1990, Smith became the first executive vice president of the Journal Communications to come from the broadcast ranks. In 1992, he was named president of the company, another first for a broadcaster.

To Smith, his rapid climb up the corporate ladder was simply a matter of taking one rung at a time. So it seemed logical and inevitable that in the fall of 1998, Smith was named to the final challenge: the role of CEO.

His predecessor, Bob Kahlor, who was a mentor of Smith's, declined to be interviewed for this profile, saying he preferred that the spotlight shine solely on Smith. Of Kahlor, Smith says: "Bob's a fella who gave additional responsibility as he thought you were ready for it. He did not stand over my shoulder during the transition. That gave us [the new management team] a feeling of great comfort. …

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