John Zieser – Meredith
John Zieser has never been interested in being “just a lawyer.”
In fact, he couldn’t imagine only reviewing contracts or managing litigation. For him, the goal has always been bigger.
As the chief development officer and general counsel at Meredith, Zieser says he leads major initiatives. In his 21 years there, he’s transformed the media company into the world’s second largest global licensing business, with dozens of brands, thousands of products and a digital media and commerce business.
Zieser was clear with Meredith from the start that he wanted to lead developments, partnerships and overall growth.
“From the beginning, I told them I wouldn’t be a typical general counsel,” he says. “I wanted to help grow the business. And this company was a unique challenge at that time. We were a small company with two relatively small portfolios—magazines and local television. Both of the businesses needed to be aggressively transformed through transactions, and that is what I set out to do.”
Meredith, headquartered for 120 years in Des Moines, Iowa, is a multi-platform media and marketing company that “produces service journalism engaging audiences with essential, inspiring, and trusted content.”
The company operates platforms in digital, video, magazine and broadcast television formats. According to Zieser, Meredith’s National Media Group reaches nearly 95 percent of all women in the U.S. through brands such as People, Better Homes and Gardens, Allrecipes, Southern Living and Real Simple. Meredith reaches 150 million digital consumers each month, and, as the number one U.S. magazine operator, it has 36 million subscribers.
Second only to Disney, Meredith’s global licensing business has over $25 billion in aggregate transaction volume. The company’s licensing relationships, created between brands and publications, is most well-known for the Better Homes and Gardens partnership with Walmart, which has a product line with over 3,000 items. From this, Zieser also developed the Realogy Better Homes and Gardens Real Estate business.
He has recently led another licensing deal, this time with the world’s largest vacation rental business. In January, Meredith announced a “strategic alliance” in which Wyndham Destinations acquired Travel + Leisure for $100 million. Meredith will continue managing the publication, while Wyndham plans to expand into leisure travel and licensing markets, and to build on its travel clubs.
“What they needed was a phenomenal brand to gain and grow their presence,” he says.
He and his corporate development team negotiated the deal which also includes $30 million in marketing commitments. Expanding Meredith’s portfolio isn’t just about bringing in more money for the company, though. Zieser looks for people and businesses that share Meredith’s vision for growth.
“I’ve done a lot of deals and partnerships over the years, but what I love are the ongoing strategic relationships,” he says. “You have to build trust and be straightforward about business objectives. It’s not just buying and selling. It’s more fulfilling.”
Buy and build
When it comes to buying and selling, though, Zieser has a strong record.
In 2018, he led the negotiation and execution of the $2.8 billion acquisition of Time Inc., including its digital media business. He also led the raising of $650 million preferred equity from Koch Equity Development to facilitate the acquisition.
As Meredith and Time integrated their businesses, Zieser led a portfolio review leading to the sale of magazine brands and digital assets over an 18-month post-closing period, resulting in over $1 billion in net sale proceeds.
He also built, through acquisition, Meredith’s digital media business, now one of the top 10 in the country with revenues of over $500 million. He used a “buy and build” strategy to acquire digital publications such as allrecipes.com and grow their content and readership. The Allrecipes deal was awarded Strategic Acquisition of the Year in 2012 by the Association for Corporate Growth.
Aside from negotiating and closing the deals, Zieser also helped integrate the newly acquired businesses into Meredith, which included transitioning intellectual and human capital.
One of his favorite things to do, he says, is disrupt business models and “build something from nothing.”
“That’s the most gratifying to me,” he says. “We have to be on top of change and oftentimes lead change.”
Zieser’s strong business sense helps lead change and anticipate how ideas will play out. When Apple released the iPad in 2010, he saw an opportunity in “where magazines were headed.” He helped found a consortium of media companies, including Meredith, Time Inc., News Corp, Rogers Media, Conde Nast and Hearst, to develop a news app called Texture.
The app, which had a monthly subscription fee, gave readers access to over 200 digital magazines. In 2018, it was sold to Apple and rebranded as Apple News, resulting in a multimillion-dollar licensing deal for Meredith, Zieser says.
When he first started at Meredith, he didn’t know how much his role, the company and the media industry would change.
The fast pace and evolving nature of the business are what excite him, though, and he’s glad he took the chance on it over two decades ago. Zieser was working as group president at First Data Merchant Services, a financial services company, when he received a call from a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, an international firm he’d worked at.
His former colleague wanted to introduce him to executives at Meredith, but Zieser was adamant about never moving back to Iowa, where he grew up. But his wife, Adele, an avid reader of Better Homes and Gardens, encouraged him to check out the opportunity and, to his surprise, he was soon back in the Hawkeye State.
On top of his connection at Sullivan & Cromwell, his time at the firm also made him well-prepared for the role at Meredith. While working in the U.S., England and Australia, he specialized in mergers and acquisitions, and venture capital and private equity transactions. He had “all the technical skills of a deal lawyer,” he says, but didn’t want to be a lawyer, so the role at Meredith seemed like it’d be a great fit.
And for 21 years it has been.
“I love that when I get up every morning, I get to build businesses,” Zieser says. “I like to bring folks that are talented onto boards and into organizations. That is what I have done throughout my career.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Summer III 2021 Edition here.
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