Posted Dec. 2, 2014, by Nicole Levy, Capital New York
In 1993, the man who today serves as executive vice president of the magazine publisher Bonnier—he was then a junior salesman at Scuba Diving magazine—set his sights on a potential client who had placed ads in all of the publication’s competitors but refused to take Zinczenko’s calls.
The situation called for facetime. Zinczenko paid the would-be advertiser, Greg MacKay, the founding owner of a diving instruction school and retail shop in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl., a visit at his office and insisted on treating him to lunch at the grill next door. Over pizza, Zinczenko’s tales of working as a scuba diving instructor and cave diving in the Yucatan peninsula, an undertaking among the most technically demanding and treacherous in MacKay’s field, failed to cajole him.
“So what are your passions?’” Zinczenko recalled asking McKay.
Skydiving, he told him.
Zinczenko said he’d always wanted to try the action sport, but MacKay was unconvinced. From his wallet, McKay plucked a business card with contact information for a local skydiving center. If Zinczenko was serious, here was his opportunity to prove it.
One month later, MacKay received a faxed copy of Zinczenko’s U.S. Parachute Association license. In distinctively zealous Zinczenko style, the newly certified skydiver had skipped introductory tandem jumps with his instructors in favor of diving with his own parachute from day one.
“I have to tell you the first 50 skydives, I was absolutely terrified,” Zinczenko said. “I had tears every time.”
And still, after winning MacKay’s business and braving those first 50 dives, Zinczenko made 567 more.
Seven years ago, Zinczenko, now 46, found his match in Bonnier. Practicing Brazilian jiu jitsu, running, cycling, rock climbing, diving, open-water swimming, ashtanga yoga, fishing and hunting with indiscriminate intensity, he lives the life of the ideal reader of not just one Bonnier Corp. publication, but many.
In 1989, when chief executive David Freygang started working at what was then World Publications, the company printed three magazines: World WaterSkiing, WindRider and Sport Fishing. Among the staff of 25, “you were either a water skier, a windsurfer, or an offshore fisherman,” Freygang said.
Today, Bonnier Corporation publishes 32 special-interest titles for the motorcyclist, the outdoorsman, the sailor … and the list goes on, but Freygang believes “that foundation of people who love the brand, love the activities and are participants still really exists today,” he said. “And when I look across media companies today, I still think that’s a great advantage for us.”
According to Bonnier group publisher Gregory Gatto, “niche or enthusiast magazines are better positioned in this marketplace right now than more of your broader, general interest” magazines. As newsstand sales continue to plummet across the magazine industry, they hit publications like Time Inc.’s People harder than Bonnier’s Field & Stream, single-copy sales of which accounted for 2 percent of its total circulation in the first six months of 2014, compared to 19 percent of People’s total circulation.
“We’re able to weather the storm a little better,” Gatto said.
The story of Bonnier, a smaller company since Freygang and Zinczenko took the top two leadership positions at the company in January 2013, is one of calculated risk. After shuttering five magazines in 2013, Bonnier took an aggressive stance in the men’s market by acquiring, in a swap for its active sports titles, nine motorcycle brands from Source Interlink Media in 2013—but not before testing the waters with the acquisition of Hearst’s Cycle World in 2011.
It was Zinczenko, a motorcyclist since his 30s, who had persuaded then-C.E.O. Terry Snow that Cycle World would prove to be a good investment.
On a recent unseasonably warm Monday morning Zinczenko has already checked the tire pressure, run the motor, tested the traction control, and plotted out the roads he would drive before taking out his Ducati Multistrada 1200-S for a ride.
He performs no superstitious rituals for his riskiest pastimes because “the idea is, if you prepare and if you do everything properly and if you’re all in, it’s going to work out,” he said, then paused. “I think.”
Wearing a visored helmet and a jacket with an inside strap to secure his viscera, Zinczenko set off on the roads of New Paltz, N.Y. near the house he and his wife Allison bought as a counterpoint to their Manhattan apartment in 2008. His uphill destination: the glacial Lake Minnewaska, a natural wonder that is for him the setting of past runs, hikes, swims and scuba dives.
Whenever he hit a stretch of roadway free of cars and curves, driveways and deer, he accelerated his motorcycle to a bug-crushing velocity that lifted his front wheel off the asphalt. In a 65 m.p.h. zone, the number on his digital speedometer crested at 117.
“He really likes to test his limits,” said his brother Dave Zinczenko, longtime editor of Men’s Health. When daredevil skydiver Felix Baumgartner jumped from a balloon 24 miles above the earth’s surface in 2012, shattering the sound barrier, Eric Zinczenko watched the live broadcast of the feat from his seat on a business-trip flight and thought, “I just need to jump out of this plane right now,” he said. “That’s how inspiring it was to me.”
After rising from junior salesman at Scuba Diving to associate publisher of sister Rodale title Bicycling in his late 20s, Eric Zinczenko tested his professional limits by taking a job at The New Yorker as director of financial and brand advertising.
”There were two or three people at Rodale, who should remain nameless, who said, ‘Yeah, Eric, you’re doing great, your career is going okay…but you’re at Scuba Diving and Bicycling. You need some big magazine experience.’” And that advice continued to circle in his thoughts the way a motorcycle rings a race track. Adding The New Yorker—a prestigious Condé Nast magazine that rarely printed anything about Zinczenko’s two athletic passions—to his resume would signify he was, in his words, “not just the sports guy.”
But less than a year later, Zinczenko had sprained his sense of identity and took a step back: “I realized that I shouldn’t apologize for finding media that I believe in,” he said.
He found his faith again as the advertising director of Outside magazine, where he took up mountaineering and ice climbing.
“I think that Outside really inspired me at that time,” he said. “I was really, really proud that this is who I am.”
In 2002, the action adventurer returned to Rodale, where he became the publisher of Backpacker magazine and where his younger brother was editor in chief of Men’s Health.
Of the two brothers, Dave Zinczenko keeps a fuller head of hair and higher social profile: in media circles, he’s known for the bestselling Eat This, Not That franchise and The Abs Diet book, for his frequent appearances on NBC’s “Today” morning show and for opening two hot Manhattan restaurants with his friend and fellow media mogul Dan Abrams. Eric prefers to spend his time training for his next triathlon or hiking with his wife, his son and his daughter on the nature preserve he can see from his house, and he prefers to spend his discretionary income on gear for his hobbies. (One of his custom-made sniper rifles can set him back as much as $10,000.)
Praising his brother’s humility, Dave added in jest, “I do take some credit for that, because I’ve been trying to humiliate him since we were pre-schoolers.”
The brothers grew up in Bethlehem, Penn., roughhousing and wrestling one another competitively for positions on their high school’s junior varsity and varsity teams. (They were, regrettably, in the same weight class.) The competitive horseplay continued at Rodale, where it happened “usually toward the end of the day, or after hours, and we would refer to it as ‘Pearl Harboring’ of the other,” the younger Zinczenko explained. “We would go to the other’s office and without warning, just attack the person, the other, while he was trying to work and then take off … and then at that point, all kinds of things flew.”
It wasn’t all havoc, though: at the Pennsylvania-based publisher, both Zinczenkos cultivated reputations for creativity. Dave Zinczenko knows how to repackage an old story as something new, said Jonathan Dorn, former editor in chief of Backpacker. “How many times can you tell a story about getting flat abs and make it sound new again?” (It turns out, as many times as it takes to make a career.)
His brother, Dorn said, creates a “small, like-minded community of people who come together to do something more than just another advertorial or page or banner in a magazine”; instead, they make events like Backpacker’s “Adventure New York City” possible. The event drew the support of outdoor industry sponsors and local Manhattan businesses and, in its inaugural years, invited participants to camp on the Great Lawn in Central Park.
But Rodale would prove too small for two Zinczenkos. When talk of the brothers working together on Men’s Health began to circulate, “everybody started getting uncomfortable,” Eric Zinczenko recalled. Co-workers, first excited about the prospect, reconsidered, thinking “they’ll end up wrestling in the hallway.”
It was time for his next challenge.
Before he joined Time4 Media in 2006 as group publisher of Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, Zinczenko had shot game, but only with arrows. He would pick up riflery at his Time Inc. co-workers’ suggestion.
Zinczenko’s hunting credentials proved “very important to the credibility of our brand, because the outdoor industry can be very insular,” said Elizabeth Murphy, chief marketing officer at Bonnier and former director of online operations and sales at Field & Stream and Outdoor Life. “He immediately started getting invited to go on hunts.” Today, eight trophy mule deer heads line the olive-green walls of the basement theater room in Zinczenko’s home, and two await mounting on the floor.
Although Zinczenko had hoped he one day might head more prominent magazines like Sports Illustrated, or even Time and People at Time Inc., he had to rethink his ambitions in 2007 when the public company sold its 18 enthusiast titles to Sweden’s Bonnier AB, which merged them with World Publications to form Bonnier Corp.
He rose up the ranks at Bonnier instead, adding five magazines to his oversight in 2012 when he became executive vice president of the company’s newly formed Men’s Group. In 2013, when Dave Freygang succeeded Terry Snow as Bonnier’s chief executive, his first action was to promote Zinczenko to executive vice president of the entire company.
As a team, Freygang and Zinczenko pared down the company’s assets, selling Ski and Skiing magazines and its own Boulder, Colo.-based businesses to Active Interest Media in April, and Parenting and Baby Talk to Meredith Corp. in May. That same month, Bonnier traded its active sports titles for Source Interlink’s motorcycle titles.
“I think a smaller company was necessary for us to achieve sustained profitability and return to revenue growth,” Freygang said. Rather than compete with Meredith, which published rival magazines Parents and American Baby, Bonnier zeroed in three enthusiast markets that appeal to their core demographic, men from the ages of 25 to 45.
“Basically the way we’re structured now, we’re very strong in outdoor, very strong in marine, and very strong in motorcycles.” The company plans to grow its revenue by investing more money in licensing deals, books published through its Weldon Owen division and events produced by the recently acquired Promotion Company. Profitable this year and last, with a value of approximately $207 million, according to Freygang, Bonnier is the fifth-largest publishing company in the U.S., but it will probably never be in the same league as Condé Nast and Time Inc.
Zinczenko lives his life within similar parameters: to the typical media employee, he’s the mythical Chuck Norris internet meme, exercising three times a day even when he isn’t training for an event, but to those who know him best, he’s a balanced team player. He may never win the triathlons he competes in; still, he aims to place among the top 50 contenders. “I think that’s saving something when you’re working and traveling and trying to be a dad and a husband, too,” he said.
In 2011, he ran the Lake Placid Ironman triathlon—an arduous race that requires participants to swim 2.4 miles, ride 112 miles on a bicycle and run 26.2 miles—within the time limit he had set for himself. His wife, his kids, his mother and brother came to look on at several points along the course and fêted him with a celebratory dinner at its end.
The triathlon is “grueling, and he was crossing that finish line smiling,” Zinczenko’s brother said. “That’s just who he is.”
This article appeared in the December issue of Capital magazine.