Andy Serwer Shares His Keys to Success

Taking Care of Business
Andy Serwer

Photo courtesy Andy Serwer

Andy Serwer

Andy Serwer was always more interested in writing about business than practicing it, so after earning his MBA at Emory University in Atlanta he went on to the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York. It didn’t take him long to realize he had made the right decision.

“Business journalism at that point was really not at all hot and was real back water. And the business journalism class was real small,” Serwer, longtime managing editor of Fortune magazine, said in an interview with 850 during a recent visit to Tallahassee.

“Some of the students were saying things like, ‘These companies, man, they just exist to, like, make profits.’ I looked around and thought I just might have a leg up on these guys, I understand things a little more than they do.  And that’s what did it for me. I realized I already had an understanding of (the business world). It was great.”

Serwer got an internship at Fortune in 1984 that turned into a full-time job in 1985. He left the magazine in August after nearly 30 years, the last eight as managing editor — chalking up one of the longest tenures in that job in decades. During that time he had a bird’s eye view of Wall Street, watched the country fall into and crawl out of three recessions, saw Fortune magazine and its website climb to a combined audience of more than 13 million, met presidents and corporate giants and international celebrities. 

In earning the 2000 Business Journalist of the Year honor from TJFR Business News Reporter, he was touted as “perhaps the nation’s top multimedia talent, successfully juggling the roles of serious journalist, astute commentator and occasional court jester.” Under his leadership, Fortune saw its ad revenues rise by 6 percent in the first half of 2014 — even as scores of magazines across the country were either folding or cutting their size.  

Looking back, he now says, “It was a great run. I saw a lot of change and met a lot of incredible people. It was amazing.”

He also learned a lot of lessons, made a lot of observations and saw dramatic changes in the world around him, including in the fast-changing business of journalism.


850: What was your first job at Fortune?

AS: It was called reporter. There were writers and reporters. The writer would interview and the reporter would take notes. You (the reporter) started off fact checking. That was all you did. You learned to question everything. You have a glass. Is it a glass of water? Is there water in it? How do you know it’s water? You were taught to question every single thing that the writer wrote.

We had to fill in the blanks a lot, too.


850: What’s your attitude about today’s economy?

AS: The economy is better than people think it is. People often think it’s worse than it is. This recovery has been a little difficult because employment is lagging. But even that’s improving. Housing is improving. Energy prices have improved. Interest rates are low. 

There are all kinds of concerns always. Europe is terrible. Unemployment is high (because) you’re competing with (places like) Pakistan. Political threats like ISIS are always a problem. (But) we’ve seen an incredible energy revolution in the U.S. We have such incredible advantages in the U.S. We have the greatest technology and industry on the planet by far, the greatest university system by far, the best rule of law by far. There’s a lot to be very positive about in the U.S. 


850: What about the growing disparity between the haves and have-nots in the U.S.?

AS: That’s a huge, vexing problem. The causes are pretty obvious, but the solutions are difficult. We’re living in a global marketplace and you’re not protected. If you earn $50,000 and someone can do your job overseas for $25,000, you’re in trouble. And that’s not going away. And the manufacturing base here continues to decline. And those are the secure, well-paying union jobs. 

We have problems in education and everyone knows we need to spend money in education, but people seem to be reluctant to do that. The deficits that cities and states are facing are problematic. We need to take a look at pensions we’re paying city and state employees. Does it make sense to be firing teachers to pay the pensions of retired teachers? Is there a way for us to actually cut back on pensions of the people who deserve the pensions but who are going to have to feel the pain a little bit? If your pension is $100,000 a year, well maybe it should be $85,000 a year. And can we have that conversation and affect that change to take that $15,000 times a million so we can educate young people so they can have sustainable jobs? That’s a huge order, but if we don’t do that, what are we going to do?


850: What about today’s political climate?

AS: I find the political discourse frankly depressing. There is one word and one phrase you can’t utter any more. The one word is “compromise.” And the phrase is, “I’ve changed my mind.” If you are a politician, you can’t say those two things any more. That’s crazy to me. You should be able to say proudly: “We are from different sides of the aisle, but we got it done. We compromised.” Or, “I talked to her. She explained to me. She told me things I didn’t know. So I changed my mind.”


850: What do you see happening with economic policy?

AS: Quantitative easing, we’re winding that down. It was to prime the pump to transition us. We’re going to take away that cheap money and see if we can make it. We’ve got to be able to make it. I think we will. We were on easy money survival. I’m pretty optimistic. 

The thing that bites you in the butt is never the thing you think it’s going to be. It shouldn’t be the end of quantitative easing that throws us into recession. The energy boom was something that no one saw. The political dysfunction and income inequality coupled with loss of middle class manufacturing jobs are the big problems vexing the economy. There’s other things like immigration and global warming, but I think we’ll be able to address those things.


850: Where do you see us going now that the Great Recession is behind us?

AS: The biggest change of our lifetime is the Internet revolution, the technology Internet revolution. It keeps unfolding in front of our eyes. We’re living it and it makes everything so unsettling and so exciting at the same time. It’s very, very hard to predict, and every time a business thinks it cannot be disrupted by the Internet the Internet proves them wrong.

I was talking to some bankers who said, “Well, they’re always going to need banks, right?” Well, maybe not. For young people, smart phones control everything from airline reservations to reading to banking to shopping to driving. It’s hard to even imagine. With banking, for instance, people do peer-to-peer lending on their phones, in the future they’ll be using virtual currencies and phones to pay for things, so who needs a bank if you’re not going to need cash?


850: What types of businesses will remain the same?

AS: I talked to a guy recently who was doing strip malls. And I said, “Strip malls? That’s interesting. That’s not a very good business.”

But his whole strategy is that his tenants cannot be disrupted by the Internet — dentists, pet care, headquarters for a lawn service. Will the Internet be able to fix your teeth? Probably not in our lifetime. It’s pretty obvious, but it’s pretty mysterious. It’s got everybody thinking. Warren Buffett’s thinking about this at Berkshire Hathaway. Jamie Dimon is thinking about it at JP Morgan. The CEO at Proctor and Gamble is thinking about it. Muhtar Kent at Coca Cola is thinking about it, about how social media is talking about Coke’s products. Sure they’re making drinks and sodas, but the Internet is changing their business. 

There is more change now than there was in the early part of my career. I’m always interested in this idea of accelerating change. It’s unsettling. It’s definitely not slowing down. It changes our behavior — that’s the interesting thing. Where technology and behavior intersect. That’s what we’re experiencing and feeling now.

Photo courtesy Andy Serwer/Twitter

Steve Wozniak & Andy Serwer


850: What’s next for you?

AS: Possibly write a book, teach, do something completely different, like TV programming or a documentary. Mostly I’m taking a breather after working for 29 years. I’ll be visiting my older daughter in Spain and taking some road trips.

Andy Serwer was in Tallahassee in early November to serve as moderator for the second annual Power Forward Speaker Series presented by First Commerce Credit Union and the Florida State University College of Business. Guest speaker for the event, which was co-sponsored by 850 Business Magazine, was Steve Wozniak, a co-founder of Apple. At the end of the event, Serwer took time to tweet a selfie of himself and the “Woz.”

Categories: Opinion, Profiles