Can Aaron Kushner Save the Globe?
Aaron Kushner, the former CEO of a small South Shore greeting-card company, has a top-secret cure for the dying newspaper industry. And he plans to put it to the test by buying the Boston Globe.
“I was just really astonished that he failed to appreciate the value that he had just destroyed,” says Ronnie Sellers, one of the founders of Renaissance, who left in 1991 and now runs a greeting-card company in South Portland, Maine. [Editor’s note: Sellers was once married to an aunt of this magazine’s acting editor.] Sellers says customers soon began moving from Marian Heath to his company. “Our greeting-card sales doubled,” he says. “And we know a lot of the reason our sales increased so much was because there were many accounts that were just fed up with Marian Heath and came to us.” Sellers says his company’s internal tracking suggests that hundreds of customers switched over from Marian Heath.
Eventually, Sellers says, things happened that suggested Marian Heath was having financial difficulties. “I was hearing from sales representatives who rep our line and also rep Marian Heath, and they told me that Marian Heath wasn’t paying them, or was paying them very late. Artists and licensors who had sold content to Marian Heath also told me that they weren’t getting paid their royalties on time. Some of these were owed substantial amounts of money. I assumed, therefore, that it was likely that Marian Heath was running short of cash, and that the grand plan that Aaron orchestrated may have run aground.”
Kushner denies that Marian Heath had financial difficulties under his leadership. In fact, he insists the company more than tripled revenues during his tenure. The company, he tells me, made a point of paying its vendors and sales reps fully and on time. “And I think the results at the end of the day speak for themselves,” he says. “We are one of the last players in the business still standing in terms of a true full card line that can compete with American Greetings and Hallmark.”
I ask Kushner about firing so much of the staff at Renaissance. “It’s never an easy thing when anyone has to be let go,” he says. “And the greeting-card business, like the newspaper business, has had to go through some incredibly painful transitions in the industry…. The reason Marian Heath is the leader that it is today is in large part simply because it survived, whereas a lot of our competitors ceased to exist.” Moreover, Kushner claims it was Renaissance management that suggested who should stay and who should be let go.
In the end, he says, there were painful decisions that had to be made. “How anybody could think that we didn’t love the business and understand the business and that I didn’t have a great vision for the business and leadership for the business, I don’t see how anybody could make that argument,” he says.
Still, Kushner and the Walnut Group parted ways in 2009, seven years after they bought Marian Heath. Kushner says he remains a major stakeholder in Marian Heath, and that his leaving the business was a mutual decision between him and the Walnut Group: “I had a vision for the business, and they had a very different vision, and they controlled the working capital, so we decided to move on.”
Calls to the Walnut Group were not returned. When I called Marian Heath and asked for Kushner, the receptionist answering the phone would say only, “He no longer works here.”