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 want to believe, too, but there’s not a spreadsheet or specific detail to be found at the Bristol Lounge. Which makes it hard to imagine that the man sitting before me, with the somewhat thin résumé for the job he’s seeking, holds the blueprint for saving the entire newspaper industry.

“IS THAT RIGHT?” Bill Grabin asks the question slowly over the phone. I’ve just told him that Aaron Kushner wants to buy the Globe. Grabin, the cofounder of a small company in Maine called Renaissance Greeting Cards, tells me he’ll have to think about talking to me for this story. When I call him back later, all he’ll say is, “I’m afraid I’ll have to decline comment.”

At the time Kushner took over Marian Heath, the greeting-card industry was dominated by two players: Hallmark and American Greetings. Kushner’s goal, according to Gary Russell — an independent sales rep who sells the cards of several different companies to retailers — “was that he was going to be the third-largest greeting-card company in America.” Doing so would mean blowing past the number three company, Recycled Paper Greetings. Russell, who worked with Kushner selling Marian Heath greeting cards until their business relationship ended in a lawsuit a couple of years ago, all but laughs as he describes that ambition. Russell estimated that Recycled was doing more than $90 million in annual sales. Marian Heath, he said, was probably doing less than $10 million at the time, “and he’s gonna take it to $90 million with no business experience in our industry?”

Kushner denies ever setting Recycled in his sights, but there’s no doubt he wanted to grow Marian Heath. One strategy was acquiring existing greeting card companies and folding them into Marian Heath. Which is how Kushner came to buy Renaissance.

It was a cold December morning in 2005, the day after Marian Heath had announced its purchase of Renaissance, and the staff of the recently bought company had been told to arrive early for a meeting. Though rumors had been flying that Renaissance might be sold, no one expected what came next.

“When they opened up the door,” says a former employee, who asked to remain anonymous, “we got into a line like cattle, and there were people at the door with clipboards asking us what our name was, and they looked at us and said, ‘Okay, you go upstairs, you go to the cafeteria, you go upstairs, you go to the cafeteria.’ Once we started seeing who was in the room, we were like, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God! Those people downstairs are going to be let go today.’ And sure enough, that’s what happened. We never got to say goodbye to them.” In all, 34 of 77 employees were dismissed that day.