Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc.
Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc.
Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc.
Incorporated: 1928 as Harte-Hanks Newspapers
Sales: $532.85 million (1995)
Stock Exchanges: New York
SICs: 2711 Newspapers; 7331 Direct Mail Advertising Services; 833 Television Broadcasting Stations
Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc. is a diversified communications company. Its six newspapers (Abilene Reporter-News, Corpus Christi Caller-Times, San Angelo Standard-Times, and Times Record News in Texas, and Anderson Independent-Mail in South Carolina) make up 25 percent of its sales. Nearly 40 percent of sales come from the company’s Direct Marketing division, which offers full-service marketing programs from market research to advertising design and delivery. More than one-third of company revenues are generated by the company’s 570 zoned editions of its four free advertising shoppers, also known as penny savers, which together reach nearly seven million households each week in the Dallas/Ft. Worth, Southern and Northern California, and Miami/Ft. Lauderdale markets.
In 1996 Harte-Hanks expanded its shoppers’ potential reach by launching World Wide Web sites featuring searchable databases of shopper ads. The company is also the long-time owner of KENS-TV in San Antonio, a CBS affiliate. Together, Harte-Hanks divisions produced nearly $533 million in revenues in 1995 for net income over $10 million. Principal shareholders include Houston H. and Ed Harte, sons of company founder Houston Harte, with more than 31 percent combined, and Andrew Shelton, son-in-law of company founder Bernard Hanks, with 15 percent; Houston H. Harte serves as chairman of the board. President and CEO Larry Franklin and other officers hold an additional ten percent of the company’s stock.
Partnership Between Rivals in the 1920s
Houston Harte, owner of the San Angelo Standard, and Bernard Hanks, owner of the Abilene Reporter, met for the first time at a publishers’ meeting in Dallas in the early 1920s. Their papers, located only 90 miles apart, had for years competed fiercely in the primarily rural areas where their territories overlapped. That rivalry, which continued throughout their partnership, did not prevent the two from taking a liking to each other. When Harte heard about an opportunity to purchase a weekly in Lubbock, Texas, he joined with Hanks and another investor to purchase it. The partnership might have ended with the sale of that paper six years later; however, a new purchase by Harte and Hanks, of the Corpus Christi Times, sealed their relationship.
By then, both men had several decades of newspaper experience. Born in 1883 in Knob Noster, Missouri, Harte worked as a reporter for the Los Angeles Examiner while studying at the University of Southern California. In 1913, while finishing a journalism degree at the University of Missouri, Harte bought his first newspaper, the Knob Noster Gem. Three years later, Harte took over the Central Missouri Republican, based in Boonville. The U.S. entry into World War I briefly interrupted Harte’s newspaper career; by 1920, however, Harte had returned to civilian life, selling his Missouri paper and moving to Texas, where he began publishing the San Angelo Standard, a paper founded in 1884. Harte worked to expand the paper’s circulation, slowly widening its reach into 40 West Texas counties. In 1922 Harte purchased two more papers. Soon after that, he and Hanks formed their partnership.
Hanks, born in 1884, began his newspaper career as a horseback carrier for the Abilene Reporter when he was 12 years old. When Hanks’s father moved to another town, Hanks moved in with Reporter publisher George Anderson. In 1907 Anderson incorporated his newspaper and allowed Hanks to purchase shares in the new company. In 1923 the company separated into two parts: Anderson took over the printing operation, while Hanks became the newspaper’s publisher and owner.
After selling the Lubbock weekly, Harte and Hanks decided to remain partners. Harte had heard that the owner of a Corpus Christi paper, the Times, was having financial problems. Hanks and Harte took out an option to buy the paper, and went down to Corpus Christi to inspect it. As reported in a company publication, Harte recalled: “The Times was printed on an old flatbed press on a vacant lot in back of its building…. It was under a tarpaulin. It was quite a feat to print the paper out in the open in the South Texas rain.” The partners nevertheless bought the paper.
The Corpus Christi Times was then the number two paper in town; a dismal first year brought Harte-Hanks Newspapers only $2,800. Instead of fighting a newspaper war, the young partnership took a different approach: they formed a new partnership, called Texas Newspapers, Inc., with two other investors, and bought out the rival paper. Texas Newspapers would go on to buy several more Texas papers over the next three years, but moving into the Depression the partnership proved unprofitable and was disbanded. Harte-Hanks took control of the Corpus Christi Times and a second paper, the Paris News, in Paris, Texas. By then, Harte-Hanks had also added the Big Spring Herald to their newspaper chain. Nevertheless, the Harte-Hanks partnership remained a more-or-less informal arrangement, with no written contract. Harte tended to handle the operational and editorial end, while Hanks focused on the partnership’s finances. Newspapers were primarily bought on credit, with the former publisher holding the note, and often a share in the newspaper as well. Harte-Hanks generally retained a newspaper’s former management. Purchases usually involved buying a town’s second paper, which often would suffer from poor circulation and operations.
Harte-Hanks added several more newspapers, all based in Texas, during the 1930s and 1940s. In 1945 the partners took on their first corporate employee, Bruce Meador, who would later become trustee of Hanks’s estate. Bernard Hanks died in 1948. By then, the second generation—Houston H. and Ed Harte, and Andrew Shelton—were already learning the newspaper trade. The company continued adding newspapers to its fold. One acquisition, of the Greenville Daily Banner, sparked a bitter newspaper war that led Harte-Hanks to purchase and then consolidate the rival Greenville Herald. The owners of that paper took Harte-Hanks to court, charging them with unfair competition, but Harte-Hanks was acquitted of this charge.
New Media in the 1960s
During the 1960s, Harte-Hanks acquired a number of newspapers, including its largest to date, the San Antonio Express and News. By the end of the decade, Harte-Hanks controlled a 13-paper empire. In 1962 the company moved beyond newspapers for the first time with the purchase of KENS-TV, a CBS affiliate based in San Antonio. Prior to the Harte-Hanks acquisition, that station had been under-staffed and under-budgeted and was consistently ranked last in its market. Under Harte-Hanks, however, the station’s fortunes improved, and it quickly captured its market’s top rating, a position it would hold until the 1990s. The company moved its corporate headquarters from Abilene to San Antonio in 1968.
As the company moved into the 1970s, however, the family faced the future with uncertainty. Harte’s health was failing, and the chain—made up of 27 family-owned corporations—offered no clear line of succession. New technology was also entering the newspaper industry, and the company worried about its ability to keep pace. Meador, who by then was running the company, approached outside consultants. They proposed three options for the company: do nothing, which might lead the company to break up; sell out; or go public. Over Harte’s objections, the family chose the last option. Their first step, in 1971, was to consolidate the 27 corporations into a single entity, called Harte-Hanks Newspapers, Inc. Their next step was to find the person to lead the company into its initial public offering.
At about the same time, Robert G. Marbut, a graduate of the Harvard Business School and a former corporate director with Copley Newspapers, was making plans to start his own publishing company. Marbut approached Harte-Hanks for financial backing for his venture; instead, the Harte family proposed that Marbut lead their company instead. Harte-Hanks went public on March 13, 1972. Houston Harte died six days later.
Marbut set about transforming the company, instituting a modern control system, a budgetary process, market research, and, as a first for the company, a system of long-range planning. Marbut also took Harte-Hanks outside of Texas, beginning in 1971, by buying the Hamilton (Ohio) Journal-News. Other new markets included Ypsilanti, Michigan; Anderson, South Carolina; and Yakima, Washington. Funds raised in the IPO allowed the company to step up its expansion: by the end of 1972, the chain had more than doubled, to 27 newspapers. Importantly, Marbut began to transform the character of the newspapers themselves, adding lifestyle and other service features to the newspapers to boost their circulation, and turning at least some of the papers into what Forbes described as “aggressive marketing vehicles tailored for advertisers.”
While adding new papers, Marbut also began shedding others. Harte-Hanks focused its chain on smaller markets where its newspapers could hold monopoly positions. The average circulation of these papers was 10,000 to 30,000. Larger papers—such as the San Antonio Express-News, bought by Rupert Murdoch for $19 million in 1973—were sold, with the exception of the Corpus Christi paper, which had a circulation of about 85,000. By 1974, the company’s revenues had reached $79 million, with profits of $6.5 million, compared to income of around $1.5 million at the time of the company’s IPO.
The number of available small-market papers was shrinking, however. To continue expanding company revenues, Marbut took Harte-Hanks deeper into other communications areas. In 1975 Harte-Hanks bought a second television station, WTLV in Jacksonville, Florida, an NBC affiliate. Two more stations were added by the end of the decade in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Springfield, Missouri. The company also moved into radio with the 1978 purchase of Southern Broadcasting’s AM and FM station holdings. By then, Harte-Hanks had also began to build its advertising shopper empire. While newspapers remained the company’s chief revenue source, its growing diversity prompted a name change, to Harte-Hanks Communications. Revenues jumped to $243 million in 1979. Income topped $19 million.
By 1980, the company’s holdings included 29 daily newspapers, 68 weekly newspapers, four VHF television stations, 11 radio stations, four cable television systems, and three trade publications. Its fastest-growing division was its Consumer Distribution Marketing (CDM) unit, which consisted of its advertising shoppers, three market research firms, and three direct mail distributors. Also included in CDM were electronic publishing and video entertainment software businesses. Moving into the recession of the early 1980s, Harte-Hanks’s emphasis fell more heavily on CDM. As one analyst told the New York Times, “Harte-Hanks is much less newspaper-oriented than the other newspaper companies. It’s more interested in information transfer. It’s much more financially oriented.” Marbut confirmed this, telling the New York Times, “Our job is not just to produce newspapers. Our job is to meet people’s needs for information.”
By 1983, CDM represented 28 percent of the company’s revenues. Holdings had expanded to include 23 direct mail systems, seven research companies, a cable television shopping channel, seven delivery systems and a trucking service, and nine shoppers. Harte-Hanks revenues neared $445 million, with earnings over $33 million, placing it on the Fortune 500 list. But the emphasis on CDM, as well as Harte-Hanks’s plans to invest aggressively in cable television, had begun to make investors nervous: by 1984, the company’s stock was trading below $20 per share, despite being valued as high as $30 per share. The company was becoming a potential target for a hostile takeover. To prevent this, Marbut, along with Houston and Ed Harte, Andrew Shelton, and other corporate directors, took the company private in a leveraged buyout.
Private for the 1980s, Public in the 1990s
The LBO, executed in 1984, saddled the company with $1 billion in debt, just as the Texas economy, crippled by the oil crash of the 1980s, was going sour. The company began streamlining its operations, quickly shedding 56 of its 113 units, including three of its four television stations, its cable television systems, and all of its radio stations. Sales of these units, of which all but three were profitable, brought $200 million to pay down debt. The company also traded seven of its Texas, Washington, Ohio, and Michigan papers for 19 papers in Dallas and Boston. By 1988, revenues had grown to $450 million, with operating income of $70 million. The company had reduced its debt to just $375 million in zero coupon debentures, bringing its interest payments down from $81 million paid in 1986 to $20 million.
By 1990, the company had reinvented itself. The company’s restructuring had turned its focus to three key areas—the shoppers, by then zoned into 465 separate editions, reaching 5.8 million households, which made Harte-Hanks the largest distributor of advertising shoppers; direct marketing; and the company’s nine newspapers. KENS-TV also continued to contribute a small share to the company’s revenues. Marbut retired in 1991, turning the company over to Larry Franklin, his long-time chief operating officer and executive vice-president. By 1992, the company enjoyed revenues of $423 million and had reduced total long-term debt to less than $220 million. Yet, with stock divided among the Harte and Shelton families, the company once again faced a problem of succession. In 1993, the company went public for the second time.
Revenues grew to $463 million in 1993. But problems with Harte-Hanks’s 14-paper Boston chain drove the company to a $52 million net loss that year. The company sold off the Boston papers in 1995. In the meantime, the company acquired Select Marketing, a high-tech industry marketer, and Steinert & Associates, another marketing group. With revenues topping $532 million in 1995, the company continued to shore up its marketing and high-technology industry capacities; its efforts included purchasing a minority interest in the SiteSpecific Internet ad-placement firm.
Harte Hanks Community Newspapers.
Caller Times Publishing Co.; Data Technologies Division; Harte-Hanks Direct Marketing Co.; Independent Publishing Co.; Potpourri Shopper Group Inc.; Reporter Publishing Co.
Barrett, William P., “I’m Real Happy about the Way It’s Turning Out,” Forbes, April 18, 1988, p. 44.
“The Education of Bob Marbut,” Forbes, December 15, 1976, p. 53.
Jones, Alex S., “A Media Industry Innovator,” New York Times, April 30, 1984, p. Dl.
Kleinfeld, N. R., “Rise of an Information Empire,” New York Times, October 30, 1980, p. Dl.
O’ Donnell, Thomas, “Forget Glamour, He Will Deliver the Mail,” Forbes, April 11, 1983, p. 166.
Phelps, Christi, “Harte-Hanks Charts Post-Divestiture Path,” San Antonio Business Journal, March 2, 1987, p. 1.
Valentine, Tammy, “Harte-Hanks: The First 50 Years,” Harte-Hanks Commemorative Series, San Antonio: Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc.
Williams, Norma Joe, and Dick Tarpley, “Harte-Hanks: The Founders,” Harte-Hanks Commemorative Series, San Antonio: Harte-Hanks Communications, Inc.
—M. L. Cohen