Consumers Union’s Gold Standard
By Jim Calder
There is the kind of loyalty that keeps an employee at a company for a decade or two, maybe even three. And then there is the kind of loyalty that is exemplified by 2007 Hall of Fame inductee Louis Milani. For 53 years, Milani has worked for one company: Consumers Union (CU)—the Yonkers, N.Y.-based nonprofit organization that publishes Consumer Reports magazine (circulation approximately 4.3 million), two newsletters, books and other special-interest publications.
Today, Milani is senior director, publishing operations and business affairs, overseeing paper, print, fulfillment and logistics partnerships for CU’s information products, mainly Consumer Reports. And after more than half a century with the company, Milani’s optimism and approach to business continue to inspire his colleagues and peers in the industry.
“Lou is one of the wisest people I know,” says Meta Brophy, director of publishing operations, CU. “I learn something valuable from every conversation we have.” Brophy has known Milani since 1985 and has reported to him directly since 1994.
“I think Lou’s genuine, consistent, egalitarian, smart and optimistic approach to business, and toward colleagues and vendors, has been the example to emulate long before companies had to create documents instructing staff on how to behave,” she continues. “He is our gold standard.”
Milani joined the staff of CU in February 1955. It was his first full-time job after completing high school (Milani later went to college at night) and then serving in the U.S. Army, including two years in Korea.
“You know, it doesn’t seem that long, but, of course, when you start thinking about how things were [back then], it seems ancient,” Milani says. He explains that the only product the company had when he came on board was Consumer Reports magazine, which had a circulation of approximately 400,000 at that time.
DECADES OF CHANGE
Milani has seen tremendous change in the industry over the course of 53 years. However, he says, despite all these changes, his company’s mission has withstood the test of time. “[If you] think about it, Consumers Union still hasn’t really changed,” he says. “We test and inform, and we’re beholden to no one. We don’t accept advertising, [and] everything we test, we buy.”
While the company’s steadfast mission continues to drive its success, Milani acknowledges that CU is facing some of the same challenges as the rest of the industry. Printing costs are rising, as are paper and postage prices, and anything relating to commodities will continue to go up, he explains. “It used to be that if you had a publication, printing cost the most, then paper and then distribution (trucking and postage),” he says. “Now, it has reversed itself; distribution is No. 1, paper is No. 2 and printing is No. 3.”
Mass availability of electronic information also has presented challenges to print publications––to remain relevant to readers and to create effective strategies for multimedia publishing. Again, suggests Milani, CU’s mission of being beholden only to the reader seems to be guiding the company successfully through these challenges as well. “I think the reason people find our magazine [still valuable is because Consumer Reports] was always geared toward the readers—the readers are our bosses, and they find it useful,” he says.
About nine years ago, Consumer Reports launched its Web site in response to readers’ requests, says Milani. “Right now, the number of subscribers on ConsumerReports.org is just under 3 million, and it’s growing every day,” he says. Approximately 25 percent of the online subscribers also receive the print edition, he adds.
So, what advice would Milani give to other publishing executives facing the challenges of today’s publishing industry? “Think—come up with new ideas,” Milani says. “… I think that there are [also] greater opportunities [today], so [publishing executives] have to find them.”
He also believes that publishing executives should make an effort to know every end of the business, including distribution, fulfillment and editorial. “It’s like a circle—if one [segment] doesn’t work, the others don’t work very well,” Milani says. “I have noticed that now in publishing, everything is separated like little boxes. You don’t have to know everything about everything, but you should understand and know something of everything.”
After 53 years at the same company, Milani says he still loves his job. “Right now, I don’t know if I would ever retire,” he says. “Of all my years … I think this is the most exciting time. With the right information and the right presentation, [the industry] is booming.” PE