Maria Rodale

Maria Rodale, vice chairwoman of the company her grandfather started. (Frank Wiese / The Morning Call / July 14, 2002)

Maria Rodale stood at a podium before 1,000 employees of Rodale Inc. and did the unthinkable.

She changed the Rodale mission.

In that March 5 speech at a rented hall at Lehigh University, she was toying with 60 years of tradition, hallowed in the eyes of many Rodale employees. Her grandfather J.I., founder of the organic food movement, started the tradition; her father, Robert, fostered it by growing one of America's leading health publishing empires.

The mission was about helping people help themselves stay well, through healthful eating, vitamin regimens and fitness. It was fulfilled in books and magazines such as Prevention and Men's Health.

But Maria's new mission includes publishing information on healing, for people who are already sick. It's perhaps a subtle shift to many observers, but a sacrilege to others because it dared to stray from the original Rodale vision.

''Healing is the next step in our natural and obvious evolution,'' Maria read from her speech scrolling on a TelePrompTer.

Maria, vice chairwoman of the company, counts that moment as the pinnacle of her career at the closely held family business, now making a transition to a third generation of Rodales.

It wasn't only about adding the healing element. It also marked the end of several years of upheaval that came with Maria Rodale's remaking of the Emmaus company.

With that behind her, Maria thought the ''Rodale'' was finally back in Rodale Inc. and the company had a cohesive direction again. It felt like all the wrenching changes — the executive firings, the mass layoffs, the cancerous employee morale problem, the task of ripping apart Rodale and reassembling it — served a purpose.

''It's like it was all worth it, and now we're on the right track,'' she said.

Maria Rodale, 40, is quick with a smile, even a youthful giggle. But make no mistake: Her ''healing'' vision is non-negotiable.

Also closed to debate is her vision to take the $450 million Rodale publishing business to mainstream America and bring ''New York cool'' to Rodale. That might be difficult, given that for some people Rodale conjures images of tofu, tie-dye and garden compost. And it means butting heads with megalith media companies that dominate the publishing haven of New York City.

Tinkering with the Rodale mission doesn't faze Maria.

''It's OK as a company to not just have the one Rodale voice, like it's the voice of God,'' she said during an interview in her small corner office.

The changes at Rodale are coming at a time when the company has lost millions of dollars.

Rodale's book business, once ranked 15th- to 20th-largest in the country, has shrunk dramatically. It's trying different ways to stay afloat now that its bread and butter — selling books directly through the mail — isn't working well anymore. Though it has a few New York Times Bestsellers among its titles, its books on such subjects as losing weight, spirituality and cooking healthier meals are struggling. Industrywide, mail-order book sales dropped 18 percent last year. Time-Life Books, Reader's Digest and others closed or made drastic changes to their direct-mail book operations recently.

Rodale's magazine business, about the 12th-largest in the country, has hemorrhaged talented people at many of its titles. It, along with the rest of the industry, has suffered from declining advertising revenue. Advertising dropped a combined 11 percent last year at Rodale's major magazines. Still, Rodale publications reach 30 million people each month.

The former top three veteran Rodale executives can vouch for Maria Rodale's resolve for change. Each was well-respected in the publishing industry and watched Maria grow up. But they were reluctant to let her take control. In the end, they were seen as obstacles to her rise to power and to Rodale's prosperity.

All were fired or left the company in 2000, along with many of their lieutenants.