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BALTIMORE'S BLOND AMBITION Susan Obrecht plans to build an East Coast media empire

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Her face is there to greet you by the door: the long blond hair curling around her shoulders, the shadowed cheekbones, the Mona Lisa smile. But at the moment, that's all you get to see of Susan Souders Obrecht, a black and white photo on a foyer table of Villa Pace, the 39-acre Greenspring Valley estate she calls home.

It's somehow fitting to meet the photo before the real thing. Particularly since pictures tell a story all their own about the new president and publisher of Baltimore magazine, who at the moment is upstairs dressing.

There's the softly lit image of Ms. Obrecht in the revamped September issue, her Ivana hairdo matching her dreamy pose. There were the photocopies of a flattering picture and newspaper article about her that employees received shortly after she took over. Then there's her photo-filled den: Susan by the bookcase. Susan on the table. Susan on a shelf. How many is she in? Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen . . .

The final picture lingers only in the mind. It's of Ms. Obrecht racing down a winding staircase, running late. In this one, she looks less air-brushed. Her long hair is wilder, the roots seem dark. Sunlight frames her, revealing the outline of her legs beneath her sheer leopard-print skirt. If this were captured on film, the caption might read: Susan Souders Obrecht, Baltimore's blond ambition.

It's not the first time she's been compared to Madonna. It happened when she arrived at the magazine in May to meet with her new employees. "Here she was in her fur coat and mini-skirt surrounded by the boys," says one who declined to be named for fear of offending Ms. Obrecht. "It was like Madonna and the back crew."

But Ms. Obrecht can make the Material Girl look underdressed, Donald Trump seem modest, Bill Clinton sound unambitious. She talks about building an East Coast media empire and then worries she still won't be satisfied. She answers critics by calling them envious. She's wears distinctly uncorporate attire: form-fitting dresses, short skirts, blouses with low necklines.

Media diva

"She's kind of a media diva," explains Liz Chuday, the president and owner of Chuday Communications, a local public relations firm. "There are people in the media community who create their own news. . . . That's what Susan is."

She created perhaps the biggest news of her career in May when she and her investor group bought Baltimore magazine for a purchase price reportedly between $3 million and $4 million. Having turned around a once-struggling regional publication, Mid-Atlantic Country, she set her sights on a city magazine hit hard by the recession.

In the September issue, readers get to see her handiwork. The redesigned magazine has a more sophisticated logo, more comprehensive features on art, fashion and business, and national advertisers, including the Gap and Botany 500.

But to her, these accomplishments only tell part of the story.

"To me it's much more of a national story," says Ms. Obrecht, 36. "It's a story about a woman in the late '80s and early '90s, at the worst time in the economy . . . [who] successfully, based on her track record, her bottom-line performance, nothing else, raised moneys to not only improve Mid-Atlantic Country, acquire top people for ESS [Ventures Inc., her media investment firm] but buy Baltimore magazine."

This acquisition hints at things to come, she says. Her vision: to build a multimillion-dollar media empire with cable, television, magazines, newspapers and a movie production company. Once that's done, she says she may enter politics.

In control

"The pure truth is I like to be in control," she says. "No matter how you slice it, I'm a very controlling person."

If she talks big, she doesn't always back up what she says. She declines to give specifics about financing for any of her deals. She mentions acquaintances at Vanity Fair, yet declines to name them. "I want to be on the cover of Time and Businessweek," she says, "as opposed to the fashion magazines, which have been calling me."

Which fashion magazines?

"I don't want to discuss it because I'm going to probably be appearing soon," she says. "It's because I photograph well. They, of course, like to dress me up."

Sometimes her words appear to contradict her actions. She wants "to really make a difference for women in the business world," yet the highest-ranking editorial, advertising and art positions at Baltimore magazine belong to men. She stresses punctuality, yet she's well-known for being late. She wants to be taken seriously in business, yet during a tour of her home she shows you her lingerie closet -- and takes out some silky Bob Mackie sleepwear her husband bought for her. ("He loves giving me these things," she says.)

And although she says she wants to downplay her appearance, she brings up the topic herself during an interview.

"Let's talk for a minute about the attractiveness," she begins. "One of the current investors said, 'It took me three or four meetings with you to get used to brains, beauty and a good business plan all at the same time.' Now I was chuckling in my mind. It took this guy four times? Four [one] hour meetings? . . .

"A lot of my friends say, and I have beautiful friends, we walk in a room and they say, 'Why are you turning the heads?' . . . and I say it truly is your own self-confidence and your aura and your feelings about yourself that drive a lot of that."

As a photographer begins taking her picture, she leans over to ask if she has lipstick on her teeth. (She doesn't.) "Everyone's going to be shocked I have something long on," she says, smoothing her Gianni Versace skirt. "I thought I would surprise everyone."

What exactly is she trying to say through her attire?

"I wear top designer clothes that are very accepted in New York that are interpreted as flash here," she explains. "Well-dressed in my mind is really a better term."

Says Ms. Chuday, "Susan's style is not your Baltimore Muffie. . . . It's not squab hen. She goes for the high-fashion glamour."

But the big wardrobe, the big talk, the big goals strike some the wrong way.

"I think she has a tremendous ego," says Charles Buerger, publisher of the Baltimore Jewish Times. "She sees the big picture. . . . But she has more vision than she does knowledge."

Her sister Sally, assistant to the advertising director and office manager for Baltimore magazine, offers another view: "She has a lot of drive and ambition, but Susan's a real person like the rest of us."

The eldest of three, Ms. Obrecht inherited such qualities from her father, William, who worked his way up from salesman to executive senior vice president of the Xerox Corp. As a result, her childhood was filled with many relocations: Chicago, Pittsburgh, Seattle and Rochester.

Envy

To Ms. Souders, her older sister was always the popular, outgoing one. "I idolized Susan when I was younger," she says. "She always had a lot of friends who loved her and confided in her."

But eventually, Ms. Obrecht says, she became the subject of envy. She got her first taste of it when, as a high school sophomore, she competed against six other older girls for the part of Daisy Mae in "L'il Abner." When she won, and a Kodak executive in the audience asked her to begin modeling, schoolmates got jealous, she says.

"I felt envy from people since I was in junior high school, so it's been with me a long time, and I just have to be strong," she says.

Why would people be envious of her today?

"Come on," she says. "It's very simple. . . . People are envious if they have their own self-doubts."

From the age of 16 to 25, she modeled, in between getting a psychology degree from Ohio Wesleyan University. "I was going to go save the world that way," she says. She met her future husband, Thomas F. Obrecht, during her senior year. He was dating her best friend, and she was dating his.

"We quietly had crushes on each other," she says.

They married a year later, and several years after that she abandoned her modeling career. "They started to typecast me. It was more in a sexy role, and I really had a bad taste in my mouth," she says.

That same year, 25-year-old Susan Souders Obrecht began selling ads for the Towson Times and the Messenger, then owned by Mr. Buerger and Ted Venetoulis. She was quickly promoted to sales manager, and within three years became general manager.

"To Susan, 'no' never meant 'no.' 'No' meant 'maybe,' " recalls Mr. Venetoulis, who now owns Record Publishing & Printing, a printing company and chain of four papers based in Silver Spring.

Mr. Venetoulis supported her promotion; Mr. Buerger questioned Not long after, the latter sold his interest in the business.

By 1986, she was no longer content with running the company. She wanted to own it. With an investment group, she bought what had become Times Publishing Group, a Baltimore County chain of four community weeklies, for upward of $6 million.

Two years later, after a tough fight to expand throughout Baltimore County, she sold them to her competitor, S. Zeke Orlinsky, head of Patuxent Publishing, for an undisclosed amount.

Buying Baltimore

Days later, she regrouped, opening ESS Ventures Inc. of which she is chairman and chief executive officer. (The initials stand for nothing, although they could be the last three letters in success, she says.) In 1989, she struck again, buying Mid-Atlantic Country, a travel and leisure magazine, from The Baltimore Sun.

"I have vision," she says. "I see something that needs better management, better marketing, a better strategic plan, better bottom-line results."

She is credited with increasing ad revenues, beefing up the staff and expanding the content of the publication. Last year, the magazine won the City and Regional Magazine Association's William Allen White award for general excellence.

Baltimore magazine, a property she had been eyeing for seven years, became her next target. The country's oldest city magazine, with a circulation of 50,000, was facing tough times: slumping ad sales, thinner books, formulaic stories. It also had an owner who was immersed in other things. Philip Merrill, who owned the publication along with Washingtonian, the Capital and the Maryland Gazette, was serving as a deputy secretary of NATO in Belgium. His wife, Eleanor, was running the company in his absence.

Ms. Obrecht assembled an investment group that included Robert Garrett, a New York investment banker and member of the board of trustees of the Abell Foundation Inc.; Frank A. Bonsal Jr., a local venture capitalist; and Herbert D. Fried, chairman of W. B. Doner & Co.

On May 7, her 7-year-old dream became a reality.

Says Mr. Garrett, "I see her as a classic entrepreneur, somebody who will put 199 percent into what she's doing. . . . She doesn't give up."

Along with that tenacity, she has a knack for attracting talent, admirers say. The team she's assembled at Baltimore magazine includes employees with experience at Cosmopolitan, Women's Wear Daily and Washingtonian.

But a few of these new hires have hit close to home. Ms. Obrecht's sister, Sally, was named to a newly created position. And after her longtime associate Jonathan Witty became editor and associate publisher, his wife, Merrill, was named arts editor.

Ms. Witty, who has covered the local arts scene for years, says that it never occurred to her that it would interpreted as nepotism. "Perhaps I was naive," she says.

And while some attrition is expected when new bosses replace old, the turnover has been substantial. At least four employees were let go on a day that was nicknamed Black Thursday. Ms. Obrecht makes a point of saying she cares about employees, but her behavior during those first days made some wonder. As an example, former staffers point to the first joint meeting of Baltimore magazine and Mid-Atlantic Country, held on a rainy morning at corporate headquarters in Greenbelt. Ms. Obrecht showed up at 10:30, they say. The meeting was supposed to begin at 9.

When asked about it, she grows angry. "I don't even remember the staff meeting that's being referred to," she says. "I'm not going to talk about a staff meeting I don't even remember. . . . I do not have to answer specifically the way every company is run every single day of the week."

As for her lateness, she says, "Frankly, it's a sign of a successful entrepreneur. If you've read psychological analyses, many are late."

Her professional success has left an imprint on her personal life. "I don't have children yet," she says. "Right now it's enough for me to balance investors, look at properties, buy other properties and then keep personal relationships going -- my husband, my very close friends, family. . . . I will have children when I can devote 110 percent of the time to them. I'm very comfortable with that; my husband is comfortable with that."

And right now what makes Susan Souders Obrecht most comfortable is imagining herself acquiring more media properties.

Or does it?

"I don't know if I'm going to be satisfied owning a company that has magazines, newspapers, a TV and movie production company," she says. "I don't know. . . . When will it be enough?"

THE Obrecht FILE

Occupation: Chairman and chief executive officer of ESS Ventures Inc., which owns Baltimore and Mid-Atlantic Country magazines.

Born: Minneapolis; Sept. 30, 1955.

Current home: Villa Pace, a 39-acre estate in Greenspring Valley that once belonged to opera star Rosa Ponselle.

Education: Bachelor's degree in psychology from Ohio Wesleyan University in 1977.

Family: Married since 1978 to real estate and construction developer Thomas F. Obrecht.

She'd give anything to one day be publisher of: Time or The Washington Post. Everyone else will think Glamour. It's not true.

What she's better at than anybody: "Either being in control or motivating."

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