Fitness magazine's reviver seeks to expand the brand

The Baltimore Sun

When Baltimore businessman Edwin Avent purchased Heart & Soul magazine in bankruptcy court three years ago, he seemed to be the only one who had faith in the fitness publication aimed at African-American women.

Earl Graves, the publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, was the winning bidder but then decided to pass on the deal, believing there wasn't a large enough audience for the publication to succeed. Investors that Avent approached declined to finance the first issue. And advertisers wanted to see that he could publish before they would commit.

Today, the bimonthly magazine is in its second year under Avent's leadership. Along with the 250,000-plus circulation magazine, Avent is expanding the Heart & Soul brand to DVDs, health seminars, weight-loss meals and, perhaps one day, television.

Acknowledging the declining demand for magazines and other print media across the industry, Avent wants the publication to be less reliant on advertising and to serve as the flagship for his broader business strategy to license the Heart & Soul name on different products.

It's exactly what he had in mind when Heart & Soul stopped publishing in 2003 and others doubted its future.

"They were looking at it just as a magazine," Avent said. "I was looking at it as a brand. I never doubted what the vision was about."

A year after he bought the magazine, a local friend and businessman signed on to Avent's vision and agreed to lend him the money to print the first issue in 2005 under its new leadership.

It featured singer Toni Braxton on the cover and stories on beating sugar cravings, weight training and mental illness in African-Americans.

With that first publication printed, national advertisers such as Burger King, Verizon, Ford and Chrysler began coming back to the magazine.

"We feel like they reach a target audience who would buy our product - African-Americans who are fairly affluent and have an active lifestyle," said Eric Andrew, advertising manager for Chrysler brands, which promoted a minivan in the magazine.

Sales at Heart & Soul are expected to double from $1 million last year to $2 million this year, including advertising and money from seminars. The size of the publication has grown from an average of 72 pages in 2005 to an average of 96 pages.

"African-American females are highly influential in making food choices not just for themselves, but for their families, their households and their children," said Telisa Yancy, vice president of global media and multicultural marketing for Burger King, which also has advertised in the magazine.

Heart & Soul inherited 250,000 subscribers when it bought the magazine and it has maintained that number, Avent said. It sells another 23,300 issues on newsstands, he said.

As he was able to prove he had advertisers and subscribers, Avent was then able to secure a line of credit to help run the business.

"It was very tepid at first," Avent recently said from Heart & Soul's offices on Maryland Avenue in Baltimore. "I couldn't get traction from people. But once we got that first issue out we were up and running."

One magazine analyst said Heart & Soul is serving a niche no one else had tapped. Essence magazine also targets African-Americans but doesn't focus on fitness and health. There also are fitness magazines such as Shape and Fitness, but they don't specifically target African-Americans.

"The magazine has value in the big scheme of the others that are out there," said Samir Husni, chair of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi. "The first time it failed, it had nothing to do with the magazine itself. It was a company problem."

Avent was part-owner of the publishing and advertising firm Twenty First Century Group when he bought Heart & Soul for $60,000 plus $450,000 in assumed subscriber debt in 2004.

The magazine was started by Chicago marketer Reginald Ware in 1992 and then bought by Black Entertainment Television. In 2000, BET gave publishing control of Heart & Soul and three other magazines to Vanguard Media Inc. in New York, which also owned Honey and Savoy magazines. BET remained an investor.

Vanguard, headed by publishing investor Keith Clinkscales, declared bankruptcy in 2003, surprising many in the industry. Heart & Soul didn't publish for three years.

Avent did not strive to run a magazine, but he had worked in publishing throughout his career.

While a student at Cornell University in the 1980s, he started Equity, a campus magazine for minorities. He also was an advertising sales manager at the Ithaca Times in New York and held various positions at Career Communications Group in Baltimore, which publishes US Black Engineer & Information Technology magazine.

He was featured in Heart & Soul in a 1996 article about the Umoja Sasa (Unity Now) condom, which he developed to sell to health departments and nonprofit organizations. The condom is packaged in a matchbook with the colors of the African-American flag: red, green and black.

Avent has brought back much of the editorial staff, including the editor-in-chief, who worked at Heart & Soul in the past. The company has 18 employees.

Since he expects advertising to shrink as a revenue base for the magazine, Avent said he has worked to keep expenses down. He keeps modest offices to save on overhead. The editor of the magazine works from home.

Avent also has developed a business model that is less reliant on advertising. He holds health fairs that major companies pay to sponsor. There is a fitness DVD line in the works. And this month, the company is partnering with Medifast, the Owings Mills maker of diet foods, to develop a line of Heart & Soul weight loss meals aimed at African-Americans. Medifast is paying the magazine company an undisclosed licensing fee to use its name.

Avent met the founder of Medifast when he came to visit his church, Bethel AME, in Baltimore. The pastor of the church, the Rev. Frank M. Reid, recently had heart surgery and lost a significant amount of weight.

"Edwin was talking about a vision on how to influence African-Americans into a healthy lifestyle," said Michael McDevitt, Medifast chief executive. "It fit right into what we do."

Avent said there are other things he would still like to do with the magazine. For instance, he'd eventually like to publish 10 times a year. He is also looking at producing a television show.

"You have to have a big vision," he said. "I have big ideas for this company."

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