From The Corner Office – Patrick J. McGovern

UPDATED: March 30, 2009
PUBLISHED: March 30, 2009

The next book you read may change your life. Just ask
Patrick J. McGovern, who traces much of his success as
the head of a $3 billion technology publishing company
to a book he checked out of the library as a teenager,
Giant Brains, or Machines That Think.

“It was about how, through electronics, you
could build large memories that would be able
to retain many more facts than the human mind
could ever remember,” McGovern says. “So I
got all excited about this type of enhancement
because it seemed to me that the human brain
was the most unique organ of Homo sapiens.

The book not only instilled in him a lifelong
love of science, it also impressed upon him the
power of the written word. “I saw how information
can motivate people to get excited about
new ideas and engage in new innovation,” says
McGovern, 71.

Now, more than 50 years later, McGovern
has parlayed his passions for technology and
communications into International Data Group,
a technology-publishing, research and event-management company
with $3 billion in revenue in 2007. IDG’s more than 300 magazines
and newspapers in nearly 90 countries include Computerworld,
GamePro, InfoWorld, Macworld, Network World, CIO
and PC World.
These print publications are accompanied by a strong online
component comprising more than 450 Web sites, which host more
than 80 million unique visitors monthly.

McGovern has earned numerous accolades, including The James
Smithson Bicentennial Medal from the Smithsonian
Institution, the Magazine Publishers of America’s
Lifetime Achievement Award and a spot on Inc.’s
2004 list of “25 Entrepreneurs We Love.”

“We have 250 million people who get our information
every week,” McGovern says. “I’m proud of
the impact we’ve had in helping to advance information
technology around the world.”

can motivate people to get excited about new ideas and engage in new innovation."

Those 250 million people can thank Edmund
Callis Berkeley, whose aforementioned 1949 book
inspired a young McGovern to create his own
computer in 1953. His award-winning project
earned McGovern a scholarship to MIT. “While
there, I studied biophysics and neurophysiology
because… before you could improve a computer, you
have to understand how the human brain and the
nervous system were designed and how they function.”

McGovern, who was editor of his high-school newspaper,
soon became editor of MIT’s The Tech newspaper, which further
bolstered his interest in the relationship between technology
and communication.

“I was curious as to how we can better communicate with
people,” he says. “How can we present information in ways
that are more easily understood, so that people can learn
much more quickly, understand it much more quickly and
recall it as needed much more quickly?”

By the time McGovern graduated in 1959, he had worked
his way up from a part-timer at Computers and Automation,
the first U.S. computer magazine, to associate publisher.
He soon sold his car for $5,000 and used that as capital for
founding IDG in 1964.

“When we started, we put international as the first word
of our name because we felt that the subject was so important
that we should dedicate ourselves to going all over the
world,” he says.

McGovern’s global business model had its share of skeptics,
he says. “People told us at the time, ‘Pat, you’re crazy.’
Media was sort of a nationally focused business, and it
was very unusual for a media company to operate in many,
many countries.”

But McGovern stood firm in his commitment to disseminate
information across the world: “We felt that it’s very
important to achieve our mission to help everyone around the
world advance their quality of life and standards of living by giving
them this information.”

IDG soon expanded into Japan, Germany, France and the United
Kingdom—all with great success. In fact, in 1980, IDG became
one of the fi rst U.S. companies to establish a joint venture with the
People’s Republic of China; IDG now has 42 publications there.

McGovern says that especially with today’s unstable economy,
his global approach is something of a financial safety net. “I sleep
very comfortably at night because we have 100 separate businesses.
Even if one or two run into some problems, you’re not very exposed
to any major risk.”

As chairman and founder, McGovern admits that he initially took
a micromanaging approach to his growing company. “I wanted to
see every new hire, every new commitment,” he says. “Then, when
I came back from a couple weeks out of town, there were about 15
inches of paperwork in my in-basket. I thought, ‘I’m slowing the
growth of the company instead of helping it succeed.’ ”

He then examined what it takes to run a successful business.
“You need a really inspired, enthusiastic manager who is proud
to do that and who can motivate hires, motivate people and be
very good with the customers. And then you need to treat that
person the way you’d like to be treated—with trust. ‘Give me the
resources I need; get out of the way; let me get my job done; I’ll call
you if I need help.’ That’s what I did.”

Now, he describes his management structure as decentralized.
Each of IDG’s 100 companies has its own CEO and board
of directors. “So they’re treated like
independently managed companies,”
McGovern says. “The key is that they should
be focusing their time on their customers and
prospects and quickly adjusting to changing conditions.
And they know their country better than we could. We try to
help them by passing best business practices.”

McGovern, who calls himself the “No. 1 company cheerleader,”
credits IDG’s low turnover to this decentralized approach: “People
say, ‘Hey, I love it here. I get a lot of freedom when I try new things,
and we move very quickly.’ ”

Meanwhile, McGovern—who has homes in New Hampshire and
California—has been devoting much of his time and energy to the
McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT, which he and his
wife, Lore, created in 2000 with a pledge of $350 million.

“Mental illness and brain disease have a huge impact on the
quality of people’s lives,” McGovern says. “We thought, in the
process of achieving [cures for mental illness], we could explain
to people how people receive, analyze, store and retrieve information
so they can better communicate with each other and we can
improve education in the long term.”

In the long term for IDG, McGovern would like to see its reach
increase to 2 billion people by 2020. “I hope we can continue to
be of service to more and more people,” he says. “It’s satisfying
to see how—using our information, our training services and all
the know-how services—people have increased their income,
increased their quality of life and productivity, and therefore standards
of living have gone up worldwide.”

Chelsea Greenwood has been contributing to print and online publications as an editor and writer for more than 10 years. A University of Florida graduate, she is the editor of a lifestyle magazine in South Florida.