The world lost a multibillionaire entrepreneur recently–a great leader whom most Americans have probably never heard of. Given that he was the person behind some very successful media brands, that says a lot.
Pat McGovern, 76, began his business career in the 1960s, as the founder and chairman of International Data Group. He was the man responsible for magazines such as Computerworld, Macworld, PC World, and many other brands in the U.S. and abroad, including the “For Dummies” series of instructional and self-help books.
Think Big / Be First
McGovern wrote an article for Inc. in 2007, in which he talked about the importance of expanding your horizons to be successful. He was one of the first American CEOs to establish a joint publishing venture in China, for example, and his company was a pioneer in venture capital in Vietnam and India. With the establishment of a website operating from Antarctica, IDG became the first company in the world to have a presence on all seven continents.
“When a company ventures abroad, its point person should be its CEO, traveling frequently and acting boldly and enthusiastically,” McGovern wrote. “IDG launches businesses in three to five new countries each year, and for virtually all of them I’m first on the ground, meeting with potential customers, government ministers, and management candidates.”
Step Aside and Trust
McGovern was thinking globally long before most of his peers. His companies launched titles in Japan and the Soviet Union in the 1970s, and he reportedly spent four months of the year traveling overseas to drum up new business. Yet he was a hands-off leader, allowing the people he put in charge of overseas divisions to make decisions.
“His primary control is financial,” Inc. reported in 1988. “His headquarters works as an investment bank, putting money into each unit’s worthwhile ventures, denying or withdrawing it from ones that are not worthwhile, while McGovern cruises from office to office like a cheery potentate on a magic carpet, bringing enthusiasm and bonuses wherever he goes.”
Get Out of Your Way
Inc.’s Leigh Buchanan started out at IDG as a copy editor in the late 1980s, and she described her surprise when McGovern stopped by her cubicle to hand her a year-end bonus check.
Pat thanked me for my contributions. He asked how things were going and looked vaguely disappointed when all I could muster was an unilluminating “Fine.” Then he complimented me on a column I had ghostwritten for some technology honcho. The column was my most substantive accomplishment to date and the thing I was proudest of. But my name didn’t appear on it anywhere, so how did he know? After three or four minutes, he handed me my bonus and proceeded to the next cubicle.
When she interviewed him years later, Buchanan said she learned that McGovern made one-on-one visits like that to every single one of the company’s 1,500 employees at the time, and that the process took almost four weeks.
Be a Personality, But Be Humble
McGovern was worth an estimated $5.1 billion, but he cultivated a modest image. He lived in a same house in Hollis, New Hampshire, which he bought in 1989. He flew coach and drove used cars, reported The Wall Street Journal. He would show up at employees’ 10th anniversaries to take them out for dinner.
“I don’t think he did these things because he was naturally outgoing,” wrote Harry McCracken, who covers technology at Time, but who spent 16 years working for McGovern at IDG. “If anything, he seemed to be on the reserved side–but…he believed that one of his responsibilities as IDG chairman was to make other staff members feel good about their work. Even when I was a low-level editor, I got occasional complimentary notes from him–always written on the same ultra-cheery letterhead, with GOOD NEWS! and a rainbow at the top. He must have bought it by the truckload.”
Earned a Lot and Give it Away
In 2000, McGovern and his wife founded an institute for the study of the brain at his alma mater, MIT, with a $350 million gift. It was one of the largest donations ever to a university in the U.S. To put it in context, the donation dwarfs the entire endowments of more than 640 American colleges.