Thursday, 4 December 2008

Peter W. & Bob

Peter Worthington, founding editor of the Toronto Sun and veteran columnist, remembers Bob Jelenic, who died Tuesday:

"Bob Jelenic was not what anyone would call easy going. He was friendly, competitive, impatient with incompetence. To say he didn’t suffer fools gladly is an understatement.

In the words of Les Pyette, a former Sun editor-in-chief in Calgary and Toronto, and a former publisher in Toronto: “Bob was the best accountant I’ve ever met, who taught me how to do budgets.”

Bob Jelenic, born in Sudbury, died this week in Philadelphia after a three-year battle with cancer. He was 58. By the time of his death he’d left “accounting” far behind, and from 1990 to 2007 was president and CEO of the Journal Register Company based in Trenton N.J., owner of 27 daily newspapers and 327 non-daily newspapers.

I remember him saying that buying newspapers was easy: “If a paper was badly run and losing money, I’d buy it and improve it. If it was well run and losing money, I’d leave it alone and move on. It’s not rocket science.”

Under Jelenic, the Journal Register went public and its stock rose to $20 a share. After he retired, the share price dropped to its present six cents.

Of all early Sun employees, Jelenic had by far the most financially rewarding career. His flagship newspaper, the New Haven Register, was designed to look like the old Toronto Sun and even today is mindful of the Toronto paper he joined in 1976 as controller, and rose through the ranks to general manager.

Jelenic was an athlete. A good one. Football, hockey, baseball, he excelled at any sport. He was the best centre fielder in the Toronto Press Softball League, though he occasionally had batting slumps.

Some at the Sun found him too demanding. Competent people got on fine with him and a staff member’s relationship with him often defined the staffer more than it did him.

His notoriety at the Sun came in 1979 when he headed a group of other employees who chipped in $16,000 to buy a race horse - Northern Regent, a grandson of Northern Dancer.

In its first five races, the horse came second twice and first three times - and attracted offers of $150,000. Bob and co-owners had visions of the Queen’s Plate or Kentucky Derby, but alas it wasn’t to be.

Bob had categorical opinions on almost everything. Even when he made it big, he always took time out to coach his son (Lee) and daughter (Laine) in their sports. They also excelled.

When the Sun purchased the Houston Post in 1988, Jelenic went as general manger. He was in an awkward position, trapped between Post publisher Don Hunt and Sun president Doug Creighton. When the Post was sold for $150,000, he opted to help start a new tabloid, the St. Louis Sun, for the Ingersoll group and served as president and CEO. That paper bit the dust, the general opinion being that it was not conservative enough for Missouri readers against the liberal Post Dispatch.

Jelenic stayed in the U.S. rather than return to Canada. He felt his aggressive style was more American than Canadian. At the Ingersoll Publications, he was viewed by some as a “hatchet man.”

“Untrue,” said Jelenic. “I saved more senior jobs than anyone knows about . . . and yes, I’ve had to fire people, but ‘hatchet man’ is ridiculous,” he once told the trade magazine Presstime.

Ralph Ingersoll agreed: “Bob’s a doer . . . When you shake things up, you get criticism.”

Jelenic increased the Journal Register’s cash flow by 53%. Throughout his management career he had a ruthlessness that arguably was necessary for success. But it did not make him loved.

Though he went on to greater things in the U.S., Jelenic never forgot his roots and never abandoned newspaper lessons learned at the Sun.

In his U.S. papers, you see the Sun legacy. Though most Sun people today weren’t here when he was, the legend lives on – a tough boss, a fair boss, a guy who worked harder than most, played harder than most and didn’t make mistakes.

Pyette says Jelenic “was very instrumental in the Sun’s success - his contribution was tremendous.”

I remember Jelenic when he teamed with Peter Kotzer (still at the Sun) to collect advertising money that was overdue. The pair reduced delinquent accounts from something like 28% to 12%. I used to joke that as a team they broke knee caps.

And now he is gone, and a bit of the Sun gone with him."

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