The quintessential “lad mag,” Maxim, is growing up. Since San Antonio business mogul Sardar Biglari acquired the magazine at a fire sale last year, it has undergone an extensive re-design. The March issue, available on newsstands this week, is the first to reflect those changes.
Maxim represents an unusual investment for Biglari’s San Antonio-based Biglari Holdings Inc., which has, to date, dealt primarily in gaining control of family restaurant chains. The company owns Steak ‘n Shake and Western Sizzlin, as well as a contentious 18% stake in Cracker Barrel Old Country Store Inc.
The company hopes that a classier image will stimulate Maxim’s falling revenues. Once famous for its unabashedly low-calibre content of nearly naked women and scatological humor, the magazine has been called “outdated” in an era in which pornography and journalism alike are readily available on the Internet.
Biglari is notoriously uncommunicative with the press—“We will leave the yammering to others,” he once wrote—but his prior investment strategies and the letters he has written to his shareholders, available on his website, offer an insight into why a hamburger baron would take interest in a lagging raunchy magazine.
Raised in San Antonio, Biglari attended Trinity University. He was recently voted their most famous alumnus. While at Trinity, he established an Internet service provider, which he sold to Internet America when he was just 22 years old. He parlayed the profit into the establishment of The Lion Fund, a hedge fund he managed himself. In 2010 he consolidated his investments under Biglari Holdings Inc., a “diversified holding company engaged in a number of business activities, among which the most important is the restaurant business.”
In 2012, Forbes speculated that Biglari Holdings might become the “next” Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s strikingly successful holding company. Much has been made of Biglari’s purported idolization of Buffett. The comparison of the two is tired but apt: their websites alone are too similar to ignore the parallels (consider Biglari’s here, and Berkshire’s here). Biglari has always had ambitions to diversify his holdings, as Buffett has. That’s where the comparisons stop. While Buffett is a famously folksy presence in Omaha and one of the nation’s great philanthropists, Biglari is low profile, lives in the Dominion and is not engaged in the community in visible ways.
Last year Biglari Holdings acted on its namesake’s ambitions by acquiring both First Guard Insurance Company and Maxim Inc. Unlike Buffett’s strategy of acquiring well-run businesses with promising futures, Biglari has expressed an interest in investing in “troubled companies” with “an underlying business we think will become sound and promising once our methods are implemented.”
As to “our methods,” Biglari is deeply involved and often aggressive: “We blame the board for mediocrity,” he once wrote in a letter to Cracker Barrel shareholders. Steak ‘n Shake represents his most significant success to date. By decreasing operation and building costs he was able to turn a profit on a company that many speculated had been heading towards bankruptcy. In his 2010 letter to shareholders he wrote: “Our prospecting frequently leads us to underperforming, undermanaged, and undervalued companies because they afford better opportunities for outsized gain.”
Whether Biglari fancies himself the next Warren Buffett or the next Hugh Hefner, it’s more interesting to consider what he really stands to gain from the acquisition, monetarily speaking. Maxim has the widest circulation of any men’s magazine at almost two million (double that of Playboy), but its revenues and distributions have been declining for years. It lost $16 million through September of last year alone.
The magazine has passed through various hands since its foundation by Felix Dennis in 1995. Dennis sold the magazine for $250 million in 2007. Biglari acquired it for an estimated $12 million in 2014, “at a moment of maximum uncertainty.” He viewed it as an opportunity for profit, at a “bargain price.”
Significant changes soon followed, including the departure of the magazine’s president, editor-in-chief, senior vice president of digital, and associate publisher of integrated sales. Biglari’s plans for the magazine involved a radical re-conception: “An ethos must shine through the pages of the periodical depicting sophistication and style.” These are not words that would have been used to describe the frat boy rag of the past.
Maxim certainly couldn’t have become much worse. The February issue, the last before significant changes were made, was a melange of low-quality advertisement (protein powder, beer) and lower-quality content. Articles included advice on how to gain entrance to “upscale orgies” (surely an oxymoron), an interview with one of the Real Housewives of Miami, and another with “the world’s most alluring (high school) lesbian sleuth.” The disheartening combination of lewd content and tacky photos made you feel as though you had just paid to peer through the keyhole into a motel room rented out by the hour.
By contrast, the March issue achieved what it set out to do. The simplified cover, a close up of South African supermodel Candice Swanepoel with a come hither look to match the single “Come Closer” caption, is inviting, but doesn’t make you blush at the checkout counter. The more matte paper doesn’t conjure quite so many images of teenage boys flipping through sticky pages. The articles are significantly more engaging, and the wealth of black-and-white photography throughout lends a high-fashion feel.
Much of this is surely thanks to Maxim’s new editor, Kate Lanphear, former style director of T: The New York Times Style Magazine and Elle, and one of the first to join the team after the magazine was acquired by Biglari Holdings. In her editor’s letter, Lanphear acknowledges the challenge glossy magazines face in an era of smartphones and tablets. She plans to emphasize style and culture, and suggests that mens’ tastes have veered away from silicone to “more authentic, self-possessed” women.
While no amount of rhetoric about female empowerment can clothe a naked woman, the magazine does appear to have taken steps to counteract the inevitable criticisms of blatant objectification. Perhaps an article by Neil Strauss, “the world’s most famous pickup artist,” on his damaging sex addiction shows a burgeoning moral conscience. There are more female authors, and a somewhat bizarre “women’s history month” crossword puzzle on the final page.
While Maxim is unabashedly aiming to appeal to the male gaze, it isn’t pornography. You can buy it even if you are under the age of 18, it’s not plastic-wrapped, and all nipples have been conspicuously Photoshopped out. While the calibre of the articles has improved significantly (one on Vietnam war veteran Jim Capers, and another offering advice on how to select cuts of beef, seem particularly popular), loyal frat boys needn’t fear; there’s still an article entitled “Bottoms up: an obsession we can get behind” (I’ll leave the topic of that one to your imagination).
One of the most significant changes is an increase in luxury advertising. Even an ad for Steak ‘n Shake “by Biglari” lists locations in Ibiza, Cannes, New York, and Los Angeles, as though selling high-end fashion instead of burgers. This effect is somewhat undermined by the suggestive caption: “You’ll never forget your first time.”
Are these changes sufficient to revitalize a flagging business? To succeed, the magazine will have to retain its old readership, and expand its circulation.
One friend expressed concern that he would look like a “pervert” if he bought it, and upon viewing commented: “they have much better taste in women then anything else.”
“Isn’t Maxim really trashy?” asked another friend, a long-time Playboy reader. Another said that’s what she liked about it.
It remains to be seen whether Maxim’s readers are willing to mature with the magazine. Its increased emphasis on style and culture may encroach on the realm of Esquire, which is well-established in those arenas and has an online viewership almost four times Maxim’s.
“The transformation of Maxim will either make history or be history,” Biglari wrote in his November 2014 letter to investors. “We risk being quite wrong.” He added a quote from Clint Eastwood’s film The Rookie: “If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.”
Perhaps the larger question worth asking is this: What value does Maxim magazine add to the Biglari Holdings portfolio for investors?
*Featured/top image: The March 2015 issue of Maxim. Photo by Gretchen Greer.