Meg Ryan and Judith Regan “Below the Radar” on Table One

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1003_mockup.gifThe spring power lunch season has officially begun at Michael’s with plenty of famous faces and talking heads (Charles Grodin, Star Jones, Lawrence O’Donnell) mixed in with the usual suspects today. None other than Meg Ryan turned up with Judith Regan and slipped in practically unnoticed. Ah, but it’s my job to tell you these things.

In the ‘six degrees of separation’ world that is the dining room at 55th and Fifth, Judith and I grew up in the same hometown of Bay Shore on Long Island. Her mother was often my substitute teacher in high school, and we’ve always had interesting chats whenever our paths have crossed. It’s been a while since I’ve seen the famously fiery ex-book publisher and she told me she’s adapted a new approach of “staying well below the radar” while working on her Sirius XM show. “No one even knows where I live,” she said. I knew better than to question the strategy of staying out of the limelight by sitting at Table One on a Wednesday at Michael’s, so we talked about mutual friends and exchanged pleasantries about our families. When Meg showed up, she couldn’t have been nicer as we chatted about our daughters who we adopted from China the same year, are the same age and both wear glasses. (Sorry, but it’s all OTR.) Later, on the way out, we talked a bit more and I suspected she had plenty more to say on the subject but didn’t want to get caught it the crush of folks lining up for their coats. Oh, well. Maybe next time.

I was joined today by Stu Zakim, public relations vet and “transformational executive” (How’s that for a title?) Mike Berman. Stu, a veteran marketing guru who has helped shaped the image of Showtime, Universal Pictures and Wenner Media, struck out on his own in 2010 with his own firm, Bridge Strategic Communications. His current clients include the Montclair Film Festival, now in its second year, and Mike, a turnaround specialist and business blogger who dispenses straightforward strategies on his blog, Berman Means Business. Stu has been working with Mike since last fall to extend the reach of his no-nonsense messaging espousing a holistic approach to building businesses. With recent headlines on media mash-ups and corporate meltdowns, we had plenty to talk about. Since Mike penned his first piece for CNBC’s website entitled “Five Turnaround Tips for Ron Johnson, JC Penney and Others” earlier this week, I thought a discussion about JCP’s embattled CEO was a good place to start. In a nutshell, says Mike, Johnson “was set up to fail — he can’t fix Penney’s.”

Mike Berman, Diane Clehane and Stu Zakim

He explains, “What’s happening with Ron Johnson is a metaphor for what’s wrong with business today. You can’t hire a rock star as if he’s just come down from the mountain top with the solution to every problem. No one person is able to do what he’s saying he can do.” According to Mike, Johnson’s first mistake was expecting an already beaten down team to buy into widespread change without first stabilizing the organization and clearly articulating a long term vision for the future. Letting 10,000 people go among a shell-shocked workforce didn’t help matters, either. “In the classic turnaround, you can be a hero by coming in and reducing staff, closing under performing stores or factories for the short-term, but in the long-term that doesn’t create value and kills the economy. Executives have to ask themselves, ‘How can I make sacrifices for the benefit of the entity?” Because so many companies rely on the slash-and-burn strategy as an immediate solution to stem the bleeding of their bottom line, Mike tells me he no longer works on “classic turnarounds” because he finds them “totally souless.” Now there’s something you don’t hear every day.

Before launching his own firm, Mike held several senior management positions, including COO of Outside Ventures LLC, the parent company for several B2B firms specializing in merchant services, and director and COO of Meridian Capital Group LLC. Without whatever safety net an office on the executive floor can offer today, Mike operates very differently now. “My compensation is performance based and driven by the result,” he says while declining to name which well-known clients he’s helped save from the brink. But rest assured that if he didn’t deliver, he’d be out of business himself in no time. “I’ve got skin in the game. It’s all about results.” Indeed.

Mike generally guides his clients in three areas: the launch phase, the “hyper growth” stage where the organizations have failed to keep up with the pace of their sales, and the “improvement” or turnaround phase. In almost every case, he says, “Fundamentals rule. When executives ignore them, they get lost.” When it comes to media companies in the midst of melting down, or at the very least not keeping pace with the changing culture of business and consumer habits, its’ a matter of  “old line behavior and expectations” standing in the way of progress. When it comes to the Time Inc.- Meredith deal that imploded, Mike says if given the choice he’d invest in Meredith because  “the fundamentals in publishing have always been awful and won’t get any better for companies unwilling to adopt Meredith-like qualities.” To wit: “Time Inc.’s musical CEO chairs” and Meredith corporate culture “which does not allow outsized ego to dominate.” Ouch.

As for the other mega-turnaround that’s being closely followed inthe media biz, Mike says Jeff Zucker’s mission to reinvent CNN will only be successful if the company harnesses all the divergent ‘brands’ into “one powerful entity and not use them as silos.” He cites Disney as the corporate model which has “superbly” adapted this strategy. Today, says Mike, media prognosticator Marshall McLuhan‘s famous words no longer apply: “The medium is not the message anymore, because the box has blown up.” I’ll say.

Here’s the rundown on today’s crowd:

1. Meg Ryan and Judith Regan

2. Andrew Stein and some PYT who was a dead ringer for Tyra Banks. We happened to overhear some birthday wishes being offered to the duo, so best wishes to whoever is celebrating today.

3. Agent Esther Newberg

4. PR scion Steve Rubenstein

5. Early bird Charles Grodin, who was the first to arrive in the dining room today

6. Harlem Village Academy’s Debra Kenny

7.  Mike Berman, Stu Zakim and yours truly

8. New York Social Diary’s David Patrick Columbia, HeadButler’s Jesse Kornbluth and a dark haired gal we didn’t get to meet

9. An ultra glam Star Jones, rocking some dark shades and a fuzzy black fur coat. A chic design of pal Dennis Basso, perhaps?

11. Radical Media’s Bob Friedman

12. My good friend, producer Joan Gelman with two power gals

81. Producer Desiree Gruber (Loved the preppy plaid kilt)

14. Penske Media vice chair Gerry Byrne and commissioner of New York City Mayor’s Office of Film, Theatre and Broadcasting Katherine Oliver

15. Tony Hoyt and his equally well-dressed pal James Hayes (Nice to meet you!) These dapper gents and publishing vets have known each other 50 years, Tony tells me. Obviously, they met in pre-school.

16. W magazine’s John Clarkin

17. Judy Price

18. MSNBC’s very professorial looking Lawrence O’Donnell in corduroy and sneakers with a bespectacled fellow we didn’t recognize

19. Veranda EIC Dara Caponigro and publishing maven Jill Cohen

20. Uber agent Rob Weisbach

21. MGM Studios board member Jason Hirschhorn

22. Shelley Zalis

23. Gordon Davis

24. Silver Cup Studios’ Stuart Suna

25. PR maestro Tom Goodman and Sony VP of communications Sandy Geneliuswho I first got to know during her long reign as CBS’s communications VP. Long time, no see!

26. DDG managing director Scott Singer and Self‘s first social media editor, Stephanie Paige Miller

27. EMI’s Neil Lasher

29. Amy Kliger (Jack Kliger‘s better half … )

30. Author Wednesday Martin and Amanda Church

Please send comments and corrections to LUNCH at MEDIABISTRO dot COM.