Updated: Rodale’s Murphy Exiting; Maria Rodale to Succeed

Facing tough times in a challenging ad market, health and wellness publisher Rodale is replacing its outsider CEO with a family scion.

Steven Pleshette Murphy, president and CEO of Rodale Inc., is leaving the company after nine years. Maria Rodale, granddaughter of company founder J.I. Rodale and its previous chairpersons Robert Rodale and Ardath Rodale, will succeed him as CEO Sept. 1.

The company said Murphy was leaving voluntarily. The 55-year-old Murphy, who doesn’t have another job lined up, will stay on for a transition period through the end of the year.

“After a wonderful decade at Rodale, I have decided not to renew my contract and to take time off to pursue my own creative interests,” he said in a prepared statement.

Founded in 1930, Emmaus, Pa.-based Rodale has nurtured well-known health and wellness brands like Prevention, Men’s Health and Organic Gardening; as well as diet, science and lifestyle books including South Beach Diet and former vice president Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Major publishing companies are said to have come knocking over the years, but the family has resisted a sale.

Murphy started with Rodale in 2000 as president and COO. He was named CEO two years later, succeeding Bob Teufel, another non-family member CEO. Murphy was credited with pushing the company’s well-known brands into other formats like events, Web and videos. Under his watch, Rodale published the popular South Beach Diet book and launched the hit diet book franchise Eat This, Not That! by Men’s Health editor Dave Zinczenko. In a press release announcing the handover, Rodale said the company had its most profitable period under Murphy.

But the company has been challenged, along with the rest of the magazine business, to adapt to changing media usage habits and the current dropoff in advertising. In the past year, Rodale closed fledgling men’s lifestyle magazine Best Life after a 38.5 percent drop in ad pages; combined the sales forces of Men’s Health and Women’s Health; and shed 131 employees.

The beleaguered magazine industry has had its share of turnover at the top lately. Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, Hachette Filipacchi Media and Hearst have all replaced their CEOs in the past year.

“He was the favored adopted son of Maria for a while,” a source who knows the company well said of Murphy. “The company has fabulous brands with lots of potential. But they’re competing in a radically broader marketplace than they ever did. They have to figure out how to compete with Internet giants in the health and wellness area, like WebMD. There’s a limit to what they can do without capital.”

While Murphy rose up the business side, holding executive posts at Disney Publishing Worldwide and EMI Music/Angel Records and Simon & Schuster, Maria Rodale takes a somewhat unconventional route to the CEO job. She has worked at Rodale since 1987 in various capacities, including editor in chief of healthy living Web site Rodale.com, but doesn’t have a sales background. She was the champion of Rodale’s ill-fated Organic Style, which folded in 2005 after a four-year, challenging run. She became chairman of the board in 2007.

Rodale said in an interview that the company was in good shape and that she stepped in to succeed Murphy to ensure continuity there.

“I just felt I was ready, sort of; as ready as I’ll ever be,” she said. “Even though I haven’t been a publisher or an ad sales person, I’ve been in charge of businesses that have that function and been on a lot of ad sales calls and consider marketing one of my strengths.”

Related: Rodale to Slash Headcount