Susan Obrecht plans to build an East Coast media empire


August 30, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

Her face is there to greet you by the door: the long blond hair curling around her shoulders, the shadowed cheekbones, the Mona Lisa smile. But at the moment, that's all you get to see of Susan Souders Obrecht, a black and white photo on a foyer table of Villa Pace, the 39-acre Greenspring Valley estate she calls home.

It's somehow fitting to meet the photo before the real thing. Particularly since pictures tell a story all their own about the new president and publisher of Baltimore magazine, who at the moment is upstairs dressing.

There's the softly lit image of Ms. Obrecht in the revamped September issue, her Ivana hairdo matching her dreamy pose. There were the photocopies of a flattering picture and newspaper article about her that employees received shortly after she took over. Then there's her photo-filled den: Susan by the bookcase. Susan on the table. Susan on a shelf. How many is she in? Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen . . .

The final picture lingers only in the mind. It's of Ms. Obrecht racing down a winding staircase, running late. In this one, she looks less air-brushed. Her long hair is wilder, the roots seem dark. Sunlight frames her, revealing the outline of her legs beneath her sheer leopard-print skirt. If this were captured on film, the caption might read: Susan Souders Obrecht, Baltimore's blond ambition.

It's not the first time she's been compared to Madonna. It happened when she arrived at the magazine in May to meet with her new employees. "Here she was in her fur coat and mini-skirt surrounded by the boys," says one who declined to be named for fear of offending Ms. Obrecht. "It was like Madonna and the back crew."

But Ms. Obrecht can make the Material Girl look underdressed, Donald Trump seem modest, Bill Clinton sound unambitious. She talks about building an East Coast media empire and then worries she still won't be satisfied. She answers critics by calling them envious. She's wears distinctly uncorporate attire: form-fitting dresses, short skirts, blouses with low necklines.

Media diva

"She's kind of a media diva," explains Liz Chuday, the president and owner of Chuday Communications, a local public relations firm. "There are people in the media community who create their own news. . . . That's what Susan is."

She created perhaps the biggest news of her career in May when she and her investor group bought Baltimore magazine for a purchase price reportedly between $3 million and $4 million. Having turned around a once-struggling regional publication, Mid-Atlantic Country, she set her sights on a city magazine hit hard by the recession.

In the September issue, readers get to see her handiwork. The redesigned magazine has a more sophisticated logo, more comprehensive features on art, fashion and business, and national advertisers, including the Gap and Botany 500.

But to her, these accomplishments only tell part of the story.

"To me it's much more of a national story," says Ms. Obrecht, 36. "It's a story about a woman in the late '80s and early '90s, at the worst time in the economy . . . [who] successfully, based on her track record, her bottom-line performance, nothing else, raised moneys to not only improve Mid-Atlantic Country, acquire top people for ESS [Ventures Inc., her media investment firm] but buy Baltimore magazine."

This acquisition hints at things to come, she says. Her vision: to build a multimillion-dollar media empire with cable, television, magazines, newspapers and a movie production company. Once that's done, she says she may enter politics.

In control

"The pure truth is I like to be in control," she says. "No matter how you slice it, I'm a very controlling person."

If she talks big, she doesn't always back up what she says. She declines to give specifics about financing for any of her deals. She mentions acquaintances at Vanity Fair, yet declines to name them. "I want to be on the cover of Time and Businessweek," she says, "as opposed to the fashion magazines, which have been calling me."

Which fashion magazines?

"I don't want to discuss it because I'm going to probably be appearing soon," she says. "It's because I photograph well. They, of course, like to dress me up."

Sometimes her words appear to contradict her actions. She wants "to really make a difference for women in the business world," yet the highest-ranking editorial, advertising and art positions at Baltimore magazine belong to men. She stresses punctuality, yet she's well-known for being late. She wants to be taken seriously in business, yet during a tour of her home she shows you her lingerie closet -- and takes out some silky Bob Mackie sleepwear her husband bought for her. ("He loves giving me these things," she says.)

And although she says she wants to downplay her appearance, she brings up the topic herself during an interview.

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