`Business Monthly' owner seeks career's final edition

She is selling newspaper that covers Howard Co.

August 12, 2002|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Carole Pickett is full of stories. In her line of work, she has to be.

As publisher of The Business Monthly, a newspaper she almost single-handedly built, she has been known around town as the photographer at awards ceremonies, the board member at numerous business and charity meetings and the saleswoman on the phone.

In her world, which spans Columbia, Ellicott City, Laurel and the BWI business district, Pickett is everything to everyone except what she wants to be: retired.

At age 59 - she'll be 60 next month - she's trying hard to get out of the business. In the past two years, she's set a management team in place and trained them to run the paper, put the paper up for sale, and made plans to cut her hours beginning next month.

"I'm looking for someone who is looking to buy it and take it to a weekly," she said. "Once it's a weekly, hopefully the next person can take it and make a big fortune. I don't get that money, but it doesn't matter. You can't work forever."

Pickett would not say how much she wants for the paper, but it is growing, she said. Revenues have grown about 13 percent year over year, and the company is profitable, but she wouldn't say by how much. Pickett said she has had several inquiries about the paper, but no serious suitors. That could be because of a poor climate nationally.

According to a recent article in Mergers & Acquisitions Report, a weekly publication on business buying, merger and acquisitions activity has dropped in the $55 billion newspaper industry, and buyers are paying less.

Part of the reason, according to the article, was the drop in advertising revenue, which in the first quarter of this year slid 6 percent in daily newspapers over last year's fourth quarter, according to the Newspaper Association of America.

Advertising revenues have been down in the first half of this year at the Monthly - a woe most communications companies have suffered through as the economy worsened - but they picked up last month, Pickett said, and she is hopeful this year's revenues will match last year's.

Each month, the staff of five full-time employees works with dozens of community contributors and a handful of free-lancers who help produce an almost 70-page local business magazine and a section that has its roots in the Columbia business community. It prints 27,000 copies that are distributed to about 950 area location, Pickett said. As a specialty paper, the Monthly competes locally with The Daily Record and the Baltimore Business Journal.

The newspaper has won several community awards, about six of which line the walls of the newspaper's tiny office across from The Mall in Columbia. For Pickett, the plaques salute not only the paper, but her accomplishments as well.

Carole and her then-husband, Ed Pickett, moved to Maryland in 1982, after selling a newspaper in Vermont for a hefty sum, but destitute after losing all the money on ventures in radio stations. They started the paper that year, but the couple soon separated and Pickett said she had little to work with.

"I started the paper because all I had was two empty rooms and $68,000 in debt," said Pickett, who had studied business in Vermont, at one time attending the same college with her two daughters. "I went out and tried to get a job at the Gazette papers, but they didn't want me because I was too old."

Pickett rented a room in the basement of someone's home and pressed forward with the newspaper. She made a deal with creditors and slowly repaid them that year, keeping $8,000 of the profits for herself - enough to pay her rent and keep her car running.

In that first year, as she peddled ads to local business owners, she made them an offer she thought would get little response: She told them if they would like to write something for the paper that wasn't self-serving, she would consider printing it. Pickett said she never expected those offhand comments would produce 13 articles for the first paper.

"I'd never seen this many in one month," Pickett said. "I wondered if they could keep it up. Ten years later, they're still here. I have a community paper because of the need of [the business community] to help other people."

The columns, which fill most of the paper, cover topics from tax laws to pet insurance. They have become a trademark of the paper and turned some of the regular commentators - Dennis Lane and Len Lazarick - into local celebrities of sorts.

"Everybody knows Dennis Lane wherever he goes," said Dwight W. Clark, an attorney in Ellicott City, and regular reader.

"I think [the paper] is a great resource for keeping in touch with the local business community," Clark said. "It's always nice to see pictures of the county executive at a dedication and see other business people contributing articles to the paper. I think it's good for the health of the business community. It helps give the business community a good feeling about itself."

But now, Pickett says she's had enough, and the retirement that awaits her includes Hugh Ross, a fiance of seven years, who won't marry her until the paper is sold.

After years of eating chicken at every Chamber of Commerce luncheon and snapping hundreds of photos to celebrate award winners, groundbreakings and grand openings, she said she has helped provide news to the business community, and trained and inspired others in ways that have made her proud. The owners of Generations, a senior paper, and The View from Ellicott City started at The Business Monthly.

"I've done it all now," she said. "I can retire now and know I've filled every single person's hands with a newspaper."

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