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Patrick McGovern: From Unbeatable Tic-Tac-Toe to Publishing Empire

February 27, 1987

FRAMINGHAM, Mass. (AP) _ From a jerrybuilt computer that played unbeatable tic-tac-toe, Patrick J. McGovern’s enterprises have turned into a magazine and consulting empire that brings in more than $250 million a year.

McGovern began 20 years ago with one magazine, Computerworld. Today, he puts out more than 70 computer-industry publications in 28 countries. And the pioneering computer consulting firm he started in 1964 today claims to be the largest of its type.

Along the way, McGovern’s knack for finding holes in the marketplace and filling them propelled him to Forbes magazine’s list of the 400 wealthiest Americans.

McGovern, 49, says it all began with tic-tac-toe and ″Giant Brains and Machines That Think,″ a book that he read 37 years ago.

The book got him interested in the then novel field of computers.

″And so I built a computer out of bell wire and taking strips of linoleum edging, and tacks,″ said McGovern, the son of a Philadelphia construction manager. ″I made a switching computer that played tic-tac-toe that was unbeatable.″

The computer attracted the attention of the alumni association at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which later offered him a scholarship.

At MIT, McGovern studied biophysics and landed a job at one of the first computer magazines. ″It turned out to be put out by that same person who had written that book about giant brains,″ he said.

McGovern continued at the computer magazine after college. At a press conference he covered in 1964, RCA unveiled a novel computer memory technology, but one that did not seem to have any practical application.

To McGovern, that seemed to be a gaping hole - what the computer industry needed was a source of information about its current and potential customers, he reasoned.

After consulting the head of the Univac computer company, McGovern launched a market research firm, sending out letters seeking business from information- hungry computer makers.

″Within two weeks I got about $90,000 of prepayments to do this computer census,″ he said. ″All of a sudden I was in business.″ And within three years, he says, the company was taking in $600,000 annually.

In 1967, his company did a survey that found the growth of the computer market was dependent on how much the people who used computers knew about available computer products. It was another niche, and McGovern filled it with Computerworld.

The weekly tabloid was launched with $50,000 McGovern scraped together, even though experienced publishers told him it would take 10 times that much. Although he knew next to nothing about publishing, he didn’t listen to the experts.

He also didn’t emulate many existing trade publications, which were cheerleaders of their industry. Computerworld provided balanced computer industry news and critical product reviews.

Trade publishers soon took notice. McGovern characterizes their attitude: ″If you do very well, we’ll come in and do a big, professional launch and wipe you off the map. And if you don’t succeed, then we’ll know you’ve save us a lot of money because the market wasn’t there.″

McGovern succeded, but the experienced publishers fell short when they tried to match his success, he said.

Computerworld was such a hit he started similar publications abroad, first in Japan, then in West Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, Brazil and elsewhere. Today, his company even publishes in China and Hungary.

Computerworld, with a circulation of 150,000, calls itself the largest specialized business publication in the nation and is the 40th largest magazine overall.

McGovern is majority owner of privately held International Data Group, which says it has grown 35 percent a year over the past two decades. Forbes magazine estimates McGovern’s personal worth at $325 million.

McGovern says he is a hands-off manager who thinks his job is to nourish and support his employees, not tell them what to do.

Each of the 70 magazines is set up as a separate company, with its own publisher.

″My idea of running a business is to find good people and get out of their way,″ he said. ″I really like not to get involved in the operational decisions.″

Though he no longer knows each employee by name, McGovern still sets aside two days a year to personally sign Christmas cards to all 2,500 of them, according to his spokeswoman.

McGovern says he has so much respect for his employees that he will give them control of the company when it reaches $1 billion in annual revenues. So far, he has turned over 15 percent of his ownership to a profit-sharing employee trust.

Though he has been described as a workaholic, McGovern says he takes a month-long vacation nearly every year. Last summer, he spent it mountain climbing in Nepal.

End Adv Friday Feb. 27

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