From the Ground Up

by Ahavah Astarte Revis

You can’t have a business in the Bay Area, and San Francisco in particular, for long without knowing Mary Huss. With 26 years in the Bay Area publishing arena, Huss is now two months, as of press time, into her new role as president and publisher of both the San Francisco Business Times and its sister publication to the south, the Silicon Valley Business Journal.

And, as the woman bestowing the title of “Most Admired CEO” and the distinction of making her “40 Under 40” list, Huss is an important name to know among C-level executives and startup founders alike.

She talks openly during our meeting in her glass-walled corner office on the sixth floor in the Financial District, with its sweeping views of the Ferry Building clock tower and the Bay. We meet a second time at Poggio, an Italian trattoria in Sausalito, the town where she resides. She says her move to San Francisco in 1991 was one of the best decisions of her life.

“The DNA in the Bay Area is about creation and innovation. People have an idea and turn it into something,” she observes. “The dream is born. There is funding. It’s got the perfect ecosystem. The culture of the possible is truly here. And I think that fits me.”

Her mark on the Business Times has been substantial, with Huss steadily leading the weekly from its infancy into the top three revenue-making newsrooms under the umbrella of the American City Business Journals. More importantly to readers, she’s managed to bring it into a digital-first future, with a team of journalists led by editor-in-chief Patrick Chu regularly beating other outlets like the San Francisco Chronicle and The (San Jose) Mercury News on scoops and breaking news.

Alex Orfinger has worked with Huss for more than two decades. Now the executive vice president for American City Business Journals, which has 43 local business journals throughout the U.S., Orfinger says his colleague’s focus on bringing in new ways to capture readers and advertisers has always been her hallmark.

“First and foremost, Mary has always been an innovator and that is how she made her name within ACBJ. She creates products and ideas and they are quickly replicated around our company. Her most recent innovation — The Business of Pride — is just the latest example and will start in more than a dozen of our cities this year,” says Orfinger, referring to the new vertical Huss helped brainstorm that focuses on diversity and LGBTQ topics and leaders.

Huss’s road to San Francisco wasn’t a direct one. After graduating from Mizzou’s journalism school in 1976, Huss embarked on an unassuming, non-paying endeavor that set the groundwork for her success today: She launched the St. Louis alternative weekly Riverfront Times. She wore many hats there: circulation, journalist, ad sales, distributor. It was a startup before startups were cool.

Huss hit the ground running, when the genre of business journals were just emerging. Crain’s Chicago Business — the granddaddy, as Huss likes to call it — was the model at the time. It launched in 1978. “I had friends who were being hired by this new business journal thing that was starting,” Huss recalls. “I thought a business journal was just a bunch of finances at that time.”

Offered a position twice at the St. Louis ­Post-Dispatch, she turned it down the first time, not wanting to leave Riverfront Times. The second time was the charm. Though she missed being part of an exciting startup environment, she continued to crank out copy as the special advertising projects editor.

Fast forward a few years: Huss, “thinking entrepreneurial,” decided to join another startup, the St. Louis Business Journal, as the circulation director. Her mission: To build paid subscribers at a time when people went to newsstands and vending boxes to get their news. She set up a telemarketing team, and created sampling and direct mail promotions and other forms of audience marketing.

The go-go ’80s‑ were a boom time for business journals, mergers and acquisitions. Huss adapted and continued to keep her eyes pointed forward. By choice, Huss left Philly, one of the largest markets, to join one of the smallest: San Francisco. She had grown up in Missouri, and wanted to live on the West Coast, do something new and plant roots.

She says the entrepreneurial and creative landscape of the Bay Area lends itself to creating a great business journal.

“You have to keep it fresh, but in this environment it’s not really that hard to keep it fresh,” she notes. “So much is always being invented: concepts, sectors. Companies certainly, but whole sectors of business are being invented all the time.”

It’s fitting, then, to launch a new version of the journal in Silicon Valley. Huss has been drilling in and getting to know the San Jose operations — and the people — in order to bring the sister publications teams together. She’s been spending half her week in San Francisco and the rest in San Jose to do so.

“One of my most fun moments is to be able to have the whole picture, be accountable for the whole picture — and I am not just on one side. I am on all sides,” she says, adding: “What I love about what I get to do is to be among so many fabulous people all the time. I love San Francisco and Oakland. I am falling in love with San Jose, too.”

Huss would not disclose revenue numbers for the Business Times. But the collective employee count for both publications is more than 60 employees — and both the chain and its San Francisco outpost have continued to grow, despite implementing a paywall for readers in 2015.

“For daily newspapers, it used to be that they would talk about paid circulation as a strict decline,” she observes. “For business journals, it was a marginal decline, not a mindblowing decline, but it was not growing anymore. It is such a vote for journalism that people will pay for value. If you produce quality news and information, if you invest in that — and this is true across American City — if you charge, they will pay.”

Orfinger says Huss’s commitment to staying ahead of the pack in the business community and how to cover it is one she takes very much to heart.

“What’s also at the root of Mary’s success is her deep commitment to the community she serves. She is an active civic leader and uses the power of the Business Times to not only cover the most important industries but also shine the light on people and trends affecting the future of the region,” Orfinger says.

Barbara Morrison, a longtime friend of Huss and president of East Bay-based TMC Financing, says the publisher’s stick-to-it Missouri grit is apparent no matter where she is, whether it’s a business meeting or late in the afternoon touring temples in Cambodia.

“One thing that I’ve learned about Mary, in Angkor Wat, is that when everyone is sweaty and flagging and there’s still one more temple to climb up, Mary never misses a new chance to explore a new thing,” she says. “She’s right there and it doesn’t matter what the conditions are. That’s Mary — she’s not staying by the pool all afternoon. She wants to be out there, living and learning.”

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