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Christie Hefner talks about leaving Playboy

[Chicago Tribune]- Christie Hefner on Monday announced plans to end her 20-year tenure as chief executive of Chicago’s Playboy Enterprises,and pursue other work in public-service and non-profit ventures.

The 56-year-old Hefner has guided Playboy through rocky patches since taking over at one of the publishing and entertainment company’s lowest points in the 1980s. Since then, Playboy’s image has rebounded and her father, founder Hugh Hefner, has reached an unlikely new audience of young women through the cable television show Girls Next Door, which features his three youthful girlfriends.

Yet Playboy has suffered in the economic downturn, as advertising and circulation at its flagship magazine plunged and its adult TV and movie programs lost ground to free content on the Web. Its best-performing unit has been its licensing division, which has put the Playboy logo on apparel, jewelry and entertainment venues such as the the Palms Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Playboy stock has cratered this year, but Hefner said no one among the company’s directors or investors urged her to resign. She intends to remain CEO until Jan. 31 and stay on the company’s board until her replacement joins the company, when she will depart.

Playboy director Jerome Kern will serve as interim non-executive chairman while the company searches for Hefner’s replacement. Kern, president of Kern Consulting LLC and former CEO of On Command Corp, joined Playboy’s board in 2002.

In an interview Monday with Tribune Senior Correspondent Greg Burns, Hefner said she will not seek another chief executive post but instead plans to serve on additional corporate boards and appear more frequently as a speaker and television commentator. She and her husband, former Illinois state Sen. William Marovitz, will remain in Chicago, Hefner said.

She believes the company will keep its headquarters in Chicago as well, she said. Her replacement will be a professional executive from outside the family, she predicted. Hef’s teenage sons, Marston and Cooper, are not ready to replace her, she said. “That’s a decade away.”

In a statement, Hefner’s father said: “I asked Christie to step up as president when the company faced serious financial difficulties more than two decades ago. She has worked tirelessly to expand the company’s franchise, and, as a result of her efforts, the company today has more consumers and fans than at any time in our history. Of course, as her father, my first priority is Christie’s happiness. While I will miss her leadership here, I believe that she will go on to achieve even greater personal success.”

An edited transcript follows:

Q When did this come up?

A I’ve been planning for it for a while. I talked with my dad about this last month in Los Angeles. He was happy for me. You know my dad really believes in pursuing your dreams. It was very personal and very emotional. The board asked if I would stay on until the end of January. I never intended to go into the family business. I’ve always been drawn to wanting to do something else at some time in my life.

Q What will you be doing?

A I genuinely envision that I will be doing a variety of things. Billy and I don’t want to leave Chicago, so this is going to be home. Whatever I do is going to be done from here. I think it’s going to be a mix. I think I’m going to find ways to give back both in the nonprofit side and public service. But I also have enjoyed the board work, the TV commentary and the speaking that I’ve done. I really don’t plan to look for a CEO job. Been there, done that.

Q The company recently has had layoffs and cut its DVD unit; is that a factor in your departure?

A I feel very good about the way things have gone. It wouldn’t be possible for me to be making this change if the company weren’t in real strong shape. We have below-market debt and $25 million in cash. Hef will continue to be responsible for the magazine and be chief creative officer.

Q Is the declining stock price a factor in your decision to leave?

A No. It is indiscriminate, across-the-board market selling in this environment. We are among scores of companies that have stock at a record low. I’m going to remain a major shareholder. I have a lot of confidence that as the economy gets better … certainly playboy is well positioned.

Q What is the future of your TV and publishing units?

A On TV, we were an early believer in branded television when cable was just gaining traction. We have a very profitable global TV business. Changes in technology there are starting to help us. Publishing is harder. We early on saw the opportunity in online and in mobile. The challenge for the team moving forward will be to continue driving integration between Playboy in print and Playboy online. More content will be delivered online.

Q Will the company move its headquarters out of Chicago to consolidate its operations in Los Angeles or New York?

A There will always be changes given how dynamic the market is. Chicago is the most cost-effective of the three. I haven’t heard any plans.

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