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Lessons from a former boss

By Barbara Whelehan ·
Saturday, July 27, 2013
Posted: 6 am ET

Earlier this week, a good friend informed me that our former boss, John Curran, recently passed away. According to Bloomberg News, where he was recently a news editor, he died of complications from Lou Gehrig's disease at age 59. He had been diagnosed in April 2012.

My immediate reply was, "Oh, that stinks. … That's one more person to add to my list of dead people to pray for every day. It's getting very long."

Death at an early age effectively precludes retirement. John was a high-energy person. It's tough to imagine what he went through in the final months of his life.

An education in publishing

I hadn't kept in touch with John Curran over the last 11 years or so since I left Mutual Funds Magazine about four months before it was shut down by Time Inc. in October 2002. The magazine's demise occurred just as the stock market bottomed, caused by a dearth of advertisers -- few funds had stunning performance to brag about. And Time Inc. was scrambling for money following the questionable acquisition of AOL.

The media company had purchased Mutual Funds Magazine from founders Glen King Parker and Norman Fosback for a princely sum in 1998. Then over the course of the next four years, it systematically disassembled the company. A series of layoffs took place and whole departments were excised. A staff of more than 100 was reduced to about a dozen, and the survivors moved out of a 60,000-square-foot building in Deerfield Beach, Fla., into a small office in Pompano Beach, Fla., with a separate contingent of editors in New York.

Curran came in from Fortune Magazine and assumed the helm at Mutual Funds Magazine as managing editor -- the top gun on the masthead in Time Inc.'s hierarchical order.

I remember Curran to be a dynamic person, though we had our philosophical differences. I regarded his ideas warily as he sought ways to come up with cover lines that would make the magazine "fly off the shelves." The covers routinely touted the latest hot fund or sizzling sector, which in many cases had reached its apex and was on the brink of free-fall.

Funds and sectors are cyclical; they take turns shining brightly and then fading into obscurity. The problem is that consumers get caught up in the frenzy and invest money in the hottest thing at precisely the wrong time -- a human foible known as performance chasing. It's counterproductive for people involved in retirement planning. But financial magazines engage in this practice to survive.

Feeding the fear

One of my last assignments for John Curran involved writing the cover story of the April 2002 issue about where to find safety. Following Sept. 11, 2001, the markets were in turmoil and people were fleeing out of stock funds and into bond funds.

I objected to the topic. "People shouldn't be selling stocks right now," I argued. "They should dollar cost average right through this."

Curran replied that people were nervous and we need to tell them how they can protect their money. When it was published, the cover screamed: "SAFE! (3 Low-Risk Investing Plans)."

It actually turned out to be a pretty good story, featuring vignettes of three risk-averse people who needed to fine-tune their portfolio so they could withstand the blows dealt by the market.

Let's face it, publications must react to what's going on. In December 2008, Money Magazine came out with a cover blaring, "Make Your Money Safe!"

I learned a lot from John Curran. I wonder if he liked running Mutual Funds Magazine. It required him to spend a great deal of time in Florida, home to "too many old people," he would remark from time to time, his nose wrinkled. I couldn't understand his aversion to retirees. We are all headed in that direction, I would think to myself when he said that.

Well, not all of us get there, unfortunately. I was saddened to learn of John's early demise. He will never join the ranks of old people in Florida -- or anywhere else.

On my list of daily petitions, he is among those who will be forever young.


Follow me on Twitter: BWhelehan.

Barbara Whelehan is a co-author of "Future Millionaires' Guidebook," an e-book for Gen Y by Bankrate editors and reporters. It is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBookstore and other e-book retailers.

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1 Comment
Jennie Phipps
July 30, 2013 at 10:25 pm

I hope John reads this and smiles.