Lute and Sue Harmon
Ink in their veins
& Cleveland in their hearts
Picture it. It was 1972. Lute Harmon Sr. was working at CEI as an ad copywriter for the "Best Location in the Nation" campaign. He was married to Sue and they were driving up to New England. Sue wasn't working at the time; she had just had their first child, Lute Jr.
As a result of his job at CEI, Lute received numerous magazines from other cities boasting about all the attractions that those cities had to offer. On the entire trip to New England, Lute and Sue talked about starting a magazine. Just a little something from the garage.
When they got home they took the steps that differentiate dreamers with good ideas from entrepreneurs. They cleaned out the garage and started discussing means of raising the capital they would need.
One man they met with was Oliver Emerson of Emerson Press who told them it was a great idea, but Lute would need to quit his job. Lute and Sue hadn't even considered this as a possibility.
It was a huge risk - especially with a new child, but they were committed. "We realized he was right. This was a business and it became clear that if we were going to do it, we needed to do it right."
Emerson had some extra storage space on his second floor that they turned into their office. They brought the baby to work in a playpen. And it was from these inauspicious beginnings that Cleveland Magazine was born.
"We never expected it to get to the size it is. We never expected it to turn into a family business. We never pushed our kids into going into the business either." Regardless, Lute Jr. (now 34) is currently the publisher of Ohio Magazine. Their younger son Eric (31) is the Publisher of Cincinnati Business another magazine in the Harmon "collection."
Lute Jr. was out of college and working in sales when his dad approached him and asked if he had ever considered going into the business with them. "I just explained that we were expanding and growing and if he wanted to get involved this would be a good time to do it."
Lute Jr. joined the company in 1996. When another magazine, Inside Business, was started Lute Jr. took it over.
Eric had no plans of getting involved in the business. He went to West Point and did his active duty. Eventually he started thinking about it, but was concerned about working with his parents and brother. "So we sent him to start the magazine in Cincinnati and it's quite successful."
Lute and Sue have been married for over 38 years and in addition to their two sons they have 3 grandchildren; 2 living in Florida and one in Cleveland.
The business started with about 25 investors. The Harmons have been buying them out over the years. "There is just one substantial investor left and a few other smaller investors, so we can't really say its family owned - yet."
Sue's role first became official in 1998 but Lute is quick to say "Every decision I ever made was made with her input and help. It was only in 1998 that we decided to acknowledge the huge role she plays officially." She had previously been involved in a Leasing Business.
Lute explains the magazines role; "Those of us in the magazine business are there for one of two missions. The first is to entertain and the second is to inform. Newspapers inform, but magazines do both. There is no reason that anyone would need to subscribe, so we need to make it fun and informative."
The very first issue had a cover picture of Dennis Kucinich. Lute remembers in the interview that Kucinich told him if he could win the City Council election there would be no stopping him politically.
The thirtieth anniversary issue listed the 30 People Who Define Cleveland. Included were people such as Dorothy Fuldheim, George Voinovich, George Forbes, Nick Mileti, Dick Pogue, Del DeWitt, John Lanigan and sports figures Jim Brown and Art Modell.
There is an old adage that says "Never argue with someone who buys ink by the barrel" which Lute certainly does. But Lute says, "The editorials we write don't shape policy, but they do make people think."
Together they remember a series they did on the Mafia in Cleveland. "It may have had some influence on breaking up the mob in Cleveland in the 70's because we made some of the mob figures famous and they didn't like that."
In fact when reputed Cleveland mobster Danny Green was killed in a car bombing, the FBI called on Lute. When the FBI captured the bombers and impounded their car there was a Cleveland magazine on the front seat opened to the picture of Danny Green. It was the picture they used to identify their target.
Lute also remembers the day a yellow Rolls Royce driven by a chauffer pulled up next to him up on the street as he was walking down to Public Square. "It was very scary, like something in a movie." The back seat window rolled down and they asked him where he was going and offered him a ride.
Then they asked him if he was a good swimmer and how well he thought he could swim with concrete shoes. They threatened that if there were any more stories about the mob they'd be coming after him and Mike Roberts (Editor of Cleveland Magazine). "We were just too much in their face."
Sue and Lute Harmon
There were other issues that stand out for the Harmons. Like the one involving George Steinbrenner. "We had spent 3-4 months writing his life story." Just as they finished, he was indicted for illegal contributions to shipbuilders.
Cleveland Magazine was ready to go and put him on the cover. Dick Schaap, the New York sportswriter who wrote the definitive book on Steinbrenner, used the Cleveland Magazine article for a lot of his information.
Then there was the Sex in the Suburbs issue. The cover had models lying on a bed. One of the models had taken off her shirt and thrown it in the air for the picture. As it turned out the woman was a teacher and lost her job.
One of the most heavily discussed and anticipated issues of Cleveland Magazine is the annual (June) "Rate the Suburbs" issue. "Some suburbs have been known to give us 'less then accurate' information but we verify everything."
Cleveland Magazine covers
Rating the Suburbs June 2004 & 2005
The first time they did this story, Lute and Mike Roberts went on the Dorothy Fuldheim show and talked about the suburbs. Dorothy wanted the bottom line "What is the No. 1 suburb?" Lute explained that they didn't rank them. They just provided the information.
"I remember Dorothy Fuldheim getting upset and telling us that we couldn't come on her show and not rate the suburbs. From that time on we rate them and it has become a very influential issue."
Sue is Vice President of Operations. "The definition of my title is really 'none of the above'. Anything that is not publishing or editing is under my jurisdiction." She handles "all of the things that make the magazine a business, with the exception of Finance, there is a Vice President of Finance."
Lute actually left Cleveland Magazine in 1983, only eleven years after starting the magazine. He went to Texas and started a magazine in Houston. But Cleveland was still tugging at his heart strings and Cleveland Magazine, his baby, was hitting a low point.
So in mid-1991 the Harmons returned to Cleveland and Cleveland Magazine. All of Lute's efforts were concentrated on Cleveland Magazine for the next four years.
In 1994 they developed Inside Business as an inside section of Cleveland Magazine. By 1996 it was its own magazine. In 2000 they bought out Ohio Magazine which put them in new markets.
"Now we were in Cincy, Toledo, Columbus - all of them. Now we have over 70% of the
Travel magazines in Ohio. Dayton, Cleveland, Marietta - almost every one of them."
The doors to Great Lakes Publishing offices
Another fast growing area of their publishing company (Great Lakes Publishing Co.) is the corporate aspect. "A lot of companies want their own magazine, like the Indians with Game Face." The Harmons are a huge presence in this arena as well as many others.
"In the old days we could go in and sell an ad and talk to the people one on one. Now we go in and try to publish as much as possible. Not ad by ad but magazine by magazine."
As Sue says, "We are known for Cleveland Magazine but we are in many other areas of publishing as well."
Neither Sue nor Lute see the Internet as an issue or competition. "Our products are specialty magazines. Most advertisers and readers still want to see something in print, not on-line. Some, like the Wall Street Journal can be obtained in either an on-line version or a physical copy. But there is no definitive result yet." "Of course" says Lute "we're watching it carefully."
Lute Harmon in a familiar spot - at the podium
Lute and Sue are both very proud of Cleveland. "Cleveland has had and is having a lot of success. There is a model for success in Cleveland whether it is Cleveland Clinic, Jones Day or some of the other smaller companies. They start in Cleveland. Sell their product in Cleveland and then expand to the world. There is nothing to prevent a business from working in Cleveland. It's a great place to do business."
Lute goes on to say, "No one at Sherwin Williams was ever concerned about whether or not Cleveland was a good place to do business. They have their headquarters here and aren't going anywhere."
Lute and Sue Harmon
They are not pleased with the coverage Greater Cleveland gets, even from its own. "If you read the Plain Dealer you would think all of the schools are broke, the city is poor and there's nothing good going on. This may or may not be true in the city of Cleveland but it is definitely not true in Cuyahoga County. This is a great place to be and getting better every day."
Lute believes the city has an issue with low self esteem. "It took us 25 years to live down the river burning. There was a case study done at Harvard from 1976-1996. Cleveland was deemed a Turn Around City. But way back in 1969 the river caught fire and people would rather talk about that. Cleveland is in good shape and postured to move forward. We just have to have some faith in ourselves - the same kind of faith visitors to our city have. They're always impressed. Why aren't we?"
Sue adds, "Just watching Playhouse Square and Ideastream and the Euclid Corridor. This is such a vital and exciting area. And more and more people are moving downtown. You can't judge Cleveland on the headlines."
Lute's role with Inside Business Magazine has changed recently when he became editor and as such has his own column. "I enjoy writing my column - I always have something to say about just about everything. I'm a blow hard."
Even their management style allows for growth and learning. They have a management meeting every week giving all management people a chance to discuss problems, goals, differences. "It doesn't matter what it is, it all comes out at these meetings. And then you realize it's all just part of doing business," says Lute.
Sue finds the meetings a good learning tool. "Hopefully we all learn from our mistakes and don't make them again." Of course as Lute says "There are enough new ones to make without repeating the same ones over and over."
They've adopted Jack Welch's (former General Electric CEO) approach - the Candor Approach. "Anyone is allowed to be as open as they want toward the goal of doing things better. It is a never-ending learning process." Sue adds that they have changed the title a little to "Candor with Respect" just to avoid pitfalls.
The obvious concern of having two people work so closely together and also be married would be the problem of bringing work home. But it's not a problem for Lute and Sue.
Lute explains "We have always discussed business every waking hour of every day of our lives. It's us. And it works for us. We enjoy the business there's no reason to make a line in the sand as to when we can or cannot discuss issues."
People don't always realize that Lute and Sue are a partnership. "The magazine is a whole business, not just a finished product. It's never been about the money, it's always about the product, but we need the entire business to make the product the quality magazine it is."
Both Lute and Sue are golfers and love to spend time with their grandchildren. They have a place on the lake in Huron that provides them with the weekend getaways they both so decidedly earn. Although they had the option to have a 'Summer home" or "weekend retreat" anywhere, they realized that Northeast Ohio is where their hearts are and where they want to be.
"Please, don't talk to me about the weather. Are you kidding? We have no tornadoes or hurricanes or earthquakes. Cleveland weather is unpredictable, but not dangerous."
But there is no question that there lives revolve around Great Lakes Publishing and specifically Cleveland Magazine. When you think about the magazine you instantly think about things like what's happening in the city, whose name is in the limelight, places to go, things to do. It conjures up positive feelings about Cleveland and makes you feel good about your home.
Sue and Lute Harmon
Lute and Sue Harmon have that effect on people both in print and in person. They are laid back and funny yet intense, dedicated working people. Their dedication to each other, their family, their employees, their company and their city is evident in everything they do. They have no room in their hearts or their schedules for negativity or narrow-mindedness.
If only their kind hearts and positive nature where contagious. There would be no stopping a city made up of people like Lute Harmon and Sue Harmon.
Profiled by Debbie Hanson
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