At 60, Christie Hefner is taking the Canyon Ranch brand in a new direction. She's doing the same thing in her career and personal life.
Over a long weekend earlier this month, all three of those paths converged over some dusty walking trails in Tucson.
Hefner, the former Playboy Enterprises Inc. CEO and now executive chairman of Canyon Ranch Enterprises, played host to a group of top Chicago women executives as they went through the paces at the luxe health resort.
Some were old friends -- she's got a roster of them supporting her as she transitions to single life -- and some were new acquaintances she met through the Chicago chapter of Women Corporate Directors.
There were the typical exercise hikes and spa appointments, from massages to acupuncture, but the women also peppered a nutritionist with knowledgeable questions, contemplated strategies for getting more women on corporate boards and, in a session on stress management, shared some of their wrenching personal and professional low points, along with the eventual positives that came from them.
"Leaving Playboy, I was warned not everyone would return my call right away," Hefner told the group, describing her apprehension four years ago when contemplating stepping away from the company her father, Hugh Hefner, founded and where she reported to work after college. She spent 20 years as CEO, officially stepping down in January 2009.
Like many top executives, she worried about becoming irrelevant once her title was gone. She had the added pressure to prove herself that comes with the territory after leaving an essentially family-run business, particularly one that was struggling financially.
Ultimately, people called. And giving up the power of the Playboy post and dealing with the possibility of diminished clout actually provided a fresh start, she said.
"In a way, that liberated me to make choices about how I wanted to spend my professional time," she told the group, which included longtime close pal Joan Steel, Illinois Tool Works Executive Vice President Jane Warner and former Leo Burnett Worldwide Inc. CEO Linda Wolf.
A sober plunge into low-cal living seemingly couldn't be further from the glitz of her Playboy days. But she's about to unveil a host of brand extensions for the 33-year-old health resort company that are reminiscent, in strategy, of Playboy's licensing deals and multimedia ventures.
A line of fresh, refrigerated meals is planned for 2013, a new website is already up, and the company is in talks about creating radio programming around wellness topics.
Hefner said the experience of closing Playboy Clubs taught her about rationalizing a brand's extensions so that they support, rather than diminish, the appeal of the core brand.
Her years spent exploring partnerships and deals on Playboy's behalf are paying off for her new employer as it seeks new ventures and partnerships.
"She knows everybody," said Gary Frost, chief learning officer for Canyon Ranch. "Her network is amazing and she can bring people to the table."
Long accustomed to the ironies inherent in becoming the one of the longest-serving female CEOs in history by running a female-nudity business, Hefner is comfortable describing the similarities between her old and new roles. Just as her father's empire blossomed with the sexual revolution, she sees similar opportunities as her fellow baby boomers strive for longer, healthier lives.
Enter Canyon Ranch and Hefner's encore career.
She has overseen a major website redesign that will incorporate high-definition, interactive health consulting next year, and she is finalizing partnerships to offer corporate wellness programs online and at Canyon Ranch properties.
Canyon Ranch's site offers $3.99 iPad apps with fitness videos, nutritional recipes and other content. The free content includes more recipes and articles on fitness, living with disease, spirituality and nutrition.
Sometime next year Hefner expects the site will offer premium content, from a healthy weight program to interactive video consulting services with nutritionists, exercise experts and, for established patients, Canyon Ranch physicians.
All content is reviewed by Canyon Ranch physicians or other staff experts, said Marjorie Martin, a veteran health journalist whom Hefner tapped to be the company's general manager and chief content officer.
"She's been very involved" in the redesign, Martin said of Hefner. "She has an amazing capacity to see the forest and the trees simultaneously," despite Hefner's officially part-time status, Martin said. While negotiating major partnerships for the brand, Hefner also reviews the editorial content in detail, offering input down to word-choice changes and article selection, Martin said.
"I promised (the company) half my time, and I give them more than half," Hefner said. She said she declined a full-time CEO title because it would have left her without enough time for other interests, which include creating events for the Center for American Progress aimed at broadening the liberal think tank's reach outside the Beltway.
"It's been amazing to see her dedication" to working on the country's economic problems through her association with the center, said Tom Perriello, president and chief executive of its Action Fund.
She also campaigned for President Barack Obama this year and in 2008 and showed at least some interest in a role in his administration.
"The closest I got was to look through the Plum Book to see if there was a board or commission I was interested in" after the 2008 election, she said, referring to the published list of available appointments.
The Canyon Ranch moves are the outcome of a relationship Hefner began with the resort in the 1990s, when she approached co-founders Mel and Enid Zuckerman about potential deals with Playboy as it explored new destination gaming properties.
A deal never happened, but a couple of years later Mel Zuckerman called Hefner and asked if she would join the company's advisory board.
"He said, 'People keep telling me I have this great brand and I really don't know what that means. I thought if you join (our board) you could help me figure this out,' " Hefner said.
She joined and continued advising the company until the group concluded its work about five years ago. Today the company has five locations, and a Canyon Ranch SpaClub will open next year at The Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va.
A planned Chicago luxury high-rise condo and wellness center at 680 N. Rush St. was scuttled amid the real estate downturn, and there are no specific plans to resurrect the project, said Jerry Cohen, Canyon Ranch's other co-founder.
Cohen confirmed the company plans to open a location in Turkey but declined to offer specifics until the project is officially announced in March or April.
Hefner's work with the new venture began in 2009 as a consulting arrangement, and in May 2011, Hefner was named executive chairman of Canyon Ranch Enterprises, a new division.
Cohen insists he has no metrics that must be hit, other than the venture ultimately be profitable.
"We've been looking for ways to democratize the brand and make it not just for those who can afford" a stay at the upscale resorts, Cohen said. Rates vary widely depending on location and services, but it's typical to spend $1,000 and up daily with meals and services.
The trick, both Frost and Hefner said, will be to roll out the new branded products without cheapening the Canyon Ranch name. Focusing on the professionally reviewed website content will be vital, Hefner said.
Always trim and a no-meat-besides-fish eater since the mid-1970s, Hefner didn't have to make a major life transition to feel comfortable representing the brand.
She tries to exercise at least four times a week, typically at East Bank Club, and has added Pilates training to her routines in recent years.
As for other details of her personal life, including her separation from her husband, former state Sen. William Marovitz, and his $168,352 Securities and Exchange Commission settlement last year of insider trading charges involving shares of Playboy while it was still a public company, Hefner refuses to discuss them, except to say that her close friends have been "critically important" in this phase of her life.
"I'm doing just fine," she said.
She recently purchased a $1.05 million Mag Mile condo and says she's renovating it before moving in.
"It just made sense to buy something," she said, adding that she is separated, not divorced, but she declined to elaborate further. Marovitz did not respond to a request for comment left with his attorney.
Her reticence to dish is perhaps just another great irony for someone who spent three decades at a provocative magazine and who is a staunch First Amendment supporter.
She also declined to pass judgment over the way she and other Playboy shareholders fared in her father's go-private transaction last year as the company struggled to survive the advertising downturn and Internet competition. Shares were valued at $6.15, a premium over where they were trading when the deal was proposed but far below their peak and less than a bid by owners of rival Penthouse. The deal was valued at $207 million.
For his part, Hugh Hefner says the company is in a better position today. Despite settling several lawsuits related to the transaction, company officials maintained the deal was fair to shareholders.
"The reality is we're in a very good place now under the circumstances, and the circumstances have been very, very difficult for magazines and newspapers and the economy in general," the Playboy founder said. "All things considered, we're in a lot better shape than Newsweek. That rabbit has proliferated and is more famous today than at any time in our history."
As for his daughter, he added: "She's made the transition (out of Playboy) extremely well. Just as Playboy the brand is unique, so is my daughter. There are not a lot of Christie Hefners out there."
In an article for CBS Moneywatch last year, shareholder activist (and Christie Hefner's New Trier classmate) Nell Minow blasted the company's share class structure under the headline "How Hugh Hefner is Screwing Playboy Shareholders, and Why They Should Fight Back."
Paul Hodgson, senior research associate for GMI Ratings, a corporate governance watchdog founded by Minow, estimates Christie Hefner's shares at the time of the deal amounted to about $1.6 million. When she left the company she received a $2 million severance payout.
The amounts are "small beer" for a public company CEO with 30 years at the firm, Hodgson said.
Despite her two decades in the top job, Hefner says her post-Playboy life needed to include a paying gig in addition to her civic work. She said she turned down opportunities to exercise stock options, declining to sell shares while serving as CEO.
"I had to, and have to, make a living," she said. "I didn't have the luxury of devoting myself entirely to not-for-profit activities" after Playboy.
"I'm proud of what I did" at the company, she said. "Before any other publishing company, we figured out that we needed to redefine the brand from being just a publisher to being a multimedia brand."
Hodgson doubts Christie could have done much to improve the company's governance structure, which included dual classes of shares that gave her father a 70 percent controlling interest.
"Although her being CEO was a position of power in terms of operations of the day-to-day company, with that kind of voting structure there was really very little she could do," he said.
And therein lies a final dollop of irony.
Good corporate governance, particularly the advancement of women in management and on boards, has been a longtime passion of Hefner's. She was a founding member of the Committee of 200, The Chicago Network and Emily's List.
"Christie has long been a feminist and passionate champion for the advancement of women," said Steel, one of those critically important close friends who stood up for Christie at her 1995 wedding -- and helped her celebrate her 60th birthday several weeks early in Cape Cod this fall. Steel is founder and president of Chicago-based Alpha Wealth Advisors LLC.
Linda Wolf, who has been more of an acquaintance over the years, said she was touched when Hefner called after Wolf announced her retirement and offered to help with networking as she considered board appointments.
"Even this weekend, she was all about getting something done on this issue (of women on boards)," Wolf said in Tucson. "She still really wants to make a difference in all sorts of ways."
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Executive chairman, Canyon Ranch Enterprises
Born: In Chicago, November 1952, a year before her father founded Playboy.
Graduated: Brandeis University, 1974, summa cum laude. New Trier (West) High School, 1970. Studied English and American literature.
Involved: Rush University Medical Center trustee, Columbia Journalism Review, Center for American Progress. Completed numerous civic projects including raising $30 million to build Chicago's Ruth M. Rothstein CORE Center, an outpatient facility for patients with HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases. Created Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards.
Celebrated: Her recent birthday with family at L20.
Admires: Abraham Lincoln. "You can learn more about leadership by reading about Lincoln than you can from most business books."