Christie Hefner, executive chairman, Canyon Ranch Enterprises
Former Playboy CEO takes on new role with health resort company
Former Playboy CEO Christie Hefner is about to unveil a host of brand extensions for health resort company Canyon Ranch that are reminiscent, in strategy, of Playboy's licensing deals and multimedia ventures. (Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune / February 18, 2013)
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.
A yoga video with extended content on healthy cooking debuts this month, and the company is providing sponsored healthy living content on AOL's Huffington Post site.