Primedia CEO Shown the Door

Tom Rogers, the man who orchestrated Primedia’s heavy spending on several failed Internet initiatives, has quit the $1.2 million-a-year CEO gig, citing “differences regarding the future direction of the company.”

The departure of Rogers comes at a time when the online/offline publishing giant has been busy selling off many unprofitable units and mulling the sale of its flagship title Seventeen.

Controlling shareholder Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. (KKR), was reportedly unhappy with the returns on many Internet-focused acquisitions signed off by Rogers, including the whopping $690 million deal for About.com, a transaction that Rogers described as the “transformation” of Primedia’s publishing operations.

The big plan was to leverage the offline (trade magazines) and online properties (About.com’s guide sites) to deliver targeted marketing opportunities and cross-media marketing outlets for advertisers. It gave Rogers a legitimate Internet property to jumpstart the goal of integrating old-line media with the Web, much like promise from the AOL/Time Warner mega deal.

But, it never quite worked, and Primedia spent the last two years trying to rejigger the business to cope with the decline in online ad spending.

During his four-year-term at the helm of the New York-based company, Primedia also shuttered its venture capital unit, which was set up to invest in consumer-facing Web content and commerce companies, as well as business-to-business Web-based software and services.Rogers also maneuvered a complicated deal to acquire Brill Media and followed up with the purchase of Web publisher Inside.com.

But those big bets that Internet content could be meshed with offline titles to appeal to advertisers never quite panned out and the continued decline in the online advertising market forced Primedia to implement salary freezes and restructure many of those arrangements.

KKR, a private equity firm led by leveraged buyout guru Henry Kravis, which has about $1 billion invested in the debt-ridden Primedia, pulled the plug on Rogers’ tenure as chairman and chief executive during the contract negotiation process.

In the interim, Primedia president Charles McCurdy will assume the CEO job “while the Board of Directors conducts a search for a permanent Chief Executive Officer among both internal and external candidates,” the company said.

Both sides kept a straight face in a statement announcing Rogers’ departure. “Tom has led Primedia through a difficult period in its evolution and has accomplished a lot for the Company. However, Tom and the Board recognize we have real differences in the strategic direction of the Company that surfaced in the contract renewal process,” said Henry Kravis, the KKR boss who is a Primedia director.

Rogers also cited “differences” with the board over what should be the next chapter for Primedia.

It is not the first time KKR has parted ways with a Primedia CEO. Back in 1999, Rogers was himself the beneficiary of a KKR decision to push William Reilly out as CEO in favor of an executive who was familiar with the Internet.

Rogers was lured away from NBC, where he helped shape the network’s Internet-based initiatives.

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