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Photo courtesy of John Regazzi
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Interview of John Regazzi by David Zierler on March 17, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with John Regazzi, managing director of Akoya Capital. Regazzi provides a business executive’s perspective on the future of work after the pandemic, and he recounts his childhood in Brooklyn and his largely Catholic school education. Regazzi explains his initial interest in entering the seminary to become a priest before he decided to pursue a secular education in experimental psychology at St. John’s University. He discusses his graduate work in business at Columbia University and his developing interests in information science, which he developed at Northern Illinois University. Regazzi describes his subsequent work at the Foundation Center and then at Rutgers where he earned a PhD in information sciences. He explains how this research led to his career in publishing, first at the H.W. Wilson Company and then at Elsevier, where he rose to lead the company in New York. He narrates how and when digital media and the internet became central to the publishing industry, and he explains how he navigated these transitions. Regazzi describes his experiences on September 11 and the impact of this on Elsevier. He discusses his retirement, his decision to become a Dean at Long Island University, and his involvement with AIP and the key issue about making AIPP a separate organization. Regazzi describes his work as Chairman of the AIP board and the central work of finding a CEO. He explains why Michael Moloney became the successful candidate, and how Regazzi put his expertise in technical scientific publishing to the benefit of both AIP and AIPP. At the end of the interview, Regazzi reflects on his career and emphasizes the importance of identifying innovation in business, and he conveys optimism that the publishing industry will continue to evolve and adapt well into the future.
Okay. This is David Zierler, Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is March 17th, 2021. I'm delighted to be here with John J. Regazzi. John, it's great to see you. Thank you for joining me.
I'm delighted, David. I've been looking forward to this. We set it up some time ago, and it's a real pleasure.
Alright. So, to start, would you please tell me your current title and institutional affiliation?
Well, I'm largely retired now, but I still have an affiliation with Akoya Capital Partners, which is a private equity fund, and I serve as managing director of one of their funds. I head up something called the professional information services portfolio for Akoya Capital.
What's the history of Akoya? How far back does it go?
That's an interesting question. Akoya was founded by one of my partners, the founding partner, Max DeZara, in 2005, I think. I didn't join until 2010, but in the early days of the firm, they were set up as quite a different type of organization. They weren't a private equity fund themselves. Rather they were serving private equity firms around their staffing requirements and human resources needs. Max came out of the executive recruiting industry and saw a need for filling high level jobs for private equity firms that were acquiring companies or trying to take their managements to the next level. So, CEOs, CFOs, Chief Technology Officers. He started a business trying to support private equity funds as they acquired companies and their staffing needs.
Then, 2008 happened, and the Great Recession hit, and there wasn't a lot of need for that. So, Max undertook quite an interesting change; he pivoted, and rather than working with private equity funds to fill their staffing needs, he went out and decided to create a very innovative private equity firm himself. He recruited and brought partners into Akoya that had specialties in focused industries. So, he first started with Don Stanutz, who heads up our specialty chemical portfolios. Don worked for many years in that industry, and retired as, I think it was, Chief Operating Officer of Huntsman Industries. Then, he brought in Lou Nieto for food and food services. Lou worked for many years with Quaker and Monsanto, and a number of other major food services companies. I began to work with the firm in a number of ways as an advisor. Then, we decided it might make sense to add professional information services as a key area of investment focus and we then started this division of the company. My background is in information services and in the publishing industries. I joined the firm in 2010.
And in what ways do you remain affiliated? How are you active with Akoya today?
I'm one of their partners, so I help and advise with the acquisition of information services companies when they're considering investing in those industries. At present, for example, we're looking at a healthcare IT company that would be led by one of our operating partners, Brian Bussey. So, I'm serving as an advisor, and helping them think through and analyze this particular acquisition, both in terms of its strengths now, but more importantly, how it might grow in the future.
John, one question I've been looking forward to asking you, a very present and forward-looking question: now that we're a year out from the beginning of the pandemic, you're fully vaccinated, we're just starting to peer into the future. So much of the past year has been an opportunity in terms of workflow and video remote conferencing. What do you think are aspects from remote work that are valuable that we'll bring into the future, and what aspects of in-person, in-office work environments are simply too important to let go of entirely? What does the future look like to you, in terms of hybrid model, best of both worlds?
You know, David, that's a very interesting question. Let me give you a couple of examples that I think could well play themselves out in a lot of different industries. But I also think the real answer to your question is industry specific. However, let me start with the information services industry. We have a portfolio company in Orlando, Florida, called DiSTI, that I am still active. Now, a bit less so, but nonetheless, I do stay in touch with them, and I attend their board meetings. They use simulation and virtual reality software to create a training environment, mainly for military maintenance engineers who are trying to maintain large equipment: jets, ships, and so forth, and maintenance systems on those. Their work is most in the federal government space, but they also have a smaller commercial practice as well.
In Orlando, the software industry is highly competitive, particularly for VR developers. As with any business, but particularly in the information services industry, acquiring and maintaining talent is critical to driving the outcomes you want in any company. It's been very, very competitive over the last few years. What this competition has done, is to force us to think differently about the company and its recruiting programs and move away from thinking of DiSTI as the picture of vertically integrated organization. It's not a large organization. It's perhaps 150 people, but they were all onsite. They all would go to the office every day.
As the pandemic developed, we demonstrated to ourselves two things: one, that our software engineers, in particular, but all staff, could work remotely. And secondly, they could work remotely, well. Keeping things on schedule, on budget, and deliver the outcomes that we needed. One of the byproducts of this time, what’s very valuable is that we can recruit minimally regionally if not nationally, not just in Orlando, to really extend our ability to acquire and retain talented staff. So, that's been a great outcome, and I think the team is beginning to do that. I suspect there are a lot of small to midsized companies that will begin to see the same opportunities. The ability to really extend their power of recruiting can go a long way.
What DiSTI found, equally, is that it's extraordinarily difficult to onboard someone remotely, in this circumstance. To learn the systems, to learn the jargon, to get a sense of the culture of the company, to get a sense of the values of the companies, and so forth. So, they've begun to bring in staff that they've recruited, regionally, for a period of a couple of weeks, maybe more in some cases, to onboard them onto the organization. Then, they found, to the earlier discussion we were having, that some of the meetings where you have to have larger or time critical staff meetings have to be done in person. The one-on-one meetings, the agile meetings in the morning in small groups, they can do that very well on Zoom, but not to have the certain critical project management meetings where a lot of information has to be not only conveyed but discussed, that needs to be done more face-to-face. So, they're trying to routinize those meetings as well. My sense is that it's going to have an impact on the way organizations can attract staff and develop staff. But continuing to engage that staff to have a sense of culture, to have a sense of values around the company, is going to be challenged remotely.
In what capacity do you serve currently as a mentor to younger people in the field?
I used to do a lot more of that, but that's what I really do now. I enjoy this very much, and my responsibility in my current role is to really mentor some of the management teams in our portfolio companies, particularly the CEOs and those in the so called C suite of those companies, to think about their business in two ways: to continue to challenge the strategy of the organization and to see how to best execute and implement that strategy, and to make sure that the board and the senior management is aligned on the strategy.
I think one of the things that you see highly successful companies achieve is strong understanding and agreement about the direction of the company from both the governance body, i.e., the board, as well as senior management and staff. Where companies often go off the rails, I think, particularly in the private equity world, but I suspect in a lot of worlds, is where the board and senior management do not have a full appreciation of the need for that alignment, for whatever reason, either by not involving having board directors involved in the strategic planning process, or by management not involving them, and not building that consensus. So, one of the things that I try to help management teams understand is that they need to be on the board's radar. It's not a good thing to be off the radar. And they really need to engage the board, and boards need to engage with management so that there is that consensus around the direction of the company. The second obligation that I think both of those groups have is to create a clear set of KPIs that can determine if the company is meeting its objectives in that strategy.
Uh oh, jargon alert (laughter). What is KPI?
I'm sorry. Key Performance Indicators.
Okay. I'm in the physics world. We have all kinds of different jargon in our world, but that's a good one to get there. Good. Please continue.
Oh, that's great. So, to develop metrics around performance, and are you progressing on that plan that you have for the strategy? And these KPIs become important discussion points. There are some areas where you overperform, and you can then determine how do you build on that over performance. There are some areas where you're underperforming, and what do you do about that under performance? Is it a signal that perhaps the strategy needs to be adjusted? Are there operational things that you need to do to be better able to meet those metrics? And that's not just covered in staff meetings. Those metrics around the strategy need to be shared by board and staff and discussed. So, often, thinking through what those metrics ought to be, what the genuine indicators of performance are, the truly key performance indicators, that should be raised and used is something that I try to mentor staff about.
Well, John, let's take it all the way back to the beginning. Let's start first with your parents. Tell me about them and where they're from.
Well, let's see. I'm mostly Italian on both sides. My father actually was born in Brooklyn and my paternal grandfather was from Genoa and came to the United States when he was young, I believe five years old, and settled in Brooklyn. His father- I'm now going way back, his father was one of seven brothers from the Dolomites, but my grandfather was born in Genoa. So, there are lots of Regazzis around the world. They're spread out, and there are lots of Regazzis if you go on Facebook. I was amazed at how many Regazzis there are. My paternal grandmother, my father's mother, was born in Brooklyn, but she's English. Her parents came from London also around 1890.
My mother's parents were from Southern Italy. My maternal grandmother was from Naples, or just outside of Naples, a little town called Nola, and my grandfather, my mother's father, was from Palermo, Sicily. My maternal grandmother has an interesting story, just as an aside, about her marriage to my grandfather. When she married my grandfather, she was a U.S. citizen, and he was not. He was born in Palermo, and came over as a young adult, met my grandmother, and they married, but as a result she lost her citizenship. In those days, it was the opposite of what it was now, and I think the regulations were still pretty byzantine and quite complicated. But as a result, she lost her citizenship and they had to go back to Italy and wait there for, I forget what it was, I believe a year, before they could return. Then they applied for citizenship and they received that citizenship. My mother and father were only children, and they were both born in Brooklyn, where I was born as well and raised there until I was about ten.
John, I can play good Brooklyn geography. What neighborhood did you grow up in?
Well, I was born in Red Hook, not far from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, but I grew up in Marine Park, not far from Coney Island, if you know it. You know Brooklyn?
My dad grew up in Sea Gate, and my mom is from Flatbush.
Oh, no kidding. So, Flatbush is basically where I grew up. Marine Park and Flatbush. Brooklyn is a great place. It used to be a great place to be from. I never felt that way, but a lot of people felt that way. Now, I think, it's one of the hottest spots around.
Yeah. Everybody wished that they retained the real estate that their family had in the forties and the fifties.
Absolutely, David. Absolutely.
John, where did you go to school? P.S.?
No. I had mostly a Catholic education. I went to Good Shepherd Parish School when I lived in Brooklyn. I lived there until I was about ten, and then when I came here- I actually now live in the town that I came to. I had a curious route back here, but nonetheless, I'm living here now in Garden City. We moved here, and then I was at another Parish school, St. Anne's. And then I also went to a Catholic high school called Chaminade High School, which is a regional high school here run by the Marianists.
John, was the church a big part of your childhood, or was going to Catholic school just sort of the thing that your family did?
It's interesting. I'll tell you a story. I was living in Brooklyn when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. I was dumbfounded, David, that this could happen, that the Dodgers were moving. I was a big Dodgers fan, and still follow the Dodgers. Anyway, so I went to my father to ask about the Dodgers move and said, "Is it true?" And he said, "Yes, it's true. They're moving." And I said, "Why are they moving?" And my father said, "Well, there's more money for them out in Los Angeles." To your question, I don't remember saying this, but my family says it's absolutely true. I said, "Can they move the church?"
I thought if they could move the Dodgers, anything could be moved, even the church. The church and religion has played a big part in my life and I'm also reminded of a story that reflects this in a funny way. After I completed college, one of the things I was studying was religion. Not as a vocation, obviously, but as an academic discipline, and I was in a book shop in New York City called the Paraclete, which no longer is there but specialized in religion and philosophy books. I was in there, and apparently, they would give discounts to ministers and clergy. I was buying a few books and when I went to pay it reminds me the woman at the checkout desk meant to ask me about my vocational status, but what she said is, "Are you religious?" I remember being dumbfounded and not quite knowing what to say at that point. So, a long way around to your question, but I guess religion did play a big part of my life. I actually was in a seminary for a year- for more than that, for a couple of years. I left for lots of reasons, but I would say, the church was a big part of our lives. Certainly, growing up. and I think the high school that I went to was a very influential part of my life. Chaminade High School is a real place of community and learning and value. So, it was a great time of learning and growth for me and quite a rigorous learning environment. There are some very famous folks that have graduated from there.
John, academically, what were some of the advantages of going to Catholic school, and what, perhaps, were some disadvantages, when you got to college and you could have some perspective on these things?
Looking back on it my grammar school education, I believe, was fairly good. Emphasis on math, and not so much emphasis on science. I think I didn't really get to science education until I was in high school. But grammar school was very strong in math and English. In those days, in Brooklyn, David, they had a program, which my parents decided to allow me to do where you skip a grade. So, I think it was third grade that I skipped in this program. In some ways, I think that was a real disadvantage to me later, socially, and in other ways. Nonetheless, it was a rigorous program that Catholic school system had created, particularly around math and English. But then, when I got to high school, Chaminade had a very strong and rigorous program, as I mentioned, at least in the Catholic education system, around science. That's where I took calculus and physics and biology and chemistry, and really got a sense of the sciences as well as the mathematics that I did enjoy very much.
John, between your grades, geographic considerations, your family's financial situation, what kind of schools did you apply to for undergraduate?
Well, at that point- right after I graduated high school was when I entered the seminary. So, my academic courses there were at the University of Virginia. I had to be accepted at the University of Virginia, but there was a seminary right outside of the University of Virginia, that actually now is part of the university, called the Rosehill campus. But at that point, Rosehill was owned by the seminary that I was in. So, I took the theology courses in the seminary there, and the other courses at the University of Virginia. So, had I not gotten into the University of Virginia, which was the only place that I applied through the seminary, there were other programs that you could pursue, and other courses that you could take. But fortunately, I was accepted at the University of Virginia, and I took my first year there at the university.
To clarify, entering a seminary means a commitment to entering the priesthood?
Yes, at that point. I lasted about two years and realized it wasn't quite what I wanted to do.
What were your motivations going in, both from a spiritual perspective and an academic perspective?
I think that I saw it as a way to serve. It was not so much from an academic perspective that I looked at the seminary. To the extent that I thought at all about it, I thought it would be a good education. It was the order that ran Chaminade High School. So, I knew their reputation. I knew their approach to learning. So, I was sure that would receive a good education. I was reasonably sure that the academics would be fine. So, for me, it was more a sense of kind of how to serve, and how I wanted to serve in the community.
What was the process for deciding long-term that was not what you wanted to do?
I think it was a lot of reflection and realization that there were very specific long-term commitments that need to be made, and some of the restrictions and decisions need for the priesthood. Of course, in the Catholic Church, you can't marry. That was certainly a big consideration for me as I thought about my life and becoming a husband and a father. And I think I began to realize that perhaps my skills, or my interests I should say, not my skill so much at that point, but my interests, were more on other ways of being able to serve in communities.
So, what did you do next? What were your options following seminary?
What I did was I returned home, and I applied to a local college, St. John's University, and took a degree there.
And this would have been what, 1965, '66, when you started at St. John's?
It would have been 1967. I graduated in '65 and spent almost two years in the seminary, and then went to St. John's in the spring semester of 1967.
Did you enter as a freshman, or were there credits from seminary that you could apply to St. John's?
Interesting. Of course, all my credits from University of Virginia, I could apply, but none of the theology.
I would have thought that would have been some of the most valuable credits that you could transfer.
Exactly. No. Between the Vincentians and the Marianists, there was no consensus on theology! And in those days, St. John's, also a Catholic university, had requirements for theology. So, I had to find some theology courses that I hadn't taken, because I didn't want to just take courses I had already taken. So, I found some other theology courses.
John, was the draft something that you had to contend with?
I did, but I was part of the lottery. I don't know if you're familiar with that, but I was part of the lottery. My birthday, June 8th, turned out to be the 366th number picked, the last number picked. So, I was not drafted.
John, did any of the sixties come to St. John's, if you know what I mean, when you were an undergraduate? Were there anti-war protests? Were there civil rights marches? Was any of that part of your reality as an undergraduate?
You know, it really wasn't. I took an accelerated program, so I graduated in '69, and I think it was only beginning to reach St. John’s. Some of the war protests and some of the other activities of the sixties that the decade is well known, was evident when I went to graduate school. I'm getting ahead of myself, but I went to the University of Iowa as a graduate student to study in the school of religion, again, as an academic effort, not for religious training, and there, out in Iowa, there was much more sense of a lot of war protests and a lot of discontent with the war. As a matter of fact, I remember Eugene McCarthy came and gave an address at the University of Iowa. It was outdoors and it was packed. It was absolutely packed. But I don't remember so much of that at St. John's.
What was your degree in, at the end of the day, at St. John's?
Was that the natural choice after seminary? That seemed like the right thing to choose.
I can tell you I was very interested in this area, but what kind of attracted me early, David, was statistics. I had an interest in statistics and had a certain facility with them. So, I began there, and a lot of what happened was that I met some friends and some faculty that were doing work in psychology, and particularly, experimental psychology, and using statistics to understand different behaviors and different experiments. That's how I got into it. So, it was almost that vehicle that got in.
But I'll tell you a story. When I went to the University of Iowa, I originally thought I'd take a PhD there in the area of counseling. Again, psychology, and I thought I could use that to be a counselor in a lot of different environments. But what I realized was that the job market was very limited because most of the counseling was really being done by ministers who also had some academic credentials to them. But the opportunities were transferring into -- doing anything beyond teaching with that PhD degree in religion was quite limited. I was bemoaning this to my wife, who as a spouse, sometimes they just say things that are absolutely true, and a lightbulb goes off. She said, "Do you realize after six years of higher education, you're prepared to do nothing in the real world?" That's almost a direct quote, and it was true. So, again, I pivoted, and I enrolled and got accepted at the Columbia University's computer science department. It wasn't called computer science then. It was the math department, but they were teaching computer science. This would have been in the early seventies.
So, the intellectual bridge there is really the statistics from the experimental psychology program, it sounds like.
Yes, that's right David, because I was using a lot of the early calculators, so you had to do some programming there. So, I had a sense of programming, and when I interviewed, they agreed, so they allowed me to enroll. But again, I'm still focused on some aspect of the humanities, and the first semester, I was programming quadratic equations. So, if you ever need a guy to solve these, I'm your guy. Anyway, I met this group in the computer labs, and they're doing concordance of the Bible, and they're studying word counts from different authors. I'm saying, "Where are you guys doing this? Where is this happening?" So, there was a part of the business school that was doing this. So, I transferred and took a degree in business at Columbia. My degree was actually in information systems, and it was out of the library and business school. It was my first real encounter with business, and I found that I had a real affinity with that, and what I felt was a facility for it. I began to really connect to that environment.
John, was the program at Columbia more geared toward people entering industry in the world of business, or was it more a precursor to a PhD, academically, in information sciences?
No, it wasn't. I was able to bridge it to that, but no, it really was very much of a program aimed towards industry and modernizing organizations, understanding workflow and organizations, and how to apply automation in those areas.
Was there a master's thesis?
There was a project that I did. As a matter of fact, I'll remember that I had this capstone project, and I was analyzing the indexing of religion and theological journals by different organizations, and the overlap among these groups. There were a number of these records, and in those days, David, it was all on cards. The old-fashioned cards. I had these boxes of cards. I had a cubicle, a little cubby hole in the library, that I was able to work in a little lab there that I was able to create these cards. I must have had four or five boxes of these cards, and I was in my final part of this project doing the final analysis. I had to walk from the Library over to the computer center, which was across the campus, up a setup of steps and then down a set of steps, so that I could process these cards in a card reader. This was late in the project, it was late one night, I'm walking over, I trip, and all the cards go all over the campus. It was unbelievable. They were all out of order, and it was just a mess. I'll never forget that. I really remember it to this day. Anyway, I put it together, and I was able to get the project done. But yes, it was not a thesis, but it was a capstone type project that you had to do.
What did you do next? What opportunities were available to you?
Well, what I did was I took a job at Northern Illinois University. We moved from New York to Geneva, Illinois. The University were trying to automate their library at the time. So, I was on the computer science staff helping with the automation of the library and doing a lot of the systems analysis and a lot of the attempts at trying to automate the card catalog and the checkout systems and those kinds of things.
Did you see yourself more, in terms of your broadening intellectual development, as a business guy in an information systems world, or an information systems guy that had value in the business world?
I think it was more the latter when I started. With my training and education at Columbia, I had a lot of state-of-the-art understanding of software and the kind of software that was available, and ways of trying to analyze how to approach data flow in an organization and understanding that. So, I came at it from a very technical perspective, and didn't really understand the business of it. In other words, I could understand, okay, you want to check out a book. Let's lay out the process and figure out how to check out. You want to automate the card catalog. What are the user requirements and what do we need to be thinking about here? So, really, at that point in my life, I was very much focused on the technical aspects of trying to modernize some of the workflow in a library. That's actually how I got started in the library world, which later came into play in my life. But no, I really was not, at that point, a business guy with an information services toolkit, if you will. I really was more of an analyst and could help you figure out, if you wanted to automate, how you could do that.
How long were you at that initial job at the library?
They automated and moved the library. I was out at Northern Illinois for, I guess, close to three years. I spent three years there. We lived in Geneva and St. Charles, Illinois, and Northern Illinois University was in DeKalb, Illinois. So, I traveled west about twenty miles to the office, and my wife got a position in Chicago. She was a medical technologist at the time in downtown Chicago, so she traveled twenty miles the other way going into Chicago. So, we lived in the middle.
What was next available to you?
There was a company that, again, was looking for automating foundation records. The company still exists and is called the Foundation Center. They needed someone to help them bring together foundation records and their grants. They had lots of paper records of foundations and their grant giving activity. They wanted to bring it up onto a company called Dialog. I don't know if that's familiar to you. This was a very early stage of Dialog, and Roger Summit, who was the founder of Dialog, and a real pioneer in the field, was beginning to offer textual databases online. So, the Foundation Center knew about this and wanted to do it. There was a person there who was tasked to do it, and he needed some technical help. We met at an industry conference, and we got to talking, and he described what he was doing, and I was describing what I was doing. And he said, "Would you want to consider coming to work for us?" So, I did, and it got us back to New York, which we wanted to do at the time.
So, I took the job, and actually, we brought up the first non-bibliographic textual database on Dialog. I think it was file seven, or something. A very low number. It had all the foundation records, so if you were interested in applying to a foundation, you could see their description, their mission statements, and we also linked their grant giving activity, which was public information. So, you could also look at the exact grants that they gave. I think it's still up somewhere. I think that database is still available somewhere. It was quite an interesting time. I enjoyed that firm very much.
What did you do next?
Let's see. I think, at that point, I went to get my PhD. So, I left the Foundation Center and went to Rutgers. They had an interesting program, David, that began to bring some things together for me. They had a program that you could actually create an interdisciplinary PhD. They don't have it anymore. I'm not sure why, but it fit what I wanted to do perfectly. It allowed you to take courses in up to three, and I took in three, areas: business, computer science, and information studies. So, those were my three concentrations, and you had to take certain courses in each area. There were some required courses, again. Statistics and research methods, and these kinds of things, were required of all PhD students, but then you could take courses in these other schools. Then, your comprehensive exams were specific to the three disciplines that selected and I had to take a comp in the business, the computer science, and the information studies, and then you could do a PhD dissertation.
So, I did that but while I was doing that, I also worked for the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers, which was, again, trying to take their content online. They have an enormous amount of research content about the use and abuse of alcohol, and studies on effects of alcohol on individuals, both scholarly, peer reviewed materials, as well as white papers, and so forth. They were trying to automate that and make that available much more broadly, and they had a big grant from the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse (NIAA). So, I had a part time job there, and I worked through my PhD at the various locations.
I did that, and actually, I also had a part time program, (which will get me to the next part of my career, but I am getting ahead of myself), at that point, the National Library of Medicine was automating its entire collection, and the project was called as you may know, Medline. This was when they were starting to develop Medline, a guy by the name of Dave McCarn, became a very close friend of mine. I met him, again, at a conference, and he asked if I could help do some programming for him. I was glad to do it, and I was able to do that remotely. I was able to do the coding, and he could send me sample data. So, I could do it from Rutgers. Then, he went on to build the entire Medline service.
And I got my PhD. I initially was on the faculty of Rutgers and was teaching, and by that time Dave had left the National Library of Medicine and was working for the H. W. Wilson Company, a publishing company. You may know it. It used to publish the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature. So, he was tasked to automate their printing functions and the company wanted to automate the photocomposition of all of their publications, which is where the state of industry was, at that point. Really what computers were being used for, at that time, I guess in the late seventies. It was really much more for photocomposition. Wilson had an old-fashioned linotype system of setting hot lead, and creating their publications. They wanted to move away from that process and realize some of the cost savings of computer photocomposition. So, Dave called me and asked if I would join them? He was building a team. So, I said, "Sure, but I have this job as a faculty member." It was a pretty good job, so I took a leave of absence thinking that I would return to the computer science faculty in a year, but I would join Dave for the interim. But somehow, one year led to another, one mortgage payment led to another- I don't know what it was. But I never did return- well, I did return after I retired from Elsevier. I did return to the academic world, but it was some forty years later, David. I never did get back before that.
John, just some intellectual history to bridge the seminary to the PhD. You always had academic impulses; it sounds like. Did you feel like the process of going through the PhD, the scholarly exercise of writing a thesis that would be accepted by the academic community, did that in some ways achieve a full circle for you, with the scholarly aspects of a life in the seminary at all?
I never thought of it that way, but it may well have in some ways. I remember commenting to some of my colleagues when we'd talk about different systems and how to build systems, I remember I had to study Paul Tillich and his system of theology. I always related to that, and his systematic approach to both religion and thinking. It started with certain presumption, and it built out logically and systematically. A lot of what we were doing was the same, in other words, understanding the premise of what the organization was trying to do, and trying to build out those systems from that. The intellectual effort of trying to understand Tillich's system of theology was as challenging, maybe in some ways more challenging, than trying to understand how to build a computer system and modernize some of the organizations that I worked with. So, I think, in some ways, there was a common denominator to that transition.
How well did you have your next job lined up in the course of preparing to defend your thesis? Did you know what you wanted to do next? Was that pretty clear to you? Or was it sort of a wide world, both from a business perspective, or from an academic perspective.
You know, David, it's funny, I never did have a career plan, I often tell my sons and some of my friends, and even in mentoring some of my younger colleagues that now, I think there's a lot more talk about career paths. That's a good thing, I think. Don't misunderstand me, but I just never had one. I met Joe Kulin, and he offered me the job at the Foundation Center. I work with a number of faculty, and they offered me a faculty position. It was a lot easier in those days I suppose, than the competition of today. Dave McCarn kindly offered me a position. I got into that project. So, I never really “a plan,” even as I went through my full career, I never had that focus of what was next. In that sense, I feel I was very lucky to have, for me, what was a very fulfilling career without a plan. But the truth is, I just never did have that plan.
So, what choice did you eventually take?
So, what I did, actually, I stayed at Wilson, and Dave left about a year after we started. What happened was that Dave McCarn was truly a brilliant guy. He's passed. He became a close friend, but he was a mercurial guy. He and the president of the H.W. Wilson Company, a fellow by the name of Leo Weins, who also became a friend of mine, they just didn't see eye to eye. They were two big egos, and it didn't work. So, Dave abruptly left. Here we were in the middle of building this system, and our leader, truly the guy that we were all counting on, left. It was a big blow. Some years later, he actually apologized to me for that. But what happened was Leo called me into his office and it wasn't like a choice, he said, "Alright, you're in charge. You figure it out."
So, I inherited automating the H.W. Wilson Company, and I stayed there for a lot of years. I had the ambition, and Leo allowed me to do it, not only to do the photocomposition, but also to take the company’s content online, and actually, we became a strong competitor to Dialog, the market leader at the time. I thought that was the future, to really take our data and put it online. Not use a third party, but do it ourselves and deliver that directly to clients. So, we built something called WilsonLine and made an online system where libraries could access all of the Wilson indexes and full text content. Then, we were a very early entrant into the CD-ROM world. There was a time in the industry when it moved from online to disc, and now today back to online, the internet, the cloud and so forth, in terms of information distribution. But there was a time when CD-ROM discs as vehicles for carrying large databases were being used in a lot of libraries and hospitals and other places. We, at Wilson, were one of the first ones to develop one, and a program called WilsonDisc. So, I spent about seven years at the company, I think I joined Wilson probably in '80, and stayed there until '87, I believe it was. '87 or '88.
John, as you were growing your career at Wilson, over the transition from your dissertation, in what ways was graduate work specifically useful, not just the wisdom that you gain from the academic study, but what was it in the education that you could specifically apply in the business context?
I would say the computer science and the technical aspects of information services was important, but also, when I got to Wilson, the business that I had studied at Columbia, and the business courses I took there, really came into play. So, you might imagine that we're building a system, so understanding the selection of hardware, and understanding the capabilities, and understand how to measure the effectiveness, and try to estimate capacity, keeping up with the latest software that you needed to drive systems, and all of that. So, from a technical perspective, I applied a lot of what I learned, both at Columbia and at Rutgers, to the technical development of those systems.
Some of them, like our CD-ROM, was quite cutting edge. I'll never forget, I got approval to spend $10,000 on developing a prototype disc. It was a lot of money, and Leo watched every dime. So, he knew that he had given me this ten grand, and it was a proof of concept, David. We had to prove that we could put a database on a CDROM and search that database, which had never been done before. I think it was Readers Guide to Periodical Literature that we used on that disc, and developed software that would search it the same way that you would online. I remember the head of our systems department, at that point, and I were just sweating bullets. If one digit, if one byte was off, if you didn't record that data exactly correctly, the whole thing was lost a complete waste of money, which we knew we would not gat again. So, we simulated it.
Anyway, we did a lot of things. I'm going on. But we sweated over that, and we finally got it. But I think I was comfortable taking over many of the business aspects of the role. Where I was challenged, and where I relied a lot, because I had no experience in general management, as this was my first time to run a department, to run against a budget, to produce revenue, and to produce profits from the electronic services, I relied a great deal on what I had studied in both Columbia as well as the business component of my PhD program. I had learn much accounting on the job, but I had learned some accounting courses in school, as well as finance, and understanding how to think about creating a budget and managing a budget, and thinking about the bottom line, and what the drivers of profitability are, and also drivers or revenue. I also learned a lot about HR, academically, that I had to apply. So, I would say both of those educational areas came to play, came to the surface very quickly at Wilson.
Talking about CD-ROMS and really the early days of digital media, do you recall any existential questions looking long into the future about – will digital, at some point, supplant print media? Was that ever part of the consideration in the 1980s, or was that way too far ahead?
No, no. That was a very big topic, a very big debate. Would digital supplant print, and there were people on both sides of that, in terms of when it would, if it would, and if so, when would it happen?
And with your area of expertise, your academic sensibilities, what did you bring to those debates?
I always felt there was an inevitability to digital, long them, but how fast it would happen was always a parlor game discussion. When I was at the Foundation Center, the president of the Foundation Center was a fellow by the name of Tom Buckman, who also became a friend and a mentor of mine. I remember him talking about how we would be carrying around computers and writing on their screens - now this was pre-'80. This was in the early seventies, as a matter of fact. I remember, we were sitting around, and he'd talk about how he could see a computer where you'd write on it, and you wouldn't need paper. You've got to remember that I'm coming from these big IBM 360s that are in rooms that are air cooled, taking up thousands of square feet, and so forth. And he's talking about a computer you carry around and write on. I thought, this guy was the wackiest guy- I loved him, but I thought he was the wackiest guy in the world. But boy, was he a visionary and seer. He was way ahead of Jobs, and all of them. So, he opened my mind to different possibilities.
I always believed that there would be a place where online would make a big impact on print, and I pushed it, to be honest with you. Wilson pushed us- I mean, I think there was a sense of let's just do a little bit of digital and get it over to Dialog, and I said, "No, let's do it ourselves." And we tried to, and Leo, to his credit, listened and supported us. I'll tell you one story, though, about the discs. Then, another sub-topic of the question you're asking is, would discs replace online? In the early days, the question us would people use a disc, instead of going online? Here they were, searching Dialog, or searching us (WilsonLine), and you could go online, you'd be able to get your answers. Would you use a disc? So, confession is good for the soul, so I'll tell you this story. I said to Leo, "Look, we've got to figure out if this market really wants it." He said, "We've probably got to do it, but do a survey to see what our users would say." So, I did a survey, and it came back, and virtually everyone said they'd never switch from online to disc. So, I went to Leo, and I said, "Leo, the survey's done. It's unanimous. They're all in agreement, and we've just got to do this." He never asked me to give him the actual results of the survey, and gave me the $10,000 to do that disc, and we got into the disc market, and we made a lot of money selling CD-ROMs. But it was on the basis of a bit of a fib that we got that done.
John, what were the circumstances of you moving over to Elsevier?
What happened was, that my next move was at a company called Engineering Information, and they, at that point, wanted to hire a CEO. I was asked to apply, and I applied for that job and I got that job. David, the company, it turned out, was in terrible shape. I remember the second week I was there, I met with the then controller of the company, who was part time. Things were very formal there in those days. It was a company of about almost 175 people. She came into my office, and I'd only been there about a week. This was maybe the fourth or fifth day that I was there in the office, but I will never forget that meeting. She said, "Pleasure to meet you, Dr. Regazzi." Again, it was very, very formal. And I said, "Pleasure to meet you." She said, "I've got to tell you, I don't think we're going to make payroll in the next couple of months." The company was near bankruptcy. We had to take that out of that condition and build it up. In the process, we applied a lot of the technology, automated a lot of processes- they were almost entirely print- and we built out a whole electronic business where we had our databases, we had our own CDs, and we created something called the Engineering Village, which was the first professional engineering portal on the internet. You could go there, and you could search for a variety of information for engineers – bibliographic, standards, specifications and so forth. You could get different kinds of building codes, and so forth. We built an entire digital village. As a matter of fact, it's actually behind me. That little poster that you might be able to see was the first iteration of the village. Each of those little icons were a different source of information that you could go to.
I tell you that because at that time Elsevier was at a point where they were trying to figure out how to move into the digital world. They were very much in print mode, and they were trying to transition their business to the digital. So, we sold Engineering Information to Elsevier. That was how I first got into Elsevier. The agreement at that point was that I would stay a year, help with the transition, and then I would exit and do other things, which was what I was hoping to do. I didn't know what I would do, but I knew that there needed to be that transition. Then, what happened was, after we sold EI in 1998, and just before I was about to exit myself, the CEO position at Elsevier became open. The transition from print to electronic was not going as well as hope. As a result, I just happened to be there. Talk about serendipity, because I had the electronic publishing background and the digital background, they said, "Would you consider becoming president and CEO of Elsevier Inc.?" And that's how I became president of Elsevier.
Talk about a transition. That was a huge transition. I used to think EI was this motorboat that we would turn around quickly, but Elsevier was like this tanker, and trying to change it was formidable. But that was the transition. First came to Elsevier through the sale of our company to them, and then after that year transition, I became president of Elsevier.
Where was the internet at that point? Just in terms of the role of the internet and your core business of transitioning from print to digital.
The internet then was in a state of almost constant flux. It was an exciting time but doing business or trying to do business on the internet in those days was not for the faint of heart. For example, around the time we were creating the Engineering Village was really when the internet was emerging. So, this would have been 1994, 1995, when we saw it as a real vehicle and platform to distribute knowledge. We attacked it.
But I'll tell you a story about that, David. We had built this Engineering Village, and at that point- I don't know if you remember, or if you were familiar with this, but it really was built around something called gophers. Gophers were essentially flat text only links from one site to another. So, essentially, you could click on a link and you could get to another site. But all it was text that you would display, no icons or graphics of any kind, but that link got you into various kinds of content. We were about to launch the EI Village, with all these gopher links, and with these links, you have these specifications, or building codes, and so forth. We were a small company and we put a lot of resources into that. Our board had high visibility on this project, and many thought this was to be our future. Turned out, it was our future, but delayed. About a month or two months before we launched, I'll never forget, my very good friend, Eric Johnson, who was the Vice President of EI and our head of technology, Bill Gerneglia, came to me and said, "Have you seen Mosaic?" And Mosaic was a graphical interface to the internet. And I said, "No, I read about it, but I haven't seen it." And they said, "It's going to blow us out of the water. We can't launch." My life sort of went in front of my eyes, and they said, "We can't launch, John. It's not going to go." And sure enough, that was the start of the graphical internet. With that Mosaic, and that graphical interface that you were able to create icons, and links from these icons, and of course a much richer user experience.
What was the threat, exactly, to your company, at that point?
It was just that ours would have been perceived, and was, at that point simply outdated, things were changing so fast that ours would have been dated, clunky, hard to use. And here you have this graphical interface, much like today. You click on an icon, and you get into what you want. So, we had to delay our launch for close to a year while we built out these graphical interfaces and were able to use the navigators with graphic capability. We launched it, to a lot of critical praise. It was really, as I say, one of the first true professional portals or professional social networks for the internet. It was early days.
Orient me chronologically. What years are we talking about now, roughly?
So, this would have been '94-'95 that we launched. The Village became quite successful- well, it was a commercial success, and it also got a lot of press. We were working with AOL in those days, and Steve Case, and a lot of the technology luminaries in those days. Then, with that, Elsevier got interested in it, and that's how Elsevier made an overture to us about an acquisition of EI, and we ultimately decided to do it. That happened in early 1998.
John, from your vantage point, in terms of recruitment, there's a younger generation out there that understands the internet. Was this something that was important to you, to get people from a technological perspective, also just from a sociological perspective, given that you recognized where things were headed?
Absolutely. I think, at that point, one of the reviewers of some of our technology called the staff of EI the Young Turks. You're absolutely right. It was getting young people who understood the concept, but you also have to remember, David, that a lot of it was developing as services were being built. So, it wasn't like today, where you really have these folks that understand the technology and are power users and driving it. It was a lot of folks who had to envision it. You had to try to figure out what this thing should look like. So, it was a combination.
I remember, there was a lot of very seasoned computer scientists as well. Roger Summit, who is a visionary in the field, and the architect and founder of Dialog may have resisted the internet. He wanted to keep Dialog as a closed system, or more of a destination that perhaps could be reached through the net. That was a real break for us, because had he moved more aggressively with the net as a platform, I think we would not have been as successful as we were at EI. But we were out there doing things that others weren't doing. But to your point, recruiting the right staff is absolutely critical. I remember Bill Gerneglia, who I mentioned, I think he was in his late twenties, and he was the architect of the system. Eric and I were in our early forties at that point, so it was a time where you needed to be able to move with a lot of changes that were happening all the time. Gophers, Mosaics, and all of that. It was a time where you needed a lot of flexibility, and I think youth helped there.
John, was there a transition point during your time of leadership, where you go from this feeling of there's a real threat to having a sense that you've got a handle on this, and that the company's long-term health is assured?
Let me try to answer that from an EI Village perspective and an Elsevier perspective. From an EI Village perspective, or perhaps from an engineering information perspective, I should say. Once we launched EI Village, I think we knew that we had a set of digital products, whether that was simply the online database, the CD-ROM, or the Village, at that point, they were all operating together, that were meeting needs in the marketplace. We were seeing the growth, we were seeing the usage increase, and it really was a bit of a hockey stick, David. Once we got out of that, alright, let's meet payroll, to let's stabilize the business, and now, let's automate and grow the business, it really began to take off. To be honest, that was the attraction to Elsevier. We were a several billion-dollar company. On the Elsevier side, what our shareholders wanted to do was a bit more modest. In other words, what they wanted to do was build a system where they could deliver our journals and our journal articles in essentially the same form as the print form. So, they wanted the digital mirror of that print form, and we didn't necessarily want to make wholesale changes to our business model.
So, one of the directions I had from the board was they don't want to move away from the subscription model. I'm sure you're aware of the open access history, now. We could go on for hours about that. So, we worked within the constraints of building out systems and business models that were consistent, and rightfully so. We wanted to maintain the brands and what that brand stands for, and you want to have continuity of that brand across print and digital. So, the problem that we inherited when we were at Elsevier was that the traditional journal publishers who were responsible for print, had digital taken away from them. So, the revenues associated with print stayed with the print publishers, and the revenues associated with the digital counterparts stayed with the group that was completely separated from them, called Science Direct. What I began to realize as the CEO of the company was that was never going to work. This publishers were never going to work digital group as long as the future was over here, and they're only responsible for the management of a legacy business. So, we said, "Look, all revenues come back to the publishers, and you're going to be responsible for both of these lines of business, and now we have to figure out how to transition this business into a hybrid situation where we're serving our customers who want print as well as our customers who want online. We need to have the publisher be responsible for that." And that helped. Before that, there was a fair amount of internal friction around the digitization of all our content.
And this resolved it to some degree.
It did resolve it. You know, the digital group was in New York. Most of the traditional publishers, there were some in New York, but most of them were in Amsterdam. So, when I would go to Amsterdam, they were disgruntled. So, putting control into their hands greatly helped the transition. And in the early days, that was successful. What came later, of course, was that now that this digital content was out there in both print and digital formats there was a lot of concern about the pricing of Elsevier content, which I'm sure you're familiar. I always felt that was, in part, true, but also, I was part of a group that developed the so called The Big Deal. I don't know if that's something you know about. I still believe it's the best economic model for everyone.
What happened in the digital transition, David, was that in order to pay for the different costs that were going in as prices rose, what libraries and universities were forced to do was to cut their subscriptions. They were cutting their subscriptions, not because they didn't need the subscriptions. Not because the faculty wasn't demanding those subscriptions. They were cutting them because they only had so much money, and to support it, they had to cut it. So, the information need didn't change. The economic environment changed. So, our thought was, well, look, we want to sell more. You want to buy more. There's got to be a way to do this. So, what we said was, "Look, we'll sell you the whole thing or nearly the whole thing for a little bit more than you are paying now, and you get all of it." From a marginal perspective, there wasn't a better way to acquire or recapture that additional volume. A lot of our customers liked it very much and were able to find the resources to do that, and in a sense, get them whole or near to where they were five or six years before that, in terms of being able to deliver that content. But there was a lot of controversy, as you know, about that, and people thought we were just trying to gouge the last penny out of a lot of universities, which wasn't the basis for it, but certainly, some people perceived it that way.
John, more of a leadership question, not specific to your business, but what was 9/11 like for you as a New Yorker, that day, and also leading a company who may have looked to you for advice, figuring out how to work, provide assurance that there was business continuity. What was that day like for you, and then in the immediate weeks and months in the aftermath?
David, I'll never forget it. Our offices were on 6th Avenue and 22rd Street, so you could walk out of the front of our office and see the World Trade Center. I remember that day I was supposed to go to Oxford office, which is where we had some staff. I went to the Citibank to get some cash, because I was going to the airport later in the day, and I see on the news that there's been this plane crash to the World Trade Center. I thought, wow, what a catastrophe that is, but went to the office, not knowing anything more. But then, slowly, within the hour, it was announced it was a terrorist attack. We had staff that were very concerned, and upset, and emotional, as you would certainly understand. So, we said, just stay in place. We're not allowed to leave, and it is not a good idea in any case as the city is locked down.
So, those first hours were where I spent a lot of time with staff. I remember it as a troubling time for many of us. One of my colleagues, our corporate counsel, and I just walked around and talked, and called some small groups together, and tried to just listen to and try to give as much information as we could. That was going reasonably well. We set up televisions in different parts of the company so that staff could just go and listen to the news reports as they were coming out, and so forth. That helped.
Did you make the determination it was better for people to stay put? Did you think you should send people home?
We were in contact with police at that point, and they said to just stay in place. So, we abided by that. If someone wanted to try to get home, we said, "Fine," but the advice was to stay in place. Subways were shut, so you couldn't get out of the city. Taxis and buses weren't running, so we advised people to stay as long as they needed. I remember later in the day, there were some staff on the street standing, talking, and so forth, and as they're watching the news in the offices when the towers collapsed and came down. When the towers came down, the whole city, as you can imagine, David, was horrified and stunned. There were a number of people that couldn't get in contact with their significant others, and their family. I had a son, who, actually, was supposed to be at the World Trade Center that day, but he was delayed on the subway, and wasn't able to get there. But people were trying to call their loved ones. That day was a day that with many, many others, around the world will simply never be forgotten. And then, in the coming weeks, we just simply held a lot of sessions for staff. We had counselors come into the company to help anyone that wanted to have counseling.
John, was there a business continuity plan that you drew on? I assume people didn't come back to the office, obviously, the next day. This was obviously before Zoom. Was there a remote work, or did you feel like everybody should just take some time and we should pause things?
More the latter. There were some people that were still coming into the office. They wanted to come into the office. Certainly, if I recollect, the next couple of days, there wasn't much work done, David, to be honest with you. It was about other priorities.
Yeah. And that's not a priority at that point, even as leader of a private company.
Our priority was retaining our staff and trying to get them to a point where they were comfortable. That was the priority, really working with the staff. Not only that, but as you might know, in a global company, you have a lot of people from different parts of the world there in New York, and you had a lot of our staff that were outside of their home offices that were stranded. Airlines, now, are not running. We had staff at our office in California, in Texas. So, part of our challenge was how do we accommodate those staff as well as how can we get them back home? Those from Amsterdam and London that are in New York, as well as those that are around the globe. So, staying in touch with them, we had some staff based in the states that tried to rent cars and drive home. And we said, fine, we would support whatever they needed, and we'd be in contact with them. So, we were not only trying to focus on the staff that was there, and trying to make sure that we were accommodating all of their needs, but also, you had staff that were really stranded, now, in different locations that needed to be addressed. So, the two weeks, I would say, after that, was really just trying to get staff back in some kind of a comfortable mode and get staff that were stranded back to their homes.
Did you engage in any discussions about, maybe, Manhattan was not the best place to have offices, or that wasn't even up for debate?
We had just moved into our offices, just prior to it. No, I'm sorry, we were on 6th Avenue, but we were having offices renovated on Park Avenue, 25th Street. We had signed a long-term lease. So, thinking about moving out of Manhattan at that point was just not practical. It came up. We thought about, could we sublease this? Should we be thinking about moving outside of Manhattan? But it wasn't a terribly developed conversation, David.
How did that change you and the company?
Well, one of the very practical things, and I remember we were asked to do this specifically, was to set up, which we did was to set up a videoconferencing system. Again, it was pre-Zoom, but we did set up videoconferencing centers at each of our major locations. We made a fair amount of investment to do that. We tried to get state of the art equipment. The system was actually a semicircle that you sat around, and you could actually would feel as if you were sitting around a circular conference table with others in another location. My boss, the chairman, said that if we were going to do this, he wanted to see the whites of their eyes. He wanted high quality. So, we established one of those in New York, established one of those in London and Amsterdam and other places. We tried to begin to look at less travel and more videoconferencing. We introduced that into the organization. So, I think, maybe from a small practical business example, I think it was that. In some ways, I think it affected everyone, but particularly, New York. It really affected New York, and I think the outpouring of support for the New York office, which was where I was based, from around the company was fantastic. And it came from around the globe, a Japanese office, or a Singapore office, or the corporate office in Amsterdam, or the corporate office in London, there was an outpouring of support. That brought a lot of friendship, and in some ways, I think, materially changed the culture of the company for the better.
Can you talk a little bit about the relationship between the Elsevier Foundation and Elsevier itself?
Yeah, so I started the Elsevier Foundation. And actually, it was the last thing that I did for Elsevier before I fully retired. We were looking towards our goals of social responsibility, and we had done a number of things as a company, particularly in different parts of the organization to promote volunteerism and social responsibility. For example, in New York, we had an association with an organization called New York Cares. With that, you could provide staff the opportunity to spend time at a particular location and do volunteer work, or where you could raise money for a particular foundation. That provided a lot of employee engagement, and we continued to do that. But as we thought about our social responsibility, we said we'd like to do something on a larger, more global basis with the company as a whole. Not just individually in New York, or individually in Amsterdam, but for the entire company. So, we started the Elsevier Foundation. It didn't have an endowment, so it was funded every year from operating funds that were given to the foundation from the corporation. We had an arm’s length relationship in that we had external board members who were non-Elsevier employees that sat on the board and decided what grants would be given out. We initially had a particular emphasis on women in science. That was one program that we had where we were trying to support, particularly, young women scientists in their careers. We also had a program for libraries where we tried to support innovation in libraries. It's still going, and I think it's a good effort which has added a lot of value to the communities it has targeted.
John, another leadership question: when you decided to step down as CEO in 2006, having navigated the crisis of 9/11, having put the company on good footing in the digital future, what were the things that you were confident about that were going to be steady for your successor, and what were those things that might have given you pause, where you said this is one of those things that is, maybe, tenuous, or I would feel more comfortable if I was still more active? What were considerations in both those regards?
I think from a pure business perspective, David, we had scaled and built out the digital business. I think when I started in '98, it was about a billion, slightly more, and by the time I left, it was a $2.5 billion business. We had grown substantially, so we had a much bigger corporate presence in the market. Most of that had been on the digital side, so we had made the transition from print to digital, and we were very, very confident about that. I think the two areas that I thought were going to be challenging for Elsevier but where we had made good progress in adapting to, were: the entry of open access and sustaining the company’s brand. The brand had tarnished in the late 90s, and we tried to rebuild Elsevier and make it much more part of the scientific echo system. We had a very strong Chief Marketing Officer, by the name of Barbara Cooperman, and she did a fabulous job in really trying to understand the values of our clients and how we can resonate with those values. So, I think, those three things were areas that I felt good about.
The areas that I thought would be challenging were, first, the technology progression. In some ways, and I say this to my friends and colleagues still, making the transition from print to digital in the same format was easy compared to what happens now, where that digital content needs to be integrated into workflow solutions; where content is analyzed, taken apart to see what trends are happening. The data analytics and the forensics that need to be done with the data is much more challenging, but also much higher value for the researcher. All of the things that are happening today in trying to not just deliver a journal article and be able to read it, which is what I was tasked to do, no matter where that was printed, no matter when that was printed, be able to deliver that to somebody's desktop. But now, the challenge is to take that data and integrate it into research and healthcare systems, so you can make decisions around it, or gain insights that would take much longer research times. That's a very high bar, and I think, still, that's being worked through now. More and more, there's been lots of progress in the whole area of data science, but there are still challenges to be overcome.
And the other challenge is the economic model of scientific communication, and how that's playing out. I think there's some real value that's beginning to happen. I just read recently that the California System signed a deal with Elsevier after a lot of back and forth. I think both parties are seeing the value of having a robust scientific communications platform, not trying to rely on the internet to do it all, and to make investments there. I think the publishing community and the information services folks are beginning to understand that there needs to be more empowerment, and more rights to the authors and researchers that provide the content. I actually think it's beginning to come together now. When I was in publishing, I used to say to audiences, and others, publishing was one of the most robust industry in the world and one of the most innovative. From well before internet where else could you find an article, bring it to your desktop, click on the reference that was published fifty years ago in Japan at the end of the article, and bring that up as well? There was real, genuine value there, and I think everyone appreciated it was the cost of delivering that, and the methods of delivering that that needed to be worked out. But the real value of being able to have a system of scientific communication that was the envy of any other industry was something that I was always very proud of.
John, to what extent was the deanship at LIU a factor in your decision to step down as CEO, or was this sequential?
No, again, it was more serendipitous, David, I wish I could say it was something other, but it was a bit of luck and timing. I had decided to step down, and at that time, there was a lecture series at Long Island University and New York University, as they had a joint program. And I was asked to give this lecture, which I did, and met the faculty, and met some of the graduate students, and had a very, very full couple of days with them. And then, the dean at the time Mike Koneig. He said, "John, I'm stepping down. Would you ever consider being a dean, or taking over the deanship?" I had never thought about it, and I said, "Well, let me think about it." To my point earlier, I had always thought I'd get back to academia, and then here, all of a sudden, is this opportunity to consider it. So, I decided I'd throw my hat in the ring, and I did, and I was appointed dean.
I wish that had been more successful. I think there was a real attempt at innovation there. It was the first, at least regionally, College of Information and Computer Science, trying to bring together a PhD in information studies, a Master of Library Science, and an undergraduate program in computer science, and a master's program in computer science and management engineering. So, it was a very robust college, but unfortunately, at that time, LIU did not have the financial resources to really support that college properly. So, after a lot of consideration, and I had worked with some of the other deans, it seems that it made sense to merge that with another college, the college of education. So, I was in that position for about two years, and then we merged it into the college of education, and renamed it College of Education Information and Technology, which is what it is now.
You had some opportunities to travel abroad as a visiting faculty member. In what ways was that useful to you?
Yes, so what happened was after I stepped down as dean, I stayed on the faculty and began teaching. I'll be honest with you, David, I didn't have a research background as I'd been in industry for forty years. So, I told war stories and used case studies in my courses, but I did a lot of preparation and thought around these cases, and the students seemed like this approach. There were two schools, one at the University of Stuttgart, and the other the Polytechnic University of Valencia, that had similar programs to ours at LIU and were trying to start summer programs in information studies. I was asked to teach in those summer schools, and with the Stuttgart, it was part of a U.S. state department supported program. I was then also supported by the state department as an expert lecturer, and they would ask me to go to different universities throughout Germany. So, I got to see a lot of Germany, and a lot of Spain, and it was a wonderful experience. It was a lot of prep. Mostly, I focused on courses in strategic planning for information services. So, I was able to bring a lot of my forty-year experiences to that from different organizations. But the real pleasure of it was in meeting a lot of the faculty and making friends, and students, some of which I still stay in touch with today.
When did you get involved with AIP?
Just after I left Elsevier.
You mean, in 2006, or 2010?
I think I was still running the foundation. So, I had stepped down as CEO in 2006, and then for the next few years, up to '10, had run foundation. So, when I was running the foundation, but then, at the university, I met John Haynes, who was then the CEO of AIP Publishing. When I first met him, he was part of AIP, and he asked if I would sit on an advisory board of AIP, which I was happy to do. AIP Publishing, at the time, was trying to vet different plans, and different issues, and get different perspectives. It was actually quite a large group. If I remember, it was maybe an advisory group of fourteen or fifteen people.
Were you aware of AIPP? Were you aware, just in being in the world of technical publishing?
Oh, sure. We had a fairly significant physics publishing group at Elsevier, so we were aware or AIP and what they were doing, and IOP, and the various scientific societies that were in that space in publishing as well. So, yes, I had more than a nodding acquaintance with AIP from a business perspective, but I didn't know John, and I didn't know many of the staff. So, it started as an advisory group, and then there was a hiatus for about a year, when AIP and AIPP decided it made better sense to have AIPP as a separate organization, a wholly owned subsidiary of AIP. With that, they formed a separate entity with a new separate board of managers.
And were you part of those discussions, or did this happen after you got involved?
No, I was involved in the advisory board, and had a nodding acquaintance that these discussions were happening. Not involved in those discussions at all. In fact, the advisory board used to meet a couple times a year, and then I think it didn't meet for about a year or year and a half while these discussions were taking place. Then, John called me and said, "We're creating a board. Would you be willing to sit on the board?" This was going to be a smaller group. This was going to be a group of about seven I believe. So, I said, "I'd be delighted." and I enjoyed those years. I spent, I think, probably, five or six years on the board of AIP, and for the last couple, I served as chairman of the board. I think I was treasurer and then chairman of the board. Then, what happened was that in a short period of time there was turnover of several board chairs of AIP, starting with Lou – and I am drawing a blank on this last name.
Lou Lanzerotti, thank you. He stepped down as chairman of the board, and then the chairmanship on AIP was held by two or three interim appointments over a period of about two years, I believe. The chairman of the AIP board also chairs the AIPP board. So, I was not chairman of the board until after there was a formal search for a Chairman. Unfortunately, it was a short time that I served as chairman. I was appointed as interim chairman of the AIPP board when Lou stepped down. And then, there was a search for Lou's replacement, and there was another interim appointment that was a very short appointment. And then AIP was back to the drawing board. I had not applied, or thrown my hat in the ring, for the chairman's role in the first instance, because I didn't think that I had the necessary experience in physics. But then, what happened was, a couple of the AIP board members said it would be good if we had some continuity. So, I felt I could provide some continuity having been on the board of AIPP for four of five years, and thus provide that continuity for the organization as a whole. So, I applied and was appointed as chairman of AIP as well as AIPP, because of the society’s structure and model of chairing both boards. Unfortunately, my tenure was short-lived because of some personal health matters in my family that I have to attend to. I had hoped that I could provide more continuity, but I was in that position for only about a year and a half.
What were some of the significant issues that you dealt with from that point?
I think one of the first key issues was finding a new CEO. There was no CEO because the CEO, Robert Brown, had stepped down. So, we needed to do a search for a CEO. So, we organized that and appointed a CEO. That was very, very important. We appointed Michael Moloney, who has been fantastic in this role and a genuine asset to AIP. I had the pleasure of working with him for about a year. He's a consummate professional, in my view.
Were you involved with bringing him on?
Yes, I was on the search committee. We started a search committee, and I knew that was one of the first things we had to do, get a strong CEO that could lead the company.
John, on that point, you have so much experience in this regard. For you, that means something specific. What did AIP need, and what were the search committee looking for in terms of the particular kind of skill set that would be right for AIP at that place and time?
We were looking for someone who had deep knowledge of physics, particularly, since I didn't. I felt that there needed to be a strong complementarity of the CEO and Chairman. I think if you look at successful companies, as I was saying earlier on strategy, the other thing you see in successful companies is a very strong and good partnership between chairman and CEO. Where that partnership doesn't exist, I think companies go off the rail.
John, that's perfect. That's business 101. For many of our researchers in the Niels Bohr Library, they're not going to know what a chairman is, and a CEO is. So, because you have that intimate knowledge of those distinctions, just explain those differences and why the relationship between the two is so important.
Well, I think the role of the chairman is not in any way a boss of the CEO. They're partners. The division is that the chairman is responsible for the governance of the organization. That means three things to me: one, it's financial oversight with the board. It is understanding the risks of the company, and how those risks can be managed and mitigated, and being able to monitor those risks. And it's the third point that we talked about earlier, strategy. Developing a consensus strategy with management, and then measuring performance against that strategy. I used to chair a number of boards and I used to say to board directors that their maxim should be "Noses in and hands off." I mean it very seriously. It is their fiduciary responsibility to have intimate knowledge of the organization, to ask any questions, to understand how and what’s going on, but don't stick your hand in and try to do operations. That's the role of the CEO. The CEO runs the company, and for me, is the face of the company and has the responsibility and authority to operate the company. That's where the partnership comes in. There needs to be strong communication because the board which should have its nose in, should understand the risks, should understand the finance, should understand the strategy and how the company is performing against that strategy, but it is the responsibility of the management team to execute, to operate, and to drive outcomes.
So, to go back to the narrative of how you're applying these sensibilities in the search committee, that ultimately brings you to Michael.
We needed first, someone with a deep understanding of physics. The other is someone who understood leadership, and a leadership role in a very, I would say, complex environment, with a board that also has members of the association, and sometimes where their interests of AIP and the member society are aligned, and sometimes they're not aligned. Sometimes they're adversarial, or competitive, let's not say adversarial, but certainly could be competitive. So, being able to manage in that context and lead in that context was very, very important. The third, which was equally important we to find some who could develop a strategy for AIP and who could then lead the execution of that plan. Someone who could formulate a strategic vision of AIP and communicate that vision well. So, a strong communicator. I think, with Michael, we have all of that in spades.
How does a search committee at this level operationalize all of these ideals? Do you work with headhunters? Is everybody relying on their own rolodex? How do you even know who's out there who might be amenable to an offer?
We thought it best to engage an executive search firm, which we did. More of a boutique firm, not one of the big, more well-known firms, but one who works within the not-for-profit industry, and works within physics. Although, we did have an announcement that we were recruiting for a CEO, we also asked the search firm to be proactive and to go out and try to also find individuals that might not think about applying, and try to encourage them to apply where they thought they would be a fit. I don't remember which path Michael came on, but we then had a process where there was a quite a large set of candidates that we looked at on paper, and reduced that, and then we brought in, I believe, as many as twelve over the course of two days, I believe it was ten or maybe twelve candidates that we met with over a period of that time, and were able to narrow that field down to, I believe, three or four, that came in and made a presentation. Of course, we interviewed them at each stage, and from that final list, we selected Michael.
John, you articulated quite nicely the importance of that specialized background in physics, the ability to discuss a strategic vision. What were your own ideas about the pros and cons of somebody coming in laterally, and somebody coming in as a next step up in their career? I’m asking, not particular to Michael, but just sort of generically, how do you feel about candidates coming from both places in their career stage?
This is a personal bias, David. I put a lot of emphasis on experience, and being able to take on additional responsibilities, whether that's laterally or taking a step up. I think it really depends on the nature of that experience, and the capability of the individual. I think both paths are equally viable. I don't favor one over the other, but I think the experience, and having been there and done some of it, makes a lot of difference. After I left Elsevier, there was an attempt to bring in a CEO for RELX from a different industry, and it just didn't work out. He left within a year. And for physics, not only AIP, but the physics societies, and operating in that environment, understanding how to build consensus in that environment, understanding how you can try to bring folks together is very, very critical. To answer your question, a second thing we did was we said we need a formal strategic plan. AIP was kind of doing a little of this, and a little of that. I don't mean to be pejorative there at all. They were trying to meet a lot of different needs, and for good reason, but I think it was a jack of all trades, master of none. So, we needed to figure out where the priority is, where was the growth that should be focused on, where could we add the most value? That was at the end of my tenure, but we brought in a company that Michael worked with, and I wasn't part of that. But Michael has since said to me, that they did a very fine job working together, and came up with what I hear is a good strategic plan for AIP.
From a financial viability perspective, coming from where you sat, what were the things that gave you concern about AIP's long-term health, and what were the areas where you thought, from a financial basis, things were pretty solid?
In some ways, the answer is the same. When I looked at the AIP balance sheet, it was enviable. It was a lot of cash on the balance shit, there was a lot of liquidity, and so it was a very strong financial organization. But when you looked at it, it was just sitting on the balance sheet. So, the question I asked the board at one point was, why do we have so much cash? Where can we invest the cash to add value to grow? And I think the answer to that was telling. It was that we weren't sure where we should be investing. That went to the notion that we've got to get a strategic plan in place here. We've got to build consensus among the board and the staff of where the priorities are and where we need to invest. We have the resources to invest. We're enviable that way. But we're hesitant about it because I think we weren't sure where we could add the most value. And I think that's changed dramatically.
John, to go from twelve, to four, to Michael, what was it that set Michael apart from where you sat?
I think in every category, very strong communicator, very clear thinker, very visionary, and I mean that in the best sense. Forward looking person, worked with a lot of committees in his prior work, and had to build a lot of consensus. So, I think being able to execute a strategy, being able to work with the skills of tact and diplomacy with the board, as well as forward thinking, clear thinking, good communicator. All of those things set him apart. There were some good candidates who had some of those traits, or maybe all of those traits, but in my view, not to the level Michael did.
In terms of putting forth the strategic vision, was your expectation for all of the applicants to essentially do that on their own? I guess, the question there is, how well can you articulate that vision when you're an outsider looking in?
That was not an expectation I had. I think it was an expectation that some of the committee members may have had, but I think you're absolutely right. It's not something you should expect. I remember Michael talking about this, how would you go about developing that? What processes would you put in place? What do you think you need? Not where we should be. That's a bridge too far for a candidate, in my view. But asking them, okay, you're confronted with an organization that needs a strategy. What will you need to do? I think a number of the candidates said this, including Michael, and it was music to my ears: listen to your constituents. Go out and meet them. Figure out where the needs are. Don't start with an internal look at it. Start with an external look at it, and try to bring it in. I think that instinct was certainly the right one.
In terms of the chronology, how long did you stay in that position before you needed to step down?
I was there, I think, a little more than a year and a half.
That means that you saw Michael in his role for –
Six to eight months.
And obviously, you had to leave when you needed to leave, but you were satisfied with where things were in those six months. You were happy with the strategic direction of AIP.
Absolutely. I mean, I thought the company was in very good hands, and there was an interim chairman appointed, so there was a smooth transition. I regretted that I couldn't provide more continuity, but I felt, with Michael there, and the current chairman there, it was a very strong organization, and Michael embraced the idea of bringing in external consultancy to help develop the plan, which I felt was important. Doing a lot of the data and the desk research, the market research, the outreach, and understanding the possibilities, was too much to ask for the staff, and I'm not sure the skillset was there of the staff to do all of that. I had been involved up to the process where we had identified, I think, a final list of three different consultancies that would come in. I was familiar with the group that was the one that was selected, and they turned out to do a pretty good job.
I had also been working with a company on the West Coast that I still have an association with them. It’s a Nasdaq traded company that's in this area. We're just seeing a lot of the big publishing companies getting more and more market share. So, I think the societies need to figure out a way of competing on that landscape, and I'm sure that is true for all societies, AIPP being one of the largest, but IOP, American Chemical Society, all of them, need to really think about how that's going to play out. I don't know to what extent they've embraced some of the newer business models that are out there, that we talked about earlier, with authors having rights to publish, but then equal rights to read. These publish and read models that are being used offer a lot of value and engage the publisher with a client in a way that makes them sticky and makes them feel part of the community. So, I think that's important. I also believed, and I'm not sure as I'm pretty far away from it now, David, to be honest with you, but that there's a whole corporate market out there. We spend so much time on the academic side of things, but there's a whole world out there that needs information and research in physics and biophysics and chemistry. I have no solution, but I think if I were in some of the folks' shoes that are there now, I'd be looking at those markets. I don't know if they're reachable or not, but I think there are some opportunities to develop new markets.
John, in what ways are you still connected with AIP? You said that you were aware of the strategic plan for 2025.
Yes, I get the annual report, and occasionally, I have an email from Michael. But beyond that, not much contact. I'm pretty retired these days, David. But I am certainly cheering from the sidelines!
Now that we've worked right up to the present, John, for the last part of our talk, I'd like to ask a few broadly retrospective questions about your career, and then we'll look to the future. One is, in all of your different areas of interest, from the seminary, to computer science, to getting involved with digital, and media, and print and all of those things, what is the intellectual connecting point for you where you can see how there's no plan in real time, but looking back, there might be some overall intellectual connectivity to all of these things? What jumps out at you as you look back over your career?
You know, I suspect that it was an interest in innovation, as I think back and reflect on it, I was always interested in innovation, and how to improve to the next level, and whether that was in my early days of studying theology, what could be done in terms of innovative counseling. I didn't bring a ministerial background to that, and ultimately, I wasn't successful at that, but I was curious about how to innovate there. Certainly, as I reflect back, I think one of the things that has been a constant for me is trying to challenge myself to find novel approaches and solutions to problems that communities and organizations were having. I think back to when I was at Wilson, and when I was helping Dave McCarn, we were trying to innovate library and publishing traditions that were long held. So, there was that aspect, and I think that's been a big part of it. Most of the positions that I was asked to assume, there were challenges there that required doing things differently. So, the issue that I was always confronted with initially, whether that was EI, or Elsevier or Wilson was how do we do this differently, to innovate and to provide value as a result of that. So, that, I think, has been a big part of my professional life.
To go back to those early academic and scholarly inclinations you've always had, what about being in the world of publishing has given you the most satisfaction of just being involved in a business that is all about producing and conveying knowledge?
One of the most pleasurable things that I had, and this was true at Elsevier, it was true at AIP when I was chairman was that I could walk down the hall and engage a conversation with an expert in so many different fields, in nanotechnology, and expert in medical neurology, it was fascinating. It was just fascinating to me to be able to sit down and speak with people who had such richness in their lives, and such knowledge in their lives. I think that's the nature of publishing, David. It attracts people who really, earnestly know a lot about an area, and want to communicate that either by organizing others to publish, or to create and fashion something that will be interesting to others. I think, without question, one of the most satisfying aspects of my career was the ability just to meet so many interesting people. That was also true when I was in Valencia, and would be able to meet with faculty, and the students. Those students themselves, just coming in with their aspirations were an inspiration to me. I found graduate students, when I was teaching, to be very demanding. They were there to learn specific things so they could advance their careers. And they were asking me to deliver that to them and engage with them in that way. I think that interaction and that opportunity to meet those kinds of people was very, very rewarding.
John, last question. Looking forward, to go back to a question I asked earlier about mentoring. I think it's a truism that in industry, people always say now is a really tough time to break into this world. In publishing, right now, a lot of people are saying that. So, I wonder, if you could use the powers of your extrapolation, for the younger generation looking to make a long-term career in publishing, what are some of the pitfalls you see now, some areas where there's a lot of uncertainty, and in what can you convey optimism that there are a few things about the present moment that have been true, and will continue to remain true?
So, let me tell you. I have a lot of optimism. I still do have networks of people that I speak with, and I think that the ability to take the data that's been assembled on the internet and begin to make sense of it is essential. We're only beginning to make some sense of it. We're only beginning to realize how to create different, what I call, data exhausts. Take data that's been assembled for a particular purpose and reuse it for another purpose, and be able to deliver that, and gain insight from it. I think the field of data analytics is hot, and it's hot for a reason. It's hot because there's a tremendous amount of data out there that needs to be vetted, and value added to it, and trying to understand how to do that. I think some of the young folks looking at trying to come into the industry should be focused on those kinds of things. I think the opportunity not just to distribute the data, but to really analyze it, and provide forensics around it, and use it for different purposes, and bring it into decision support systems are great opportunities.
There's a company that I've been asked to look at through Akoya, and what they're doing is they have these apps for patient and physicians, David. These apps for patients and physicians are very specific for very many different diseases: kidney cancer, dementia and many more. What they do is they collect data from patients, but not just the qualitative subjective data of how they feel, but they use specific tools and scales that you would find in a clinical setting that the physician and practice would need. They ask the patient to rate these scales, and they're collecting that information constantly across thousands of patients. That data, then, goes to a physician, and the physician can look at that and begin more informed treatment. Not only that, but often, the physician will see something that he or she doesn't understand. They can then consult a database to try to get answers to this. So, it's a whole process. And now, they're sitting on that data of these patients, and that data can be used by medical affairs offices, and Pharma companies. It can be used by hospital treatment centers, and so forth, in terms of understand and improve treatments. The enormity of the data we have is there but extracting knowledge from it and understanding from it is something that is a huge opportunity, and one that I think is really rich for some people to take.
On the pitfalls, I would say, it's trying to think of publishing in its old form. I think publishing is changing very rapidly, and I think what I'm saying is obvious, but the idea that there's a place, particularly in scholarly publishing, of course there's a place for the journal article. But the journal article is going to be transformed with blogs and with other kinds of services. So, I think the pitfalls will be trying to put too much value in that format, and not think about how it needs to evolve.
What about AI? Where is AI in all of this?
It's interesting, AI is a big piece of it. One small example, that company that I just mentioned that has all of those apps, when a physician goes and queries around a particular problem that they've not seen, or a side effect that they've not seen, they don't just do a search, David. They don't just go out and get all this stuff. This organization provides them four good answers to that, the four most probably answers to that using an AI engine that they've developed, that searches, whether its peered reviewed literature, or conference literature, or other data that they've found from patients, and outcomes that delivers that information to them. So, I think AI is a big part of that future. I think the idea that there's time to do a search in a clinical setting, where it is often most needed, is just not realistic. I'm dating myself, but I remember when I was at Elsevier probably twenty years ago, we looked at the process that a physician goes through with a patient. From the point that the history is collected, and the physician goes and begins to look at that history and make a diagnosis, was six minutes, on average. Now, the ability for anyone to do a search in that period of time, and read it, is just not feasible, and that was true then, and I'm sure it's true today, that's been true for decades. So, trying to deliver at that point of care, and at the point of that decision, and the right data at the point of that decision, is going to have to be supplemented by human intelligence with artificial intelligence.
So, there's still a place for people in the future, is what you're saying.
John, I want to thank you for spending this time with me. It's been so fun hearing your perspective and all of the wisdom that you've gained over the course of your career. Now we can say there's an interview in the Niels Bohr Library where you can go and get business advice. So, I'm really thrilled about that.
David, it's been a great pleasure to meet with you. You've asked some questions that I didn't expect, but I enjoyed this thoroughly. I mean that, genuinely.