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Farewell to Our Dream-Team CEO

IDG founder Patrick McGovern, a true entrepreneurial all-star, dies at 76.

Twenty-five years ago, Inc.'s editors fantasized in print about the "dream team" of business leaders they would field to run an unspecified startup. The executive team--all entrepreneurs featured in the magazine's first decade of publication--included Steve Jobs as vice president of R&D; Thomas Golisano of Paychex as CFO; and James Koch of Boston Beer Company as president of marketing and sales.

The CEO? Patrick J. McGovern.

McGovern, founder and chairman of Boston-based International Data Group (IDG), died Wednesday, at Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto. He was 76. The cause of death was undisclosed.

I got word of McGovern's passing yesterday, on a crack-of-dawn Acela trip from Boston to New York. I imagined journalists around the world reacting to the news with the same pang of loss. Like thousands of others in the industry, I once worked for McGovern at one of his technology publications, writing chiefly for career IT executives in global corporations. By the time I got there, in 1989, IDG was itself a global corporation. But no matter how large his business grew, McGovern always modeled the Platonic ideal of the entrepreneur: curious about ideas and people, passionately dedicated to what he was building, happy to throw the dice.

I never heard McGovern style himself as a futurist. But by the early 1960s, he had already nailed the twin themes of technology and globalization that would dominate the next five decades. IDG colonized the world with publications like Computerworld and CIO, aimed squarely at corporate IT departments. Others, like PC World and Macworld, also appealed to growing ranks of computer enthusiasts. Over 50 years McGovern oversaw the launch of hundreds of magazines and newspapers, websites, events, and other products in 97 countries. Among them: the online publication Computerworld Antarctica, which he created after celebrating his wife's 50th birthday with a vacation to the South Pole.

McGovern, an MIT graduate who studied biophysics and neurophysiology, got his start in publishing at Computers and Automation, the first U.S. computer magazine. In 1964, he founded International Data Corp., a technology research organization that is now an IDG subsidiary. Three years later he launched Computerworld, a trade publication supported by advertisers eager to reach decision-makers in companies that were rapidly embracing automation. "I think he valued the editorial product more than the commercial success that would follow it, because the IDG model was always to give the product to the readers and sell the readers to the advertisers," says Lew McCreary, an editor who worked on five IDG startups over more than 18 years. "His view was if you chose your audience well and served them with a high-quality product that would help them do their jobs better, then the money would follow."

And the money did follow. Last year Forbes ranked IDG No. 128 on its list of largest private companies, with $3.5 billion in revenue. McGovern also appeared as No. 244 on its list of billionaires.

McGovern was not just an entrepreneur but also an ardent promoter of entrepreneurship within his own corporation. Employees approached him with ideas and he treated each new venture as a startup, giving the project team a fixed amount of capital and sometimes its own location "in a low-rent district, in a loft, somewhere that says 'limited resources,'" McGovern told Inc. in 1992. Deeply respectful of the entrepreneurial process, McGovern gave his people remarkable autonomy while insisting they maintain financial discipline. He urged them to spend most of their time with customers and "if they are forced, to adjust their product needs to the needs of the market."

IDG covered technologies that allowed leaders to run global businesses without ever leaving headquarters. But that was not McGovern's style. For four decades, he spent on average four months a year personally visiting places where IDG did business, from Antarctica to Zimbabwe. The company launched ventures in three to five new countries annually and "for virtually all of them I'm first on the ground," McGovern wrote in Inc. in 2007. "It's a hierarchical world out there: people respect a title. If I'm there we work together to define the market, set the mission and goals, and sign the contract. If I sent my staff they'd meet with local people and merely exchange information. Nothing would get decided."

Around the holidays, though, McGovern's travels assumed a different purpose. At the end of each year he devoted weeks to visiting all the IDG offices in the United States (and some in other countries) to personally present every employee with a bonus. The formula rarely varied. He would thank people for their efforts, ask for feedback, offer them congratulations on specific achievements, and hand over the cash.

I was a lowly copywriter at CIO magazine when McGovern first appeared at my desk with an envelope and some kind words about a column I had ghostwritten. I was dumbfounded: how did this man know anything about my work? I'd only been there three months, and my name appeared nowhere on the article. Years later, McGovern explained that the night before each office visit he would memorize lists of employee names and accomplishments provided to him by managers: that meant thousands of people in the United States alone. It was important to McGovern that all employees know he cared about them as individuals and was genuinely grateful for their contributions to IDG's success.

McGovern built his fortune on technology vendors. But he always contended that the most powerful computer was nature-made: the human brain. In 2000, he and his wife Lore Harp McGovern--also an entrepreneur--donated $350 million to MIT to establish the McGovern Institute for Brain Research.

McGovern also paid close attention to China. In 1980, he established one of the first joint ventures in that country, and in 1992 he launched one of China's early venture capital firms. Around 10 years ago, he and I discussed whether I might accompany him there to write about a business-plan competition McGovern was holding for aspiring Chinese entrepreneurs. In the end I decided against it. The timing was bad. And I was embarrassed that he would find out I pop Xanax on international flights.

I told myself there would be other opportunities.

I will always regret it.

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IMAGE: Jason Grow
Last updated: Mar 21, 2014

LEIGH BUCHANAN | Staff Writer | Editor-at-large, Inc. Magazine

Leigh Buchanan is an editor-at-large for Inc. magazine. A former editor at Harvard Business Review and founding editor of WebMaster magazine, she writes regular columns on leadership and workplace culture.




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