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36

A Little Game Of Hoops

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For the seventh time, our May issue focuses on the fastest-growing public companies in America. While we cover many such companies during the course of the year, the INC. 100 issue gives them a measure of exposure that goes beyond our editorial norm; and this, in turn, reminds us that life in the public eye exerts demands on both subject and reporter that often exceed the boundaries of "business as usual."

Three years ago, for instance, we published a feature article on Nutri/System Inc. and its flamboyant founder, Harold Katz. At that time, Katz's 10-year-old company had reached $49.2 million in annual revenues (good for 26th place on the 1982 INC. 100) and seemed as much on the ascendancy as Katz's pro basketball team, the Philadelphia 76ers, which won the NBA title the next year. Coincidentally, the piece marked the INC. debut of senior writer Craig R. Waters. Over the past 36 months, Waters has become our equivalent of an all-star power forward, having contributed memorable portraits of the rise of McDonald Steel Corp. and the fall of De Lorean Motor Co., among others. When we heard that Nutri/System was having trouble with its zone defense, we turned Waters loose on the story again. What a difference three years makes.

"It was supposed to be a flattering profile of a most successful man," says Waters of his earlier effort, "and Katz himself could not have been more charming -- or accessible. His PR person scheduled a meeting right away in Katz's new office, which looked like something out of House and Garden. What I remember most was this incredible sense of accomplishment Katz exuded. He acted as if there was no stopping him."

Last October, Waters again asked Nutri/System for an interview with the boss. This time, his overtures were greeted with a deafening silence -- followed by a request that he make his intentions known in writing ("First time anyone has asked me to do that," Waters notes). His letter went unanswered for months. Then Waters reached for the telephone -- and got Dial-A-Story. "Monday, Mr. Katz was 'on the West Coast for two weeks," says Waters. "Tuesday, he'd been 'sick for a week.' Wednesday, he was 'in the office but unavailable.' The stall got a little ridiculous."

It got more ridiculous when Waters set up a meeting in Milwaukee with some of Katz's litigious franchisees -- only to find upon arrival that no one was talking. Not one to waste a plane ticket, Craig collared one of the lawyers anyway and interviewed him in a Jeep that was parked outside the courthouse. After that came a chat with Leslie Charm, whose buyout offer for Nutri/System had fallen short at the last minute. Armed with Charm's version of events, Waters informed Nutri/System that he would do the piece anyway, Katz or no Katz. A hole in the CEO's schedule miraculously appeared. True, it closed again two days before tip-off, but by this time our reporter was as single-minded as Julius Erving driving to the hoop. To Philly he flew, tape recorder in hand, and into Katz's newest, split-level office he was ushered. The changes he saw were not entirely cosmetic.

"Despite the stained-glass windows and the marble tables," says Waters, "there was still a huge 'For Sale' sign on the front of the building. And for all of his optimism, Katz still left the impression that his heart and soul lay elsewhere. He said he had gotten too much credit when things were up and was taking too much of the heat during the tough times. I thought about our meeting three years before and decided maybe we'd both come full circle on this one."

A longer account of what happened from tip-off to buzzer, entitled "Slim Pickings," starts on page 94.

Last updated: May 1, 1985




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