Steve Forbes presides over the evolution of his flamboyant father’s empire.
After 70-year-old publisher Malcolm Forbes died in his sleep last February, industry experts were quick to question whether the magazine that bears his name could survive without him. They certainly had a point, for Forbes was a remarkable and perhaps indispensable man.
Under his 26-year aegis Forbes became the nations brightest and most biting chronicler of corporate America’s greatest successes and most abject failures. During that same span, Forbes himself emerged as a kind of Pied Piper of capitalism. Throughout the 1980s, the press doted mightily on his almost childlike fascination for motorcycling, hot-air ballooning, and hosting lavish parties. Forbes lived very high on the hog. He maintained eight magnificent residences (including a chateau in France and a palace in Morocco) and visited them often, yet always took care of business. In the years that Malcolm ran Forbes, the fortnightly founded by his father in 1917 more than doubled its circulation (now up to nearly 800,000) and became an advertising juggernaut. Of all the magazines in America, only BusinessWeek-published twice as often as Forbes — carries more ad pages.
Forbes’s zest for life, robust good health, and elfin disposition caused his family and friends to assume he’d be around to greet the twenty-first century. That’s probably why his fatal, unforeseen heart attack so forcefully compelled all who knew him to confront their own mortality. At funeral services held at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan, Forbes’s more than 1,500 mourners included the likes of Lee la-cocca, David Rockefeller, Richard Nixon, Barbara Walters, and Elizabeth Taylor-the elegant part-time motorcycle mama who often rode pillion on one of Malcolm’s dozens of Harley-Davidsons.
The question of who would pick up the reins was never at issue. Forbes left 51 percent of the voting stock of his company to his oldest child, Malcolm Stevenson (Steve) Forbes, Jr., 43. The rest was divided among his three other sons, Robert, 42; Christopher (Kip), 41; and Timothy, 38 (all of whom work for Forbes Inc.); and daughter Moira, 35 (who doesn’t). His children knew why they weren’t given equal shares of the publishing corporation. Forbes feared that to do so might result in internecine warfare and a company without a clear-cut commander. Steve’s sister and brothers insist (and it seems genuine) that they see the wisdom of their father’s will. Steve, after all, had been groomed to take over the family business since joining the staff of Forbes in 1970.
As per his request, Forbes was cremated. But even before his ashes were interred on the Fijian isle of Laucala (which Forbes owned), New York’s culture vultures had already reached their verdict: Steve is very affable and very bright, but he’s no Malcolm Forbes.
“Of course I’ve heard that,” Steve told me a few months ago when I visited him at the Forbes Building on lower Fifth Avenue in New York. “When people compare me to my father, I like to say that he didn’t start his motorcycling until his late forties and his ballooning until his late fifties, so I’m very interested in seeing what my hormones will do. I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but in the meantime I’m going to sit back and enjoy the show.”
Steve, low-key and a trim six foot three, works out of the second-floor office formerly occupied by his father. The room seems more like a study in a nineteenth-century men’s club than the sanctuary of a busy executive. With the exception of family photos of Steve, his wife Sabina, and their five daughters, the office remains as his father left it: plush floral-patterned carpeting, Queen Anne furniture, and walls that are alive with extraordinary paintings. When Steve’s at his desk, a 1776 Gilbert Stuart dollar bill portrait of George Washington stares down over his shoulder.
‘“If the value of Trump’s properties goes down a mere ten or 15 percent; he’ll be underwater,” said Forbes. “As our article said, this is going to be the toughest year of his life.”’
Malcolm cast a long shadow, and Steve apparently feels it would be unseemly and probably unwise to jump out of it too quickly. Twenty years ago his father told him, “I have my way of doing things, and in time, you’ll find your way of doing yours. Don’t try to be what you’re not.” Steve says, “I think he was telling me that if I attempted to do what he was doing, I wouldn’t make him happy, and I wouldn’t make myself happy. In effect he was saying, ‘It’s very hard for the acorn to grow from beneath the oak tree, because it gets overshadowed, so don’t stay near the oak tree. Go out to where the sun can shine on you.’ I plan on doing that, but I’ll leave it for others to detect the differences between my father and myself.”