Archie's accidental boss

November 24, 2010: 3:00 AM ET

Nancy Silberkleit was asked to run the iconic comic book publisher.  The trouble?  She had no clue how to operate a business.

By Josh Hyatt, contributor

Silberkleit and Betty: "I was not going to say yes."

When the call came, Nancy Silberkleit was in her usual spot: at the front of a classroom, teaching third-graders about art. Little did she know that she was about to be tested.

It was early 2009, and the caller was the ex-wife of her late husband's business partner. The two men, Richard Goldwater and Michael Silberkleit, had died within 10 months of each other, and their company, Archie Comic Publications, was adrift under a makeshift management team. Revenues were declining, and there was a void at the top. Would Silberkleit help run the company?

"I was not going to say yes," recalls Silberkleit, now 56. She asked for time to think it over. "I had no business experience and had never, ever thought about running Archie Comics," she says. "I don't know if my husband or his partner ever thought about who could do this if they weren't here. They may have thought about it, gotten headaches, and ended the conversation there."

During their 20-year marriage, she never spent much time at the company's industrial-style headquarters, in Mamaroneck, N.Y. She dashed in and out, lest anyone spot her in paint-splotched overalls and old shoes. "Archie was his life," she says bluntly. "But it wasn't mine."

But in April 2009, about two months after Silberkleit got the call, she joined Archie Comics as co-CEO, sharing the title with Jon Goldwater, son of company co-founder John L. Goldwater.

At first, she wasn't exactly comfortable. But how could she be? The family members of company builders typically have a hard enough time following in a founder's footsteps -- and they spend their lives preparing for it. For every Donald Trump or Ted Turner, heirs who outdid their parental predecessors, there have been dynastic duds like Edsel Ford and Christina Onassis. While wives of high-profile politicians have sometimes succeeded them, could anybody think of a wife who unexpectedly took on the challenge of running a business? Silberkleit asked around, coming up empty-handed until a photographer visiting the company recommended One Tough Mother, a 2005 bestseller co-written by Gert Boyle, chairwoman of Columbia Sportswear ( COLM), the outdoor-gear giant.

In 1970, Boyle was a housewife and mother of three when her husband, Neil, died suddenly of a heart attack. She stepped into his debt-ridden apparel company, which had annual revenue of about $800,000. During Boyle's first year, sales plummeted 25%; by 1973 the banks were insisting that she sell the business. Boyle redoubled her efforts when the sole bidder offered her a paltry $1,400. By 1984 sales had reached $3 million; 10 years later the publicly traded company broke the $1 billion barrier.

Even before reading the book, Silberkleit called the author. Last April she visited Boyle at Columbia's headquarters in Portland, Ore. Now 86, Boyle assured her acolyte that her feelings of inadequacy had nothing to do with whether she was suited to manage a business; they reflected the overwhelming lack of support women got when they entered male-dominated industries. "Anyone who thinks that women aren't just as capable as men to sit in business executive suites deserves to be called Jughead," says Boyle, referring to Jughead Jones, Archie's pal.

More important, Boyle offered her instructions for becoming an effective business leader: Find out what fans want, and give it to them. Columbia tasted success when Boyle (aided by her son, Tim) responded to consumer requests for hunting and skiing jackets with zip-out linings. "Everything I'm doing goes back to what Gert told me," says Silberkleit.

Indeed, Silberkleit has engaged Archie readers any way she could: by answering her own phone, responding to e-mails, and soliciting feedback at industry events, whether it comes from a 7-year-old girl (one of whom had a "terrific idea" for an Archie scent) or talking with an enthusiastic restaurateur who believed, ironically, that the gang at Riverdale High was transmitting priceless business lessons. She has started accepting speaking invitations. In mid-2009, Silberkleit had a late-night revelation and came up with an idea that struck her as the perfect match -- fulfilling customer needs while also making use of her skills as an educator: comic book fairs.

She knew that schools needed new fundraising vehicles. The traditional bake sale, with tables piled high with tempting trans fats, was considered bad taste in an era of bulging childhood obesity rates. Other classic fundraising items, like wrapping paper, were pricey for recession-battered parents. Comics were affordable, ranging in price from $1.50 to $14.95, and schools could keep 40% of the money they raised. And there would be plenty. From listening to customers, Silberkleit knew that Archie fans (60% of them girls between the ages of 8 and 15) were eager to get their hands on more comics. Traditional retailers, like drugstores, had stopped carrying single issues because they sat on shelves, getting tattered to shreds as kid after kid leafed through them. Comic shops catered to boys, who preferred heroes possessing special powers rather than a 17-year-old boy traumatized over which girl he should take to the prom.

So in January 2010, Silberkleit launched a new comic book fair division of the roughly $40-million-a-year company. While only a few fairs have taken place so far, Silberkleit expects the number of participating schools to triple next year. And she recently made her first hire: someone who will help create lesson plans and a curriculum based on the comics. "My division is going to need a lot of people," she predicts. "I am becoming a good businesswoman."

At Archie Comics headquarters in Mamaroneck, N.Y., ideas come from everywhere.

She's able to do so on her own terms -- "I'm an educator in a new environment, with a wonderful platform," Silberkleit says -- in part because of her co-CEO. A former music promoter, the 51-year-old Goldwater serves as the dealmaker, arranging to ship 1.5 million comics to India, licensing the characters for apparel, and overseeing technology initiatives like the creation of an Archie mobile app and a digital subscription site. He's hatching plans to make the first live-action Archie movie, while securing a TV comeback for the gang. (The Archie Show, a Saturday morning cartoon, started in 1968 and continued in myriad mutations for a decade.) He's also negotiating deals to boost the visibility of the company's other well-known characters, including Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Josie and the Pussycats, a catsuited, multiracial rock band.

Both the Goldwater and Silberkleit families own the company. Goldwater bought "substantial" equity, which gives him the final say in any decision regarding day-to-day operations. Still, the father of two says he and his co-CEO share an "unbreakable commitment" to preserving the company for the next generation. "It's not about each of us having our own agendas," he adds.

Mastering business still tops Silberkleit's to-do list. As a member of the Women Presidents' Organization, she meets with 14 peers every month. When she read last June that lawyer Kimberly Earle had been named the CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, in Irving, Texas, she contacted her, and they bonded over lunch in New York City. "Nancy has got phenomenal business instincts," says Earle, 44. "She not only thinks outside of the box, but also benefits by never having even been in it." Now, with the hardest part of the transformation behind her, Silberkleit appreciates her status as an outsider. "If anyone had told me I would be doing this, I would have said, 'That's ridiculous,' " she admits. But clearly she's found a new home in Riverdale, U.S.A.

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