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On the Job with Mike Gebhart

"On the Job With ..." is usually found on the cover of Sunday Inc. each weekend. Today, we feature Mike Gebhart, publisher of The Albany Herald and executive vice president of its parent company, Southern Community Newspapers Inc., in recognition of The Herald's 120th anniversary. These are his comments as shared with Managing Editor Danny Carter.

Q. What was your first job?

A. Believe it or not, when I was 12 I had a daily newspaper single copy stand in the city of St. Louis where I grew up. I sold the daily St. Louis Post Dispatch. With customer tips, I made pretty good money. I also helped collect newspaper bills door to door for the folks that had home delivery of the newspaper.

Q. What was the first thing you spent money on when you received your first ever paycheck?

A. I spent my earnings on baseball (gloves, bats, spikes, going to games, etc.) I would save and then spend my money riding the bus to Busch Stadium in downtown St. Louis to attend Cardinal baseball games. The 'Redbird Express' used to cost $1 for a round trip fare. We'd buy bleacher seats for $1. On rare occasions we'd have money for a soda and peanuts.

Q. What's the single most effective technique you found over the past two years for keeping employees motivated?

A. Because of the severe adverse impact of the economy the last couple of years have been brutal. Many people would disagree with me but I'm a firm believer that all motivation comes from within the individual. It's up to leaders to provide the right environment for employees to ultimately motivate themselves. I can honestly say this is becoming more of a challenge as many people have developed apathetic attitudes because of the economic situation. I guess the best methodology I've seen work lately is employee recognition. We have a program at our company that recognizes an Employee of the Quarter in each of our departments. Once the individuals are selected they are rewarded financially and they have a recognition luncheon with the publisher. People seem to respond positively to this kind of recognition.

Q. What led you to your current position? Why did you want to operate your own business?

A. I have run newspapers and newspaper companies for many years. The move to Albany was more of a lifestyle change rather than a career move. We moved here from Michigan. Our last winter in Michigan (January 2004) it never got above 30 degrees and it snowed over 70 inches in one month. Nancy and I decided it was time to head south. Being a newspaper executive appears to be genetic with me. The old adage about 'ink being in your blood' is my testimony. My father was a newspaper publisher so I simply willingly followed in his footsteps.

Q. Do you have a role model or mentor in your career?

A. Without a doubt it would be my father. He's been retired for many years but back in the day he was the best teacher I've ever seen. He taught me, mentored me, scolded me, and kicked my tail when it needed kicking. I would never be where I am if it wasn't for my Dad. He gave me my first job in the newspaper industry working the graveyard shift for minimum wage in composing while I was in graduate school. I fell in love with an industry and the love affair is still alive.

Q. What is the biggest lesson you as a business leader learned from the recent recession?

A. Winners never quit and quitters never, ever win. I don't want to sound like Charles Darwin, but only the fit survive. When times are tough like they've been the last few years you see who has the intestinal fortitude to keep going. I once heard someone say the only way you can find out if a watermelon is any good is to thump it. We've all been thumped because of the economy and we're finding out if we're any good.

Q. If you could turn the clock back on one aspect of technology -- examples email, automated phone systems, cell phones, PDAs, etc. -- what would you most like to see go away?

A. Absolutely nothing. I love all the benefits technology has brought to productivity. I have an iPhone, iPad, and a couple iPods and a brand new Mac Desktop with a 24-inch monitor. I can be productive every waking hour wherever I am.

Q. What is your favorite work-related gadget?

A. I love my iPhone.

Q. What is your favorite tradition?

A. Since we moved to Albany, every year at Thanksgiving we have family and close friends here. The day after Thanksgiving we go on an annual quail hunt. It has become a tradition we embrace. Unfortunately, my son is a much better shot than I am and he frequently points it out.

Q. What was the last book you read? Do you have things you read daily or regularly?

A. I read constantly. I rarely turn on a television, so reading is my favorite way to consume information in order to learn and grow. I hate that so many people in our society have become so shallow and uninformed because they don't read. They waste precious moments on idiotic things on the tube. (I've never seen Dancing with the Stars, or any of the junk in that genre). Naturally I read The Albany Herald every day. I also read the Wall Street Journal and the headlines of the NY Times. Although I don't read all seven of my newspapers daily, I do try to keep abreast of the local news in the communities in which we publish.

I usually have three to four books going at once. I recently finished three books I would recommend. A couple dealing with fitness and nutrition: "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall and "Younger Next Year" by Chris Crowley & Henry S. Lodge. Most recently I read "Tangled Webs" by James B. Stewart about how false statements are undermining America.

I try to read the Bible on a daily basis along with the classic devotional book "My Utmost For His Highest" by Oswald Chambers.

Q. I'm up and going by? And what is your morning routine?

A. I'm up by 6 a.m. and if I'm lucky 6:30 on the weekends. Because of the demands of my career, I really do not have a routine. I have a pretty intense travel schedule and with the ever-changing priorities of running a media organization, I tend to take it one day at a time.

Q. What famous person would you like to meet, and why?

A. I have always dreamed of meeting Dr. Billy Graham. He has done more good for Christianity than anyone.

Q. Favorite hobbies or activity outside work?

A. I love to ride my road bike, run, swim, lift weights and play golf. I recently did my first triathlon and am training for at least two in 2012. My wife and I also enjoy traveling.

Q. If you could take back one business decision you made in your career, what would it be?

A. That's easy. The newspaper industry made a huge mistake back in the early '90's when we decided to give our content away free on the web. Newspapers are by far the greatest provider of credible news and information. We should have charged for the content like the WSJ has always done. I was part of the crowd that made the strategic decision to give it away. An entire industry missed the obvious. Of course hindsight is always 20-20.

Q. Best thing about your job?

A. I would have to say it's the variety. There is never anything routine about a newspaper job. Every single day presents new challenges and opportunities.

Q. Worst thing about your job?

A. Unfortunately anyone with access to the web can publish a blog or an entry on Facebook and call it news. Readers have become so bombarded with information they sometimes have trouble distinguishing between what's professional journalism and what's just an opinion being slanted to benefit the author. While I love the first amendment and the right of individuals to express views, I'm saddened by how the uninformed think they understand issues because they've viewed a 30-second sound bite slanted to sensationalize the news. That's the worst part of my job in the current era.

Q. The most beneficial course I took in school was?

A. I love to learn so every course had some benefit. I guess if I had to choose the most beneficial it would have to be economics. I took it in graduate school and realized it impacted every facet of life. Supply and demand along with pricing elasticity factor into nearly everything I do.

Q. What would be your dream job if you were able to pick a position outside your current career path?

A. I always wanted to be a professional baseball player. I'm 55 years old and I still want to play center field for the Cardinals. I guess a mental health professional would diagnose me as being delusional.

Q. Finish this thought; "On the first anniversary of my retirement, I see myself..."

A. I don't think I'll ever really retire. I think God ordained work and I love to work. I have always struggled with understanding lazy people. I tend to wiggle my toes when I sleep just so I'm working.

Q. What is the one trait a strong business leader cannot afford to be without?

A. Integrity. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Live with a set of Biblical values that are set in stone and don't waver.

Q. Crystal ball time: What's your call on when the economic recovery for our area will be in full swing?

A. I'm very concerned about the Albany economy. If we don't start seeing jobs created because of economic development, we're going to be treading water for several more years. I'm a natural optimist so I hope something good is on the horizon. Albany is a great place to live and work. We need others to realize that.

Q. What kind of music might I find on your list of most played on your iPod?

A. I have a rather eclectic taste in music. You will find me listening to nearly every genre of music depending on my preference on any given day. I like everything from Gospel to Classic Rock to Bluegrass (particularly Claire Lynch and Allison Krauss) to Classical to Nat King Cole & Jack Jones. Lately I've tried to widen my horizons by listening to Arcade Fire, Green Day, and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Working alongside Carlton Fletcher has exposed me to many new areas of music I never encountered. He's the guru of all kinds of music and he has taken me under his wing. I do tend to always go back to the Stones, Springsteen, The Beatles, The Who, and all the great bands of the '60's and '70's. Back in the '70's I once saw Ten Years After, REO Speedwagon, and Jethro Tull in concert in the same week. Wow!

Q. What do you think is the biggest change Albany will see in the next 10 years?

A. I'm optimistic we'll see changes in the reduction of the number of people in poverty. The Strive to Thrive movement in Albany has a great tail wind and is gaining momentum daily. It is huge.

Q. What was the best vacation you've ever taken? Why?

A. In 2003 I took my daughter to Europe for her birthday. It was a special Daddy/Daughter trip. We spent several days in London and five days in Paris. I had been to these destinations before but it was an unimaginable blessing to share it with my daughter as a teenager. I would like to take my whole family back when I have the time (and the money).

A close second would be a trip we took to the Holy Land. Touring all of Israel made me speechless.

Q. What are the biggest changes you have seen in your specific line of business over the past few years?

A. The proliferation of technology. People now want access to news and information 24/7. There used to be a clear 24-hour news cycle. Technology has changed that. We're keeping pace at The Herald, but it's a real challenge and a very costly ongoing investment.