Kent S. Johnson is chief executive officer of Highlights for Children, Inc. (https://www.highlights.com/) and a member of the corporation's board of directors. The company, which publishes educational products for children, including the popular children's magazine Highlights, has grown to include multiple wholly owned subsidiaries. These include magazines, book clubs, a children's trade book publisher, a domestic and international licensing business, an educational curriculum publisher, a publisher of professional development books and videos for teachers as well as a company that provides direct training seminars for teachers.
We recently spoke to Kent about Highlights for Children, and his experiences at the helm of a successful middle market company.
Tell us a little about the background of Highlights for Children. How did the company get its start?
Highlights for Children was started by my great-grandparents Dr. Garry and Caroline Myers in 1946. They were lifelong educators and experts on parenting and child development. They traveled the country as speakers, wrote books, appeared often on the radio, and had a syndicated newspaper column for many years. They decided to take their life’s work and create a magazine designed for children and families. They called it “Highlights” because it highlighted the best of all types of content for kids. At roughly 60 years of age, they put most of their savings into starting a company and a magazine. It wasn’t a typical start-up story, but I believe they put the same passion and energy into their venture as many of this generation’s successful entrepreneurs do.
Your website talks about children as the “World’s Most Important People,” can you talk a bit about what that mission means to your company?
We are a company that was created to serve children. Our mission is to help them become their best selves, and to create experiences that will help children become curious, creative, caring, and confident. We think of ourselves as an educational company – but not in terms of a limited or narrow curriculum. We seek to address the whole child. So much of what we do involves creating products that are “Fun with a Purpose,” Highlights’ tagline since the very beginning. We also have a division that focuses on helping teachers and providing curriculum resources to schools. Those activities allow us to extend our mission beyond the home setting.
Print media, like magazines, face increasing competition from countless electronic and digital forms of media and entertainment. What things does Highlights for Children do in order to stay relevant in the marketplace?
We are always evolving with our readers and with technology. Certainly, the media and consumer landscape is highly competitive. To stay relevant, we continue to produce the best possible magazines for children. Most people know us for our flagship publication, Highlights, but we now also publish a magazine for preschoolers called High Five, and one for babies and toddlers called Highlights Hello. In addition, we have launched a bilingual magazine in English and Spanish, High Five Bilingüe, to serve a broader audience. This year, our app business has really taken off. We’ve had more than a million downloads of the new apps we launched this year. The Hidden Pictures app brings the classic puzzles to life for kids and adults alike, while our new Highlights Shapes app for preschoolers helps little ones develop early learning skills. We will continue to expand our digital products, including video content, here in the U.S. and around the world, but we also believe that print remains a great delivery opportunity for children, especially in the retail and international licensing and distribution channels.
Can you talk a bit about how Highlights for Children creates value for parents and teachers, as well as children? How do you manage to keep all of these stakeholders happy and engaged?
Highlights for Children has four wonderful brands that address the educational market.
- Stenhouse Publishers creates books and videos by teachers for teachers that are highly respected professional development resources.
- Zaner-Bloser is a leading provider of curriculum resources supporting foundational skills in language arts, including handwriting, spelling, vocabulary, grammar, and writing. With the recent acquisition of the Superkids reading program, we have expanded our reach into a comprehensive solution for reading and language arts focused on K-2 instruction.
Our core Highlights brand has a dedicated parenting editor who creates and distributes valuable and engaging parenting content to our customers, through email newsletters, online, and on social media platforms. Across these different areas of the company, we’re able to make an impact in broad and diverse ways.
I see that Highlights for Children recently attended events in China and Europe. Can you talk a bit about global expansion and its importance, specifically as a middle market company?
Our international expansion has both business-driven and mission-driven goals. We invest heavily in creating content for our core U.S. businesses, and it makes good business sense to leverage that investment with partners and consumers in other countries. We have gone into the international space with a humble attitude: we know we are a middle market company and can’t be experts in many different markets and cultures. Therefore, our approach is to try to find local partners with the right values and expertise, who know their local culture and consumers. Then, we hope to work with (and learn from) these partners in healthy, long-term relationships that bring great products to schools and homes around the world.
What are some advantages and challenges of working for a middle market company?
Middle market companies are fortunate to have enough scale to make things happen while being small enough to make decisions quickly and move with some speed. I hope that everyone working at Highlights for Children feels that they can have a meaningful impact on achieving our company goals and can see how their work impacts our customers. Middle market companies can have growing pains, and we have felt that as we have moved into new product or business areas. I think most companies like us run pretty lean, which can be a challenge, especially in balancing the complexity of ongoing and new business areas with a small management team.
What’s next for Highlights? What are you most excited about?
We have a lot of exciting initiatives in progress, which certainly makes it fun to come to work every day. Our digital products, international expansion, and new product and retail ventures are furthering our goal to positively impact children’s lives. Of course, I am still passionate about the magazines and books we publish, both growing areas for us (despite the hype about the demise of print). With many long tenured employees, as well as a number of new faces, our Highlights for Children team is dedicated to achieving our mission and growing our business. I’m proud that the strength and values of the Highlights brand has earned the trust of parents and grandparents for more than 70 years, and am excited to cheer on our ever-evolving teams as they continue to help children become their best selves.