By Lloyd Gray / NEMS Daily Journal
When Clay Foster was 13, he started delivering the Daily Journal on a Union County route.
More than three decades later, he’s running the company.
Foster, 44, became chief executive officer of Journal Inc. on Jan. 1, but he’s no stranger to the organization.
In addition to being a carrier early in his life and until he graduated from college, Foster has been with the Journal in a full-time capacity since 1992 and has been chief operating officer since 2000. He assumed the additional titles of president in 2005 and publisher in 2010.
When Billy Crews retired as Journal CEO and became chief operating officer for the Tupelo Public School District, Foster was well-prepared to assume the 141-year-old company’s top executive leadership role.
It’s a much different company than the one he delivered papers for, and certainly than the one he came to work for as systems manager in 1992. Journal Inc. is now a multimedia company with a daily and seven weekly newspapers, 11 websites, and an assortment of specialty publications. It also operates a real estate logistics company.
Yet with all the changes, and a challenging business environment, the company’s mission remains constant.
“To build community and improve the quality of life in Northeast Mississippi is why we exist, and is core to our company,” Foster said.
Native of the region
Foster is a native son of Northeast Mississippi. He graduated from East Union High School and the University of Mississippi before spending a few years working as a systems engineer for Electronic Data Systems in the Detroit area. He holds an MBA from the University of Phoenix.
His career at the Journal has included stints as pre-press manager, production director and director of operations, as well as interim assignments as advertising director and circulation director.
He is a retired major in the Mississippi Army National Guard, having served 22 years, including 15 months in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
A resident of Pontotoc County, he’s led the Pontotoc County Chamber of Commerce as president and is an active member of the Tupelo-based Community Development Foundation and a graduate of CDF’s Community Leadership Institute. He’s also been involved in numerous other community and civic activities.
Foster and his wife of 21 years, the former Lana Caldwell of the New Harmony community in Union County, are the parents of 18-year old twins, Trae and Courtney, and 14-year-old Noelle. They’re members of Sherman Church of Christ.
Foster enjoys running, weight-lifting, hunting and riding four-wheelers in his spare time.
As he assumes the CEO role, Foster said he’s optimistic about what lies ahead. “I am extremely proud of our rich heritage, and I am equally excited about our bright future,” he said.
Executive Editor Lloyd Gray posed several questions to Foster recently. Here are his responses.
Q: Where do you see the Journal headed as a company over the next few years?
A: Our business consists of two very different companies. We are a media company with a daily newspaper, seven weekly newspapers, numerous specialty publications, and 11 websites. We are also a real estate and logistics company with more than 1 million square feet of commercial real estate space.
Our newspapers and websites are the dominant source of local news, advertising and information in the communities they serve throughout Northeast Mississippi. To build on this strength we need an integrated focus on audience and not products.
We’ve talked about it for years, and now it’s time we truly acknowledge that we’re more than a newspaper. We’re a multimedia company that produces newspapers as one of many products. This realization will affect how we report the news and sell advertising. We will no longer write only for our newspapers or sell only for the newspapers. We need to reinvent ourselves as a platform-agnostic multimedia company matching audience with product with advertisers serving many kinds of local niches to deliver maximum value to consumers and advertisers.
Because most national and international news is available more expediently through an abundance of online sources, we have to develop an even greater laser-like focus on local information that consumers can’t get anywhere else.
This year it’s our intent to invest in a new printing press and associated production equipment necessary to significantly improve the quality of the products we produce and position us to be the regional printer of choice for all newspapers and niche products within a two-hour drive time of Tupelo that have a need.
For many years the million-plus square feet of commercial real estate space that we’ve leased to various customers has been a great source of business diversification for our company. While there’s still a need for space, that part of the business is changing just like media operations. Our commercial real estate and logistics business must develop the capacity to not only lease space, but also provide a one-stop shop service to current and potential customers of outsourced logistics services for part, or all of their supply chain management functions.
Q: What are your reflections on the Journal’s historic mission and its relevance and application in the future?
A: The Journal’s mission, “To build community and improve the quality of life in Northeast Mississippi,” is why we exist, and is core to our company. The need for community building and quality-of-life improvements is timeless, which means our mission will be as relevant and applicable tomorrow and in the years ahead as it is today and in years past. How we accomplish our mission occasionally changes, but the mission remains steadfast even during hard times like the recession we just went through and the recovery period we’re still in.
Our mission coupled with our people is a key differentiator for our company. It’s not our goal to maximize profitability each year. While that’s certainly taught in most business schools, it’s not consistent with our mission and in some cases would prevent us from accomplishing our mission. Yet, we understand the need to be appropriately profitable to ensure we can accomplish our mission long-term. The Journal celebrated its 140th anniversary in 2010. As we enter our 141st year in business, I’m more convinced than ever that it’s imperative we intentionally use our mission every day to influence the actions we take and the decisions we make.
Q: What experiences in your life, other than your past work here at the Journal, have shaped and formed you and helped prepare you to lead this company into the future?
A: I’ve been a part of Journal Inc. in some capacity for approximately 30 years. In addition to my current 19-year tenure, I served as a carrier beginning at age 13 and lasting for 10 years until the month I graduated from college. Obviously my time here and passion for why we exist as a company has had a profound effect on who I am and how I lead.
My time in the military, leadership experiences in various roles in that environment and time spent in the war in Iraq have an influence. In addition, my parents provided a great Christian home for me to grow up in for which I’m eternally grateful and which undoubtedly influenced the person I am today. Due to some illnesses my father experienced while I was a child, I learned what hard work means early in life and that probably influences a leadership style that tends to be hands-on.
Last, but most important, the love and support my wife and three children provide on a daily basis shape, form and hopefully prepare me to be a better leader as I strive in the most important leadership role I have to be a better husband and father every day by learning from my mistakes.
Q: Any other thoughts that come to mind as you assume leadership of the Journal?
A: Our company is different today than it was two years ago, and it will be different two years from now than it is today. Change is hard for most folks and especially those of us who work in newspapers. Continuous change is even harder, and we find ourselves participating in a culture of continuous change with all the technology changes.
A big handicap for newspapers, including us, is that we tend to be run on a “factory model” in which production and deadlines are all-important. Factory-based business models are a bad mismatch with the Internet. The mix of legacy capital structure, business processes and in some cases the labor force makes it difficult to innovate.
We’ve got to develop speed and flexibility – two things the traditional newspaper business model doesn’t support that easily. We need to look for opportunities to form partnerships with other publishing concerns and even non-publishing concerns in order to share advertising opportunities and create new models of news delivery that may not otherwise exist.
We need to blend local news gathering with social media and technology. We need to be open to figuring out how readers and viewers can become citizen journalists as part of a new networked newsgathering organization that is capable of providing more content that is of greater interest to our readers than we’re able to provide working in isolation. Even with these changes, quality journalism will remain of value.
What will not be different is our mission of building community and improving the quality of life in Northeast Mississippi. Being a part of Journal Inc. is truly a blessing. I am extremely proud of our rich heritage, and I am equally excited about our bright future.
The source of our long-term success is not being in the right industry or having a brilliant strategy or becoming a larger company. Key to our long-term success is our ability to manage our people for maximum performance. We must remember that what really provides long-term advantage are those things that are core to our company and not readily duplicated by competitors – and the No. 1 source of our unique capabilities is our people.