“Succession at Scholastic Seemed to Be a Shock, Even to the New Chairwoman”

From a New York Times story by Katherine Rosman and Elizabeth A. Harris headlined “Succession at Scholastic Seemed to Be a Shock, Even to the New Chairwoman”:

When her phone buzzed on June 6, Iole Lucchese was still absorbing a shock that had come the day before. Her longtime boss, M. Richard Robinson Jr., the chairman of the Scholastic publishing company, had died suddenly while taking a walk with one of his sons and his former wife on Martha’s Vineyard.

Now, Scholastic’s general counsel, Andrew Hedden, was on the phone, delivering a second surprise.

He had called to inform her that Mr. Robinson, 84 — who turned his father’s book and magazine business into the largest publisher and distributor of children’s books in the world, known for thousands of beloved series, including Clifford the Big Red Dog, Hunger Games and Harry Potter — had left Ms. Lucchese 53.8 percent of Scholastic’s Class A stock. The company where she had worked for 30 years, rising from a junior employee in the Canadian market to one of its top executives, was now a company she controlled.

“It was overwhelming,” Ms. Lucchese said at Scholastic’s headquarters….

Being handed control of the company, which is valued at $1.2 billion, has made Ms. Lucchese, 55, one of the most powerful women in book publishing, and the stock provides her…with significant wealth. The gift also shifts the business, which had been passed from father to son, to a person outside the family and puts Scholastic in an extremely unusual position for a public company: adapting to a succession plan many key players did not know was coming.

In his will, Mr. Robinson described Ms. Lucchese as “my partner and closest friend.” But an article in The Wall Street Journal described them as “longtime romantic partners.” Six former employees…confirmedthat the romantic relationship between Ms. Lucchese and Mr. Robinson had been well known among many Scholastic employees.

“We were great business partners and close friends,” said Ms. Lucchese, a senior executive responsible for strategy and the company’s entertainment division.

She declined to address The Journal’s claim that she and Mr. Robinson had been involved in a relationship, which the employees believe ended a few years before his death.

This was Ms. Lucchese’s first interview with the news media since the death of Mr. Robinson, whom everyone called Dick. She was joined at a round conference table by Peter Warwick, the company’s new chief executive, and flanked by two publicists, one from Scholastic and another from the public relations firm Edelman.

“Dick understood that I shared his passion for Scholastic, and what this company means to the teachers we serve, to the children we serve, to everyone,” Ms. Lucchese said of his decision to leave his Class A shares to her. “He trusted me with that legacy, and I think it’s because we worked together and he knew that we were aligned.”

That bequest bypassed his two sons, John Benham Robinson, 34, known as Ben, and Maurice Robinson, 25, known as Reece….

The publisher’s offices are in a warehouse-style building with exposed bricks, subway tiles and a giant sculpture of Captain Underpants busting through the lobby wall. On the day of the interview, the offices sat mostly empty as many employees continued to work from home because of the pandemic….

Sometimes confining herself to one-word answers, Ms. Lucchese discussed her career and the unusual situation of being both a longtime senior executive and now also the chairwoman. A stack of Harry Potter books kept watch from a large wooden bookshelf over Ms. Lucchese’s left shoulder.

“He’s the boss,” she said, motioning to Mr. Warwick, who, as chief executive, in one sense outranks her.

“But I do report to the board,” he answered.

‘An Envelope in a Safe’

“Scholastic announces the untimely death of its chairman and CEO M. Richard (Dick) Robinson, Jr.,” a company news release declared the day after Mr. Robinson died. It emphasized that his passing had been unexpected and sudden….

About six weeks later, Ms. Lucchese’s new position as chairwoman was made public, with the company including that update in a news release titled “Peter Warwick Named Chief Executive Officer of Scholastic Corporation.”

Scholastic did not seek publicity for its new chair, the first woman and the first person outside the Robinson family to hold the position in decades. A few days after the news of the succession had broken in The Journal, the company, known for its stable of beloved childhood classics, became an object of tabloid interest — “How ‘chameleon’ Iole Lucchese won $1.2B Scholastic empire,” read one New York Post headline.

When a reporter for The New York Times emailed Scholastic in August requesting an interview with Ms. Lucchese, Ira Gorsky, at Edelman, the public relations company, called to inquire about whether Ms. Lucchese would be asked about “the alleged affair,” saying, “You can see how this is offensive, how the allegations implied that she has not gotten to her position because of merit.”

Mr. Gorsky said that as “a ground rule for giving an interview,” the Times reporter could not ask Ms. Lucchese about a personal relationship with Mr. Robinson. When the reporter declined to agree to such limitations, Mr. Gorsky responded: “Then we’re done.”

Ms. Lucchese did eventually agree to be interviewed, and no one representing her asked again for restrictions on topics or questions. Aside from an hourlong conversation with Ms. Lucchese and Mr. Warwick, preceded by a tour of the company’s archive led by a librarian, Scholastic declined to make any other employee available.

Her supporters say that as a 30-year veteran and a longtime senior executive of the company, she represents continuity and is qualified to lead it. Any skeptical reaction to Mr. Robinson’s choice of Ms. Lucchese is “laced with sexism,” said Erik Feig, the founder of Picturestart, a media financing and production company that Scholastic invested in and where Ms. Lucchese is a board member.

“She understands every brick of the literal and metaphorical building of the company,” Mr. Feig said.

Wall Street does not know her as well as some players in Hollywood do. Scholastic’s largest investor, after the Robinson family, was not aware of Mr. Robinson’s succession plan. “On a number of occasions, I asked Dick,” said David Wallack, a portfolio manager for T. Rowe Price, the investment company, which holds more than 18 percent of the company’s common stock.

“He would tell me, ‘When I die, there is a safe, and there is an envelope in the safe, and the board of directors will open the safe and see what my wishes were,’” said Mr. Wallack, who was in regular touch with Mr. Robinson for 20 years. “I thought it was hyperbole.”

Scholastic described the transition process this summer as smooth and efficient, saying that an interim team had taken over, as planned, immediately after Mr. Robinson’s death and that six weeks later, Mr. Warwick and Ms. Lucchese had been appointed to their new roles.

“Throughout this period — which was also set in the challenging landscape of schools reopening after Covid-shut downs — the company ensured the seamless continuation of operations, supporting teachers and students during a historic back-to-school season,” the statement said.

Mr. Wallack said he had hoped that after Mr. Robinson died, the board would conduct a broad search of internal and outside candidates for the chief executive role and elevate a board member to chair. He said that in July, when the board named Mr. Warwick, a board member since 2014, as chief executive and brought Ms. Lucchese onto the board as chairwoman, “we were shocked for sure.”…

Mr. Wallack said that he couldn’t assess her skills himself. “I have never met her,” he said, “and none of my colleagues have met her.”

After she was named chairwoman, Mr. Wallack waited to hear from Ms. Lucchese. “We are the largest shareholder after the family, and you would expect the company chairman to reach out and have a conversation with the shareholders she is supposed to represent.”

Mr. Wallack contacted an investor relations representative in June and again in September to request a meeting with Ms. Lucchese. “We were told they would let us know when she is available,” he said, adding that he was still waiting.

Mr. Hedden, the company’s general counsel, a board member until this summer, and the coexecutor of Mr. Robinson’s estate, said that he was not aware of Mr. Robinson’s plans. “From my knowledge of Dick, I know that he made his decisions around his will privately, as was his nature,” Mr. Hedden said, “and that he had the best interests of Scholastic and the continuation of his legacy in mind.”

But Mr. Robinson’s legacy includes a messy succession drama that spills into family drama as well. His will names Ms. Lucchese a coexecutor and gives her his personal property, “with the request, but not the direction” that she distribute it to his children in what “she believes to be in accordance with my wishes.”…

The ‘Magic School Bus’ Ride

Ms. Lucchese was raised in Toronto, the younger of two sisters, and went to the University of Toronto. In 1991, she recognized the Scholastic logo, a little flying book, on a job board at the university’s career center and applied for a position at its Canadian book club division. Since 1948, Scholastic has sold books to students through catalogs and fliers distributed in schools, and one of Ms. Lucchese’s tasks in those early days was to help make the fliers given out in classrooms, sometimes with X-acto knife and glue in hand.

It was through her new job that she met Mr. Robinson in the early 1990s. Ms. Lucchese said she had been walking through the office on her way to the graphic art department with book club paste-ups in her arms when Mr. Robinson stopped her and asked what was listed in the fliers. Her work at Scholastic — and connection to Mr. Robinson — began at a time when fewer rules and guardrails existed around what a relationship with a superior could mean for the course of one’s career.

Early on, Ms. Lucchese tried to expand the range of books offered through the club, moving beyond classics to include more contemporary and commercial titles students would be eager to read. “You can try to push them to read the classics or what was your favorite,” she said, “but it’s really going uphill until that spark happens with a book that they love.”…

She was made the corporation’s chief strategic officer, then added executive vice president to her string of titles, charged with duties like streamlining areas of the business. To compensate her for her growing role, the board gave Ms. Lucchese a raise and a bonus in 2019, which brought her total compensation to nearly $1.2 million.

Around the time she moved to New York, Mr. Robinson bought an apartment for Ms. Lucchese’s use in the same building in which he was living….

Ms. Lucchese has focused much of her attention in recent years on her additional role as president of Scholastic Entertainment, pouring her time into film and television projects like “The Magic School Bus Rides Again,” a Netflix series in which the eager teacher Ms. Frizzle takes her students on magical scientific adventures to places like outer space or to the bottom of the sea.

The goal, Ms. Lucchese said, is to focus on a small number of quality productions that reflect the vision of Scholastic and its authors, in hopes of converting watchers into readers. “Ultimately, for us, it’s about selling the books,” she said.

It was while discussing these ventures that Ms. Lucchese was most animated, describing particular projects like the forthcoming movie “Clifford the Big Red Dog.” She gave a little cheer (“Yay!”) when she learned that a reporter’s children were fans of “The Magic School Bus Rides Again.”

“Clifford,” which was filmed before the pandemic, is scheduled to be released in theaters and on a streaming service in November. The adaptation places Clifford in New York City, away from his usual home on Birdwell Island. Jordan Kerner, one of the producers, said he had given Ms. Lucchese credit as a “producer” rather than the more ceremonial “executive producer” to reflect her day-to-day involvement….

Harry, Clifford and Dick

Since M. Richard Robinson Sr. founded the company in the sewing room of his parents’ house in Western Pennsylvania in 1920, Scholastic has been a family business. Dick Robinson’s siblings still own about 47 percent of the Class A shares, which are held by trusts.

Barbara Buckland, one of Mr. Robinson’s sisters, said the two of them often had dinner together on Sundays, though he would cancel if he was able to dine with his sons instead. She said he had come to her home for dinner shortly before he died and had been “full of his usual vim and vigor and all kinds of questions.”

“We’re saddened, but we know the company is in good hands,” said Ms. Buckland. “Nobody has any intention of selling. Nobody is worried. We are all sad.”

Despite Mr. Robinson’s age, his death came as a surprise to many in his personal and professional lives. A daily exerciser, he was fit and in full control of day-to-day operations at Scholastic, and anyone who knew him even a little bit would say the company was his life’s obsession….

Mr. Robinson made it no secret that he wished Scholastic to remain an independent company, even as consolidation within the publishing business sped up around him. Penguin Random House, itself the product of a 2013 merger, is in the process of trying to buy Simon & Schuster. If approved by federal regulators, that deal would create a colossus far larger than any other publisher in the country.

But the remaining large houses will want to bulk up to compete, especially by acquiring rich “backlists,” catalogs of older titles that are reliable, long-term money makers — which is sure to make Scholastic an attractive target.

The company’s new leadership team appears to share what was perhaps Mr. Robinson’s most precious goal: Ms. Lucchese and Mr. Warwick expressed no interest in selling.

“We’ve got the resources ourselves to go forward at the pace that we want to go,” Mr. Warwick said.

Given Mr. Robinson’s devotion to Scholastic, it was fitting that his memorial service was held there last month. A virtual event with just a few people in attendance, it included a video eulogy delivered by his son Reece. “We will cherish the memories of the holidays and weekends we spent with him during Covid when he wasn’t working 12-hour days,” Reece Robinson said of his family’s relationship with his father.

The service had all the star power of a Hollywood collaboration, with video messages from Goldie Hawn, Bill Clinton and J.K. Rowling punctuating remarks from former employees and board members. The final speaker, Alec Baldwin, described the friendship he had developed with Mr. Robinson as neighbors in a downtown apartment building and expressed his condolences to Mr. Robinson’s family, the Scholastic community and Ms. Lucchese. He was the only speaker who mentioned her name….

Ms. Lucchese, one of Mr. Robinson’s closest business associates and the woman in control of the company, chose not to deliver remarks herself. Instead, she wrote a note in the program that appeared under a picture of Mr. Robinson’s broad smile.

“Dick knew that Scholastic could uniquely empower children to overcome obstacles,” she wrote. “He knew this work was worth doing, and he inspired in all of us the passion to get it done.”

The message was signed, “Iole Lucchese, Chair of the Board.”

Katie Rosman is a features reporter who covers a range of topics including media and celebrity. She joined the Times in 2014.

Elizabeth A. Harris writes about books and publishing.

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