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Ben Kohn Hates Bunnies - Part 2
Kohn Lays Waste to Hefner's Legacy

In part one of this series, the operation of the Playboy franchise by Ben Kohn and his team at PLBY Group was overviewed, showing how poorly managed the company had become under Kohn's leadership, bleeding cash, changing operational plans practically on a quarterly basis as losses expanded, possibly by design.

In Part 2, we look back at some of the comments and business decisions made by Ben Kohn as he methodically took control of the company Hugh Hefner built and how, whether consciously or by trial and error, he almost single-handedly wrecked the enterprise and relaunched it on his terms.

But first, we have to take a trip back in time, to January, 2011, when Hugh Hefner inked the deal to delist Playboy from the New York Stock Exchange and turn it back into a privately-held corporation. The offer was tendered to shareholders at $6.15 a share, an 18.3% premium over the closing price of the common stock Friday, January 7, the last day Playboy (PLA) was publicly traded. (See the press release, here.

That was Ben Kohn's first official association with Playboy. Seldom at a loss for words, here's how Kohn, then managing partner of Rizvi Traverse's (which made equity commitments in the transaction) Los Angeles office, characterized the deal: "Playboy is an iconic company with a singular, storied brand and history. We are pleased to partner with Hugh Hefner and the current management team to be a part of a transaction that will enable Playboy Enterprises to continue to execute on its strategy. This would bring an end to a period of uncertainty for the company and provide the right ownership structure to develop the business."

Granted, Playboy wasn't exactly printing money at the time. Hefner, then 85 years of age, was certainly not the kind of firebrand entrepreneur or businessman he was back in the magazine's heyday. Playboy was still publishing monthly in America (and elsewhere around the world via licensing agreements), but circulation was down from 5.6 million in 1975 to less than one million. Hipper, more contemporary rivals like Maxim, Stuff, and FHM were taking significant shares of the market and the internet was rapidly making print obsolete.

But, Kohn and Rizvi Traverse saw promise where others dared to tread. It's how they operate. As a vulture capital company, Kohn's people are experts at pulling value from an enterprise, ripping the company apart and profiting through a variety of means. Between staff cutbacks, Playboy's brand recognition, and ongoing business ventures, Kohn's people, when they bought in at $207 million, must have thought they'd struck gold.

Hefner, no longer a part of day-to-day operations would be sidelined. Scott Flanders was CEO and remained in that position until 2016, when Kohn replaced him as interim CEO, a position that would become permanent after Hefner's death in 2017.

Management miscues and business blunders didn't cease upon Rizvi Traverse and Ben Kohn's appearance on the scene. In fact, they were only beginning and would magnify over the years. As majority stockholders, they had a lot of say over just about everything and they were exerting their influence across the organization.

In October, 2015, then-CEO Flanders made his biggest career mistake. He authorized the change from nudity in the magazine to merely "provocative" poses by attractive women. It turned out to be a flop. Pamela Anderson was the last person to bare it all for the magazine in its January/February 2016 edition. Playboy lost more readers (and lookers and gawkers). By May of 2016, Flanders was out, Kohn was in as CEO.

In 2017, Playboy reversed course - an action that defines Kohn's management style - and started publishing nude photos again in the March/April edition. However, the damage had been done, and worse yet, the magazine's publishing schedule had been reduced from 12 issues annually to 11 in 2010, combining the January and February issues into one, and then to 10 in 2012, with the combination of July and August.

With Kohn now completely in control, the 2017 publishing schedule was again reduced, down to six bi-monthly editions. Hefner passed away on September 27, 2017, and was featured on the cover of the November/December issue, the same issue that featured Playboy's first transgender playmate, Ines Rau, as the centerfold.

Subsequently, Kohn's people bought out the Hefner heirs - daughter Christy and her three brothers, Cooper, Marston, and David - for a reported $35 million and then had nearly 100% control of the company. The few remaining shareholders were friendly to Rizvi Traverse.

Kohn had managed to cut staff, reduce the print runs and refocus the company. The money coming was enough to pay some salaries, and of course, his huge stipend and those of bis cronies. With the Hefner family out of the way, he could turn his attention to maximizing revenue. What happened over the course of the next three years was as startling as it was audacious.

The company managed to churn out six bi-monthly issues in 2018, but then, in 2019, Kohn changed directions once again, firing the advertising sales staff and relaunching Playboy as a quarterly publication without advertisements. Topics included an interview with Tarana Burke, founder of the MeToo movement, a profile of gay mayor Pete Buttigieg, a feature story on Kylie Jenner Kardashian, coverage of BDSM, and a cover photo representing gender and sexual fluidity along with other less-than-manly themes.

With circulation tailing off badly, Kohn made the inevitable choice in 2020 to halt print production altogether. The Spring 2020 issue, released prior to the pandemic, would be the last printed issue of Playboy. At the time, Kohn said the company would embark upon "a digital-first publishing schedule for all of our content including the Playboy Interview, 20Q, the Playboy Advisor and of course our Playmate pictorials."

Kohn also revealed himself as a part-time piss-ant prevaricator, with this line, from a public letter published on Medium:

In 2021, alongside our digital content offerings and new consumer product launches, we will bring back fresh and innovative printed offerings in a variety of new forms - through special editions, partnerships with the most provocative creators, timely collections and much more. Print is how we began and print will always be a part of who we are.

Kohn's team managed to digitally publish one more issue, online only, before giving up the idea of a men's magazine for good. There have been no more issues of Playboy magazine, neither printed nor digital, and no special editions published since mid-2020.

And then, in autumn 2020, Playboy through a reverse merger deal with Mountain Crest Acquisition Corp. - a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC) - became a public company again. In February 2021, the stock of a combined company, PLBY Group, began trading on the NASDAQ exchange as PLBY.

Despite all the disruptions, changes, mistakes, death of the founder, loss of almost all revenue sources, they took the company public. That, friends, takes a generous amount of chutzpah, something Ben Kohn apparently has in reserve.

That's it for this month's installment of the ongoing Playboy saga. The tears and trials have only just begun as you'll see in next month's Part 3, when the vulture capitalists turn the tables on unsuspecting investors.


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