In May, Dan Denton announced he’s leaving this company to start a brand-new publishing venture. Today, Sarasota, which he started 29 years ago, is one of the country’s most successful city magazines, with hundreds of regional and national awards to its credit, and Dan is known throughout the industry as an innovative leader. I know him as something more—the man who gave me my career.
I met Dan in 1982, when I had just arrived in Sarasota and he was publishing a magazine called Clubhouse. Dan moved to Bradenton as a kid—in a prize-winning piece he wrote for one of our magazines, he credits growing up next to the area’s “quintessential commercial strip,” U.S. 41, with giving him “enough entrepreneurial adrenaline to last a lifetime.” After graduating from Yale University and studying abroad for a year, he returned to town as a reporter for The Bradenton Herald.
But covering the shenanigans of the Bradenton Beach city council, entertaining as they were back then, couldn’t hold his interest long. With its steady stream of wealthy retirees and the growing base of arts and amenities they required, Sarasota was ready for an upscale, glossy publication, Dan decided. In 1979, with a small loan from his father, he created a prototype. The shy, brainy young reporter turned out to have a powerful gift of persuasion, convincing local country clubs to let him mail to their members and businesses to run ads that would reach those well-heeled readers. The glossy, sophisticated magazine he produced was well received—and made a profit in its first year.
By the time I met Dan, Clubhouse had an office on Main Street in Sarasota—a legendary negotiator and bottom-line hawk, he’d agreed to keep the place maintained in exchange for reduced rent, which meant editor Kay Kipling sometimes had to put down a manuscript and run to unplug the toilet in the ladies’ room. And he’d already assembled a talented crew of staff and contributors, many of them still with the magazine today.
Meeting Dan changed my life—it’s just that simple. A former English teacher who had started free-lance writing after my two kids arrived, I’d moved to Sarasota with a husband who wanted to reinvent himself. I knew nothing about Sarasota—and not much more about writing—but when I met with Dan, he listened intently to everything I had to say. (How many times since then have I seen him listening like that to the unlikeliest visitors, often finding a gem of an idea from someone I might have dismissed without a hearing!) We discovered we both liked Yeats and laughed at the same jokes, and maybe on the strength of that, he gave me an assignment, and then another.
But a few months later, I took a job at another magazine—ever the competitor, he to talk me out of it, eloquently arguing I’d learn more with occasional assignments from him than as a full-time employee at a lesser publication.
We kept our friendship going, though, and a year later, when on the same day, my magazine closed and my husband announced he’d be happier with someone else, Dan took me to dinner and said, “You seem to be singularly unattached.” It was the dead of summer and business was slow, but he offered me a job as an assistant editor.
After my first week, he told me he hadn’t realized I couldn’t type well and was going to cut my salary by $20 a week (cash flow was hell back in the summer of 1984), but by then, I didn’t care. I’d never worked for anyone so smart and so full of ideas, and he seemed to believe that I could rise to every new assignment he handed me. His confidence gave me confidence, and I still remember how thrilling it was when he cracked up over one of my headlines and told me it was “brilliant–clever on every level!”
While most magazine owners are sales and numbers people, Dan was the rare exception who understood art and editorial as well. “I’ve never had an owner talk to me about leading [the space between letters] before,” marveled one of our art directors. That first year, he would sit down at the computer and edit stories with me for hours—an act of patience I now fully appreciate and have never been generous enough to offer to anyone else. Watching him streamline sentences, clarify ideas and expose every argument to the searching light of logic turned me into the editor I am today.
Years ago, my then seven-year-old daughter spent an afternoon in the office. “All you do is talk to your friends and laugh,” she reproached me. I didn’t deny it. Dan loved what he did, and so did the rest of us. When you work for someone who understands everything you do—and that was true for those in production, circulation and sales as well as art and edit—and whose only agenda is figuring out, as collaboratively as possible, how things can be done in the very best way, egos and politics have a way of disappearing.
Once we did a story on a handwriting expert whose analyses were often used in court and by major employers. He offered to analyze Dan’s and my handwriting, and he called me the minute he got our samples. Clearly, it was not my handwriting that had seized his interest. “This is catastrophic handwriting!” he enthused about Dan’s famously unreadable script. “It veers from left to right with variable slants—this is a sharp, creative thinker who is always changing how to do things. And he has so much determination he’d have to be on his deathbed before you could stop him. An office can only take one of these extraordinary personalities.” But if he were an employer, the analyst declared, “I’d definitely hire him—this is a very interesting person.”
The ensuing years would prove how right he was. Dan was always introducing new products, new ad sections, new magazines and new ways of thinking about just about everything. As soon as we had one approach mastered, he’d suddenly ask, “But why can’t we do this instead?” After a fevered defense of the status quo, I’d usually realize he was right.
In 1987, Dan changed Clubhouse’s name to Sarasota (I still remember the marketing expert who warned him not to throw away the brand he had so carefully built), and the bold move proved exactly right, establishing us as the city’s magazine in a market that was suddenly crowded with competitors. By then, we had expanded to publishing New Business, the forerunner of today’s Biz941, and magazines for other arts organizations and clients. In 2001, Dan more than doubled the size of our company when he bought Gulfshore Life and its associated publications in Naples; I remember sitting around the proverbial kitchen table—his—as he outlined how the price and time were right to take the risk. Soon he’d expanded again, starting Homebuyer magazines in Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville.
In 2004, he sold the company to CurtcoMedia, the California-based publishers of such national titles as Robb Report and Showboats International. After the sale, he stayed on as president of the Florida division, continuing to help grow the business.
Dan purchased the Homebuyer publications when he resigned from Curtco. The consummate entrepreneur, he needs another mountain to climb, and by investing in home magazines in this kind of a real estate market, he’s facing Mount Everest itself. Yet no one who knows him doubts that he’ll build another business success.
In truth, a business is only part of what Dan has built. His little Clubhouse grew into a company that’s provided employment and expression for an enormous array of talents, from salespeople to artists and writers. This magazine has become an important resource and champion for our city, helping numerous causes—and businesses—grow along with it. Our reputation extends far beyond our shores—a writer who covers media for The New York Times recently told me Sarasota is one of his top two favorite city magazines in the United States. (Los Angeles is the other.) And many of Dan’s innovations and ideas have been adapted by other magazines around the country.
I’ll miss Dan’s judgment and creative leaps and explosive laughter, but he’s left us in good hands; and if he’s taught us anything, it’s that change is essential to surviving and succeeding. We intend to continue to make our magazines new and vital to you. If we succeed, it will be in large part because he showed us the way.