- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 25, 2011

NEW YORK (AP) - Martha Stewart thinks her brand is worth more.

The company that bears her name, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc., said Wednesday it has hired investment company Blackstone Advisory Partners to explore partnerships and investments, triggering speculation the whole company is for sale.

The company also announced that its founder will rejoin its board in the third quarter following a five-year exclusion after a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission in her insider trading case.

Shares of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia Inc. climbed 96 cents, or 25 percent, to $4.73 in early afternoon trading.

It’s all part of a plan to quadruple the size of the brand to $1 billion, Stewart said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“Anything is possible,” Stewart said. The goal, she said, “is to make the business grow to the size of the brand.”

In the end, it will be Stewart’s decision: She had more than 90 percent of shareholder voting power, according to the company’s most recent 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Seeking outside investment may the ticket to growth, analysts say.

“There wasn’t enough fuel in the engine to do a lot by themselves. This will help the brand reach its potential,” said Craig R. Johnson, president of retail consultant Customer Growth Partners.

Martha Stewart Living also announced former NBC executive Lisa Gersh will take over as president and chief operating officer, effective June 6, with plans for her to become CEO over the next 12 to 20 months.

Charles Koppelman, who became the company’s executive chairman and principal executive officer in July 2008, has been playing the role of CEO during a period of management changes. He will remain focused on pursuing opportunities for growth, the company said.

Gersh was a co-founder of Oxygen Media and served as its president and COO from 1998 until 2007 when the company was acquired by NBC Universal. Gersh most recently served as president of strategic initiatives at NBC. Martha Stewart also named Patsy Pollack to be head of the company’s merchandising business.

Stewart and other company officials declined to talk specifically about whether the hiring of Blackstone meant the brand would be put up for sale or could eventually be part of a bigger company. They said the focus will be to create a billion-dollar brand by developing its international business and expanding digital opportunities and other areas.

Last year, the company generated revenue of $230.8 million, down from $244.7 million in 2009. Martha Stewart Living, which ended its 13-year exclusive home furnishings partnership with Kmart in January 2010, has been increasing its merchandising offerings to offset rockiness at its media business.

The company has seen strong sales with new product lines at Macy’s Inc. and Home Depot, though the merchandising unit accounts for only about 20 percent of its business. The company’s broadcast division, which accounted for 18 percent of revenue last year, has shown signs of improvement with new programming.

But publishing, which makes up 62 percent of the business, has been tough, with declines in print advertising revenue across the industry and fierce competition from other Web sites that also offer recipes and other lifestyle information.

“We are looking very closely at what the Internet can do (for the) brand,” said Stewart, noting strong sales in online subscriptions for its magazines.

Martha Stewart has been reinventing itself for the digital age. Last year, the company developed two iPhone and iPad apps. One was a digital magazine designed for the Apple iPad, coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the Martha Stewart Living Magazine. The other app that launched last year was its Cookie app, for the iPad that included over 50 recipes as well as built-in timer, grocery lists, videos and innovative search and organizing options.

Stewart’s return to the board coincides with the end of her five-year ban from serving on the board or as an executive of a public company, which was part of a settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission over insider trading charges against Stewart. In settling the charges, Stewart neither admitted nor denied the allegations in the SEC complaint.

Stewart was convicted on federal criminal charges in March 2004 for lying to federal prosecutors about selling ImClone shares a day before the Food and Drug Administration went public with its decision to decline reviewing ImClone’s application for its cancer drug Erbitux. She served five months in prison.

The company has had a series of management changes. Susan Lyne, who rebuilt the Martha Stewart Living business in the aftermath of the founder’s legal woes, left in July 2008 after four years. The job was then split between two company executives before Koppelman assumed the role.

In announcing Blackstone’s hiring, the company said that the adviser would “review and respond to various parties that have expressed interest in potentially partnering with or investing in the company, as well as exploring other opportunities.”

Last month, Martha Stewart Living said it lost $6.8 million in the first three months of the year, compared with a net loss of $3.4 million in the same period in 2010. Revenue slipped to $52.7 million from $53.2 million.


AP Business Writer Janna Herron contributed to this report in New York.

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