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Legends of a Hairy Man

Outside publisher Larry Burke founded a magazine that embodies the spirit of his exploits.

By Bill Beuttler (American Way, April 15, 1988)

A 26-year-old marketing rep is stuck in an ugly green stick-shift Volvo on his way to the I.B.M. branch office in Denver in late 1968. Traffic is backed up to the horizon. The guy in the next car is pounding his horn and steering wheel in rage. The marketing rep, who feels like “a heifer in a roundup going to the slaughter,” asks himself, “What the hell am I doing here?”

When he finally arrives at work, he tells his branch manager where to send his last paycheck. He then goes home and tells his wife that he is, “feeling a little closed in by all this — this house we’re in and everything around me.” So he is going to “go over to Europe for a couple of months and think about things, what I want to do with my life.”

Larry Burke’s wife, whom he had met at Lake Tahoe during a break from his undergraduate studies at the University of Arizona, was not fazed. In Tucson, it hadn’t been unusual for Burke to come home from classes and announce he was spending the next few days traveling to Mexico with some buddies.

“O.K., have fun,” she’d say.

It was no big deal to her. She was “a little upset but not overly concerned” when he told her he was quitting I.B.M. She saw no point in hanging around Denver; she packed up the Volvo with her four-year-old daughter, their St. Bernard, and whatever savings they had, and went home to San Diego.

He took $2,800, the full amount of his last I.B.M. paycheck, and flew to Munich for Oktoberfest. His sidekick was an I.B.M. selling partner, J.B. Evans, whom he had talked into quitting with him. This task was made easier by Evans’ failing marriage. They stretched their planned “couple of months” of soul-searching into nearly five years of adventures in Europe, the Soviet Union, the Middle East, Africa, South America, and the Caribbean. They made (and quickly spent) a small fortune overseas (they recall a stash of $600,000 in cash at one point). They ran a discotheque in Sardinia; smuggled skis into Spain through the Pyrenees; smuggled Playboy magazines (at $20 each), Levis, and other Western goods into Russia; smuggled Johnnie Walker scotch into the Central African Republic; smuggled military transport vehicles into Rhodesia; and smuggled passportless drug addicts out of Turkey. Between times, they partied — using the proceeds from their various business ventures to chase women and gamble in such places as Lausanne, Cannes, and Nice.

And when Burke grew jaded, he returned to the States, launched Outside, one of the nation’s most respected magazines, and became CEO and quadrupled the earnings of a Chicago marketing company his grandfather founded in 1930. Now he is 45. Perhaps, his smuggling days are over.

Today Burke heads Burke Communication Industries, which includes: Burke Creative Merchandising, Burke Promotional Marketing, Handelan-Pedersen (a graphic arts studio acquired in 1985), and Mariah Publications. The latter division is the company’s most visible because of Outside, which celebrated its 10th anniversary last October.

Outside has a circulation of 300,000 — a growing and lucrative audience of young, active professionals. The magazine covers adventure travel and individual outdoor sports. Its writing and graphics have earned it two National Magazine Awards (for general excellence in 1984, essays and criticism in 1987), and Outside was a finalist in the general excellence category four years in a row, an unprecedented feat.

I am with Burke in his office; he has interrupted his narrative account of his adventures — both his adventure adventures and his entrepreneurial ones — to place a phone call.

The most eye-catching artifact in the room is a blowup of Outside’s October 1986 cover that features a lovely swimsuited young woman strolling along a beach. She, it turns out, is Burke’s daughter, Christine, who is set to graduate summa cum laude from the University of California at San Diego. “Luckily for me,” says Burke with a grin, “it was the best-selling issue of 1986.”

Burke is 5-feet-7 inches tall, fast-talking and friendly. He sports a neatly trimmed beard and a stylish, dark-gray suit. It is almost humorous to imagine him as an early-’70s hippie-adventurer — beads, beard, long hair, driving a van painted with the signs of the zodiac. His laugh, however, retains a trace of the adventurer. It’s a successful hustler’s laugh.

Burke returns to his coffee table to resume our conversation. He apologizes for our interruption. “I’m trying to buy a magazine,” he explains. “I think it just got away from me.”

Burke tells a story about one of the legendary booze-running treks through the Sahara desert. To make these trips, he and his conspirators would go to England to buy a pair of Bedford RL army trucks, complete with sand tracks and gun turrets. They would retrofit the trucks in Belgium, load up their scotch and drive through the Pyrenees to southern Spain. Then they would take the ferry to Morocco, drive east to Algeria, south through the Atlas Mountains, on the other side of which the tarmac ran out, and there was the Sahara.

The Sahara is larger in landmass than the continental United States. There are no roads. Daytime temperatures reach 135 degrees. Mattresses had to be soaked in water and wrapped around the gas tanks to keep the fuel from vaporizing.

On one trip, the men were stuck for three weeks in Zinder, Nigeria, near the Chad border. A war had closed the frontier, and a cholera epidemic was raging in Zinder. The region was suffering a severe drought. Children fought to lick the oil from empty tuna-fish cans, slitting their tongues in the process. Recalls Burke, “You could taste the death on the tongue, and the stench and the disease. You couldn’t get it out of your nose.”

The men decided their only way out was to go east around Lake Chad. They traveled at night to avoid the heat. Two men perched on top of the turrets to navigate. One night, Burke was keeping watch on the right side of the truck when he heard the man on the left side yell, “Turn right! Turn right!” The truck was about to pass beneath the railroad-spike thorns of an acacia tree. The driver, unable to hear above the engine’s roar, kept going straight. The lookout’s legs were shredded by the thorns.

Inside the truck was another man, Wally, who already was half mad from an injured leg, the intense heat, and the other hardships of the journey. When Wally heard the lookout screaming, he thought the truck was going over a cliff, so he dove out of the back of the truck — and split his head open on a rock. The other men took him, bleeding from the ears, to a tiny village called Gao. Wally woke up on a dirt floor while being administered to by a woman with a wooden peg through her chin and a bone through her nose. The sight of the witch doctor drove him out of his head. He began yelling nonsense about his blood type: “No! No! I’m type A! I’m type A!”

The men managed to calm Wally sufficiently for the woman to treat him. “She starts putting this purple stuff in his ears and all over his face to stop the bleeding,” Burke says. “Worked like a charm, stopped him from bleeding. To this day, he’s purple. It permanently dyed his skin. We finally get back to South Africa and civilization, he doesn’t want to go back to the United States. He’s purple! As far as I know, he’s still down there.”

Burke’s stories end well. Alive and aroused by their brushes with death and mutilation, they would head to Cannes or Nice.

“Without fail, we’d end up in this great villa overlooking the Mediterranean with all these blond, wonderful-looking women,” Burke says.

“When I think about it, taking $2,800 and literally bankrolling five years of that kind of experience and living, it was just priceless. Actually, it did turn out that way, because I never would have gotten into this business had I not done that. All the things that the magazine is about now were wrapped into those five years, but it took me awhile to figure out that this is interesting to everybody in the USA.”

One day, as he sat with Evans in a London pub, it occurred to Burke that there might be a market for his sort of adventures. With them was Arthur Brock, a fellow I.B.M. executive-training-program graduate. (Burke graduated first in a class of about 200. Brock was second.) The two men had bumped into each other on the street, Burke still in his hippie attire, Brock in the suit and tie of a young man on the rise at I.B.M. Brock would later head I.B.M. Canada.

As they talked about Burke’s exploits, they were overheard by a young filmmaker at the next table. The filmmaker said he had written a screenplay about the sort of derring-do Burke and Evans had been up to. The man, whose father was chairman of a grade B movie company, offered them parts in his picture. They accepted, but the filmmaker got drafted, and the film was scrubbed.

Burke was ready to go home. He had spent all but $10,000 of the money he had made overseas. He needed a job, and there was a five-year gap in his résumé that would be difficult to explain in the business world.

Luckily, he was needed at home to help run the family business, Poster Products Inc. in Chicago. His main task was the breathe some life into an invention by a Poster Products employee, a screen-printing press capable of laying down as many as 100 colors simultaneously. The invention enjoyed interest overseas, and Burke soon established distributorships in France, Spain, Italy, England, Australia, and Japan. “So I’m back over in Europe,” says Burke, “in a suit, getting picked up at the airport in a Mercedes and making very legitimate deals with all these business guys. What a world!”

Burke held on to his hope of getting his adventures published. He thought about writing short stories. But where could he sell them? None of the existing magazines had room for his sort of fun. “I was looking for something different,” he says. “I was looking for Outside, and it wasn’t there.

“So it finally came down to, ‘You know what I’ll do? I’ll just write one whole issue, in effect, with all my own photos from all these years. My grandfather’s got a four-color press out there. There must be a way to just print the damn thing, bind it up, and I’ll distribute it around town!’”

Soon, Burke had grander ideas. He read extensively about the publishing business; he consulted with New York publishing gurus. He approached John Askwith, a graphics instructor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, for help to design the magazine. They were joined by Larry Evans, a high school buddy of Burke’s who graduated from the Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara and was working as a commercial photographer. The three men gathered at Burke’s magazine-cluttered but otherwise bare condominium (a few metal chairs were his only furniture) to plan the magazine.

Burke borrowed $35,000 from three college friends to run a direct-mail test. Rex Ryan, a company accountant, helped Burke with the sleight of hand needed to overcome his grandfather’s objection to the creation of the magazine.

“My grandfather hated it,” Burke says. “He hated anything that made it look like he was going to lose control over me economically.”

Poster Products employees were beseeched to help him with his dream. Some did. “I was threatening people,” admits Burke. “I’d say, ‘This is something I believe in. Help me. And if you don’t help me, I’m not going to remember you when I’m running things around here.” When necessary, Burke wrote unauthorized company checks for magazine expenditures, a task made easier by his sharing the name Lawrence J. Burke with is grandfather.

By late 1975, Burke had a staff of six crammed into a tiny office in Humbolt Park. His quarterly magazine, which he called Mariah, was about to be launched. But he lacked a quality cover story for the first issue. In November, founding editor Richards Bushnell and Evans, now photography director, were dispatched on the first successful rafting trip down the Omo River in Ethiopia. (The British army had tried a similar trip and had lost two men — one drowned; the other was attacked by crocodiles while swimming.)

For Evans, the change in work environments was abrupt. One Friday he completed his last commercial shoot for Sears Roebuck & Company; the following Tuesday he was floating down the Omo River with his cameras around his neck. The trip and story turned out fine, and in February 1976 the first issue of Mariah rolled off the presses.

Burke’s grandfather had died in December. There was no longer a family obstacle to the magazine, but now there was an external one. Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner was about to launch his own outdoor magazine, which he called Outside. Wenner spent heavily, hiring big names such as Will Hearst and Jack Ford (the former president’s son) to help run it. Outside also ad the advantages of Rolling Stone’s advertising clout and distribution network.

To psyche himself up for his battle with Outside, Burke pictured himself in footraces with Wenner as he ran on the Lake Michigan beach early each morning. “I’d always win by one foot,” he recalls, laughing. “That was the way I was going to keep my magazine. I’d say, ‘Jann, Rolling Stone and rock ’n’ roll is yours; the American outdoor scene is mine.”

Eventually, with Outside losing money, Wenner tried to buy out Mariah, hoping to exploit its ties to the outdoor industry. When Burke refused, Wenner proposed joint ownership. “But who would get 51 percent?” Burke asked. “I would, of course,” responded Wenner. “No way,” said Burke. Finally, Wenner asked if Burke wanted to buy him out. And in October 1978, 90,000-circulation Mariah purchased 250,000-circulation Outside for $2 million.

For the next year the magazine was published bimonthly under the name Mariah/Outside. Mariah was dropped from the title, and the magazine became a monthly under the editorship of John Rasmus, whom Burke lured from Chicago magazine.

The magazine’s reputation grew. In 1981 Outside was named a finalist in the National Magazine Awards. Once it was hard to find people to provide high-quality coverage of the outdoors. Now, young writers and photographers groom themselves with Outside in mind.

Burke has reduced his day-to-day involvement with Outside to concentrate on the rest of his businesses. He stays involved in the selection of covers and setting ad rates, and he writes a publisher’s column each issue.

“People have a fuzzy concept of what entrepreneurism is all about,” Burke muses. “But what it comes down to is you’ve got to be willing to hang on a cliff 100 times, 200 times ... be able to get knocked off and climb back up. I mean, it’s hard. And the hard part is just not giving up. Your idea can be great, but if you don’t have that deep well to draw from — or you’re very, very lucky quick — you’re just not going to make it.”

© Bill Beuttler