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posted: 3/17/2017 1:00 AM

Journalist, Business Ledger founder looks back on his career

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  • James Elsener, founder of the Daily Herald Business Ledger, holds a copy of the first and a recent edition, spanning his 24-year tenure at this business resource for suburban Chicago.

    James Elsener, founder of the Daily Herald Business Ledger, holds a copy of the first and a recent edition, spanning his 24-year tenure at this business resource for suburban Chicago.
    Daniel White | Staff Photographer


Editor's note: James Elsener, who founded the Business Ledger 24 years ago, is retiring. We talk to him about journalism, how he started the company and what he has seen and experienced along the way. Thank you for your leadership, Jim.

Q: Tell us about how you started the Business Ledger.

A: I had worked in various facets of journalism and publishing throughout my career. I was in my late 40s and wanted to run my own company. A friend of mine on the East Coast was the president of a large publishing firm that had recently purchased a suburban Baltimore business-to-business newspaper and introduced me to the concept. The only area B2B publication in the Chicago area was Crain's Chicago Business, which focused coverage primarily on Chicago business trends and issues. I felt we could be successful providing editorial coverage and advertising opportunities to the suburban business community.

Q: What was an obstacle you faced along the way?

A: I was taking a financial risk investing in a startup company. We had a young family at the time and there is always this concern of having enough money to keep us going until we began to make a profit.

Q: What was your journalism background before you started the business publication?

A: After graduating from college (Western Michigan University) I got a job at the City News Bureau of Chicago as a reporter covering police, fire and the courts. Eventually I got promoted to assistant city editor. CNB was a terrific place for a rookie journalist to begin a career. You got to do it all, you learned how to write a story under deadline pressure. Two years later I was hired at the Chicago Tribune. I started as a general assignment reporter then covered local politics, state government and business. I particularly focused on the energy industry spending 3 weeks in Alaska reporting and writing about the construction of the Trans Alaska Pipeline. I left the Tribune after 5 years to serve as the executive director of the national trade association -- Suburban Newspapers of America.

Q: What are a few changes in the industry that you have experienced?

A: The major changes have occurred because of the increased use of technology by our readers and advertisers. There is a lot less personal involvement. For instance, this is an interview being conducted via email. A few years ago, it would have been done face-to-face or at least on the telephone. On the sales side, customers are content to do business via email rather than a personal call. And, of course, everyone in our industry must publish electronic products. It has been a double edge sword -- as consumers have switched from print our industry has lost jobs on that side of the business but created new jobs on the electronic side.

Q: What will you do when you retire?

A: I don't really see myself retiring -- perhaps just cutting back and changing activities. I have never lacked for having lots of projects that I want to tackle. I am interested in genealogy, I have a couple of novels I have started but never finished due to time constraints. I would like to put closure on those. And I can see myself continuing to do some work in both publishing and working with trade organizations.

Q: If you had one tip to give to a rookie in the industry, what would it be?

A: Show up 10 minutes before the boss and stay 10 minutes after the boss leaves. Showing up and putting in the time is the first element of success.

Q: Do you have a business mantra?

A: Always take the high road. Treat people the way you want to be treated.

Q: What do you like to do in your free time?

A: I've been a handball player since learning the game while serving in the Marine Corps in 1963. I now serve as the volunteer president of the Chicago Metro Handball League. I am also an avid reader. I particularly enjoy reading history. And I've been known to hit a golf ball occasionally.

Q: What book is on your nightstand?

A: I am finishing Robert Gates' book, "Duty, Memoirs of a Secretary at War."

Q: What's the biggest lesson you learned at home growing up?

A: It sounds like a cliché -- but it was the value of hard work. My parents lived through the Great Depression and passed on the lessons from that experience. My father was a floor covering salesman. My mother was a bookkeeper. They also had about a 4-year experience as entrepreneurs investing and working in a farm implement business. I saw that there were no easy roads to success.

Q: What was your first paying job?

A: My first job was at age 14 as a grocery bagger and stock boy at Kizer's IGA in Jonesville, Michigan, for 75 cents an hour. One year later I got a raise to 80 cents an hour. I thought I was living large.

Q: If you could put your company name on a sports venue, which one would you choose?

A: I grew up a fan of the Detroit Tigers. Having lived in Chicago since 1970 my allegiances have changed to our local teams. But, I still have a Tigers hat and continue to have a rooting interest. So instead of them playing at Comerica Field, I wouldn't mind it being called Elsener Park.

Q: Something very rewarding from your career that you will remember?

A: As a journalist in the 70s I got to meet and interview a lot of celebrities from that period -- from presidents to scalawags. Depending on your point of view, some people might think they are one in the same. My most challenging and yet rewarding interview was with former White Sox owner Bill Veeck in old Comiskey Park talking about how to run a baseball team without any money. Despite his public persona, Veeck was a curmudgeon and it took a lot of interviewing skill to get him to talk. When he did it was a look at a fascinating life.