Comag Marketing Group LLC has all the trappings of a New
York Company. Formed by a joint agreement between the
Hearst Corporation and Conde Nast Publications, it is
responsible for distributing one-fourth of the retail
magazines in North America – and many of the publishers
are in Manhattan.
Until recently Comag was renting space in the Hearst Tower
at 250 West 55th Street. Random House was across the
street and Time Warner was five blocks away. The thought
of leaving this publishing vortex was daunting. No one
knew how it would affect the staff. But its aging building
was undergoing renovation, and Comag had to move
somewhere. With Conde Nast among its owners, it didn’t
make sense to keep on bunking in with Hearst, and rents in
New York had skyrocketed.
So Comag moved last year from its old headquarters in
midtown Manhattan to Princeton Forrestal Village. The
story of this company’s move – and the changes it made in
employees’ lives – can provide insights for developers and
real estate brokers trying to lure other companies from
expensive digs in the Big Apple.
CoMag looked at seven different areas in New Jersey and
Westchester. The decision criteria: access to mass
transportation (airport, highway access to Route 1 and the
turnpike, and train), the types of companies and
buildings, the labor pool, cost, quality of life, timing
of the move-in, and the office park environment.
"We looked at the Carnegie Center and the Forrestal
Center, but we chose the one that had the village
environment," says John DeFrisco, vice president of
business planning and analysis, who worked with Glenn
Dawson of George Comfort & Sons to find the space. "This
had the things that clicked." Previously occupied by
Kemper Insurance, the property had been listed at $26
gross, or about $56,000 per month. So Comag moved from
three different floors in the 12-story tower to the top
floor of a three-story building. "We vacated an old, Class
C building that will be demolished in the coming months
and settled into beautiful space, which we reconfigured to
meet our needs for years to come," says Michael Sullivan,
With everyone on one floor, the departments can talk to
each other. "We installed up-to-date systems and
communications equipment, renovated throughout, and
decorated the walls with poster-size enlargements of our
clients’ magazine covers,"
Workers at the five-year old-firm were told of the
decision in January, 2005. Their computers were loaded up
on Friday, April 28, and everyone went back to work on
Monday, May 1. Even though building renovations were still
underway, and the new office had no landline phones, they
managed with cellphones. "We were wireless, and we didn’t
miss a beat," says Mike Herrington, vice president of
Each worker had a 60-day trial period to see whether they
wanted to make the reverse commute. Executives made
pickups and dropoffs at the Princeton Junction train
station. (Now the company van meets one train to pick up a
handful of reverse commuters.) The result: a 40 percent
turnover and 25 new employees.
"While we were challenged by losing some very good people,
the turnover on balance was a tremendous plus for our
organization," says CEO Sullivan. "The `Princeton Crew’
has brought new skills, new ideas, and a fresh energy that
is recognized and appreciated by the magazine industry
veterans who moved with us from New York. Members of both
groups have bought homes in the area, or plan to buy
Herrington regrets losing some of the good people in his
department, applauds those who are managing to do the
reverse commute, and celebrates his new hires – 70 percent
of his two-dozen person team is new.
His team serves the "outside" clients, the magazines that
don’t belong to either Hearst or Conde Nast. They include
TV Guide, OK magazine, National Geographic, Business Week,
and the crossword puzzle magazine, Pennypress. For these
clients, Comag helps boost single copy newsstand sales,
and it is known for having the lowest ratio of
publications per marketing manager in the business. "We
are able to be more responsive," says Herrington. "We look
at how the magazine is selling by store, by zip code, and
by market, and we have people calling on those retailers
and fighting for the best space at the front end."
"Every time you have a move of this magnitude," says
Herrington, "it is an opportunity to look at what do we do
well and where we want to be. Do we need the old
positions, do we create new positions, and what skills do
we need to fill them?"
"The move really allowed us to go out and look for people
who had the core competencies – who are more analytical
and more proactive in finding opportunities to grow the
newsstand business," he says. Of the 11 new hires, nine
were fresh to the business.
"The parent companies and our ownership are happy with our
decision. Their access to us has not been fettered," says
DeFrisco. A 1982 graduate of Lehigh University, he is one
of the those who declined to move his family, and now he
drives his Ford Expedition 2 1/2 hours from Nassau County
on Long Island to Princeton.
CEO Sullivan did not move; he lives in Newtown,
Pennsylvania. Herrington, who lives in Basking Ridge, also
What commuting decisions did other Comag employees make?
Jeff Burns: Stayed
Jeff Burns, human resources director, on the left in the
photo on page 60, was hired into a new position after the
Princeton office opened. A University of Delaware alumnus,
Class of 1987, he had previously commuted from Scotch
Plains to New York, switching trains in Newark. He
definitely prefers an hour’s drive (29 miles) to 75
minutes on the train.
"It’s a control issue. You can control your own pace."
With three children in schools in Scotch Plains, he did
not consider moving. "The commute is nothing for me," says
Burns, who takes back roads through Manville and along
Canal Road. "It is easier to work and live in New Jersey."
The 30-mile move extended the radius for attracting
employees by 90 miles, Burns says. "It’s a phenomenal
area, and we get people from really far away."
Comag has 340 employees overall, including 100 in a back
office in Charlotte, North Carolina, and 60 so far in
Princeton. Of the 60 people here, 39 were new to the
company. "It’s about culture building and involving
people; it’s been a great experience. I have never come to
a place where there is such positive energy," Burns says.
Turnover has been virtually zero, and he attributes this
to the company’s focus on getting people to interact and
doing team building." The quality of life committee set up
such programs as a softball team, toy collections, pumpkin
carving, a March Madness luncheon, birthday recognitions,
potluck lunches, and a team spirit day. "People love
working here, love the area, and love the company. We have
a lot of people who are very energetic here and a lot of
subject matter experts. It’s a unique industry."
Richard Lawton, Moved
Richard Lawton, senior vice president, in the middle on
page 60, is the son of a Marine Corps officer, so he
doesn’t mind moving, but he did mind commuting.
A 1981 graduate of Clemson (one of his two children is
there now), he had worked for Time Warner and/or Barnes &
Noble in Shreveport, Houston, Atlanta, Southern
California, and Seattle before moving to Jersey City. He
left Jersey City and bought a studio apartment on Palmer
Square, but he also has a weekend place in Woodstock, New
"I commuted to New York City for 15 years, and I had had
it with commuting in general," says Lawton.
Mike Herrington: Stayed
When Mike Herrington (far right on this page) moved to
Basking Ridge six years ago, it was the family’s 10th
move, and he and his wife were determined not to disturb
their three school-aged children again. Like several other
vice presidents – including Michael Gillen (far left on
the cover) who lives in Easton, Pennsylvania – he decided
to stay put.
Unlike a vice president who is commuting from Connecticut,
he found his commute to be a pleasant surprise. Door to
door, it had been 90 minutes, but he could choose whether
to drive, do park and ride, or take the train. Now his
31-mile drive is the same every day, 50 minutes each way.
"I thought it was going to be horrible. But now I don’t
mind it," he says. "It is not the same grind as going
through the tunnel, because it is more predictable. You
never know, with Manhattan."
A 1985 graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Stevens
Point, Herrington worked at Time Warner for 17 years,
moving through sales positions in Milwaukee, Chicago,
Tampa, New Hampshire, Houston, Seattle, and St. Louis. He
joined Comag five years ago and finds it very different
from Time Warner. "It’s very collegial, and it starts at
the top. Mike Sullivan is a great people person, and he
empowers people; he gives them an opportunity to step up
Does he check out the magazines even on vacation? "Yes, no
matter where you are. It’s in your blood."
Maria Young, moved from the Bronx
Maria Young (second from right, standing, on the cover)
and her family took their chance to move out of the Bronx
to a safer environment, an area in Hamilton that borders
Trenton, so the children could have more freedom.
They vacated quickly, finding a house, closing in two
months, and moving in on April 1, 2005. Her husband’s
commute changed from 15 minutes to 90 minutes, but her
45-minute train ride decreased to 30 minutes by car.
Their daughter is at Crockett Middle School, and their son
is a freshman at Hamilton High West. "It was a difficult
transition for my son, leaving behind his friends, but he
has a lot more opportunities now," says Young. "Now he can
go bike riding freely, or to the movies with his friends.
Before he had to go with an adult."
Children moving from the Bronx are at a disadvantage when
it comes to playing on sports teams, but her son has
joined the gaming club and has transferred into the art
program. "Even the parks were not as nice as they are
here," says Young. "We have a lake three or four blocks
away and they can go fishing on their own. Great Adventure
is 20 minutes from our house, and we have season passes."
Nevertheless, some cultural opportunities are easier to
arrange in New York. Last summer her son did an internship
program at the Bronx Zoo (staying with his grandmother),
and for a similar program he would have to travel to the
aquarium in Camden.
Peter Ferrone: Moved
Peter Ferrone, second from left on the cover, prizes the
slower pace of Princeton. "I don’t mind the noise and the
craziness of the city, but in the late afternoon the peace
and quiet is nice. I never knew what it was like to sit at
your desk and not hear a car horn, an ambulance, a siren,
nothing. On average you hear that every 10 minutes in the
His current drive from his condo at Eagle’s Trace on
Franklin Corner Road, takes about a half hour. "But it
sure beats nearly two hours, door to door, coming on the
train from Lower Westchester," he says.
Ferrone, who is an IT analyst and is single, has print
marketing in his blood. He grew up on Long Island, where
his father was a field rep for the Herald Tribune and the
Daily News. A 1978 graduate of the University of Dayton,
Ferrone was a department store buyer before working for
Hearst and for the start-up team of USA Today. He joined
Comag in 1986.
He still has season tickets to Giants games, and he also
spends a lot of weekends visiting his family in New York.
But the time he would have spent commuting, he now spends
on his hobbies – woodcarving, genealogy research, and
listening to music.
Allison Flemming: Moved
Allison Flemming, marketing manager for Hearst client
services, seated on the left on the cover, moved her young
family from West Orange to Bordentown, where she and her
husband bought a new Toll Brothers home. "For us it was
very much a quality of life issue. I had been wanting to
get out of Manhattan," she says. Bordentown was "at the
high end of our price range, but at least doable. Our
expenses might be a little more, but we do have more
A 1992 graduate of the University of Scranton, she worked
with her father, who is also in publishing sales, during
the summers. Now she manages day to day newsstands sales
for four monthly publications and a couple of special
interest publications. She had a job with one of CoMag’s
clients, Disney Publishing, which could have been a sticky
situation, until she explained her "quality of life"
decision to her boss.
Her husband, who works for a bank, has just started a job
in Jersey City. She went from a 90-minute trip on public
transportation to a 20 or 30-minute drive.
Flemming loved having her toddler children attend Harmony
School just a block from her office. "I watched the
Halloween parade right in front the building; had I still
been in Manhattan I would have to take half a day off or
Walter Verfenstein: Moved
Walter Verfenstein, director of corporate communications
and third from left on the cover, dramatically shortened
his commuting time by moving to Plainsboro. He had been
taking public transportation from Flushing to mid town
Manhattan and now drives just 10 minutes from a rented
place at Hunter’s Glen. He is looking for a place to buy.
The son of a public school administrator and a real estate
broker, Verfenstein graduated from Vassar in 1989 and has
been at Comag for more than five years. He had worked in
Minnesota for a television shopping network, in
Washington, D.C., for a nonprofit foundation, in Manhattan
for Publisher’s Clearing House, and with his own
He misses the conveniences and the energy of the city.
"But there are compensatory benefits. I enjoy the
countryside, and at the season change the colors are
beautiful." And not having to commute on a daily basis, he
renewed his interest in golf; he plays twice a week.
"But I have not transferred my personal business down here
completely," says Verfenstein. He goes back and forth to
see his girlfriend in New York, his family on Long Island,
and, oh yes, his dentist.
Jerry Sullivan: Moved
Jerry Sullivan, marketing manager and fourth from left on
the cover, used to live in Upper Montclair, and he
exchanged a 90-minute commute on bus and subway for a
20-minute drive from the Village Grand adult community in
He has good memories of his 20 to 25-minute walk from the
Port Authority bus station to West 55th Street, and at
lunch he could walk in Central Park. Now he walks along
the D&R Canal.
"I don’t really miss the city per se," says Sullivan. "The
commute is an added killer to your life, and this is a
very non-stressful drive. But Manhattan has its own
advantages. Once you are there, there are so many things
The son of an insurance executive and an executive
secretary, he grew up on Staten Island and went to St.
John’s University, Class of 1968. He worked for the New
York Stock Exchange and Curtis Publishing Company’s
circulation department before joining this company at its
inception six years ago.
His wife, he says, quickly made friends in her new
community. And they find the shops and shopping centers
much less crowded than those in northern New Jersey.
Jennifer Levenfus: Stayed
Jennifer Levenfus (far right, standing, on the cover)
lived in Monroe but worked in Manhattan, and she jumped at
the chance to give up her train trips to work in
Princeton. Door to door, it was a two-hour commute, and
now she drives for 20 minutes.
The daughter of a police officer and an office manager,
she graduated from South Brunswick High School and
Philadelphia University (Class of 2001). She started her
career in Manhattan at the corporate offices of New York
Sports Club, then moved to New York University, where she
was an inhouse graphic designer.
"I was looking for a company with the pace, speed, and
excitement of New York, but in New Jersey. Some days I
left at 5 a.m. and, if I was taking a course, did not get
home until 11 p.m., and I had no social life." She is
engaged to be married next September.
Alisa Seaton: Moved
Alisa Seaton, office manager, seated on the right on the
cover, misses the energy of the city, where the stores are
open late at night. "It’s the convenience of having
anything you want at any hour, and not having to drive
anywhere," she says. "In Brooklyn you could always get a
couple of friends over and start something going any time,
any day of the week, because the Asian market on Flatbush
Avenue would be open all night." She depends on the
ShopRite on Route 130 (open until 11 p.m.) and was
thrilled to learn that on University Place, next to
McCarter Theater, is a 24-hour Wawa store.
A graduate of the New York City Technical College, Seaton
acts as concierge, negotiating with hotels and restaurants
for the company’s business travelers. So she was perplexed
when the Village’s food court suddenly closed, to make way
for the construction of a spa, and she says that weeks
went by before alternatives opened in the Village. (Tre
Piani now serves a deli lunch and Subway has opened.)
Apple Spice Junction, which focused on corporate catering,
also closed, and she has turned to Wegman’s or Panera
Still, these former New Yorkers have not adjusted to the
pace of Princeton. In New York, you can place a lunch
order for 14 people at 11 a.m. for noon delivery. In
Princeton, says Seaton, they need four hours. She also
misses the "neighborly comfort" of close proximity to
family and friends. She lived a five-minute drive from her
family (a 10-minute bus ride or a 30-minute walk).
Princeton is "a hard singles town," she says, but her goal
for the fall is to spend more time here, to sit in on some
of the university lectures.
A native of Trinidad, she has had to learn how a different
way to cook. "Now I don’t have people running through my
house, so when I cook, I have to freeze my meals. What I
started doing down here, for staff, is go to my house,
cook a meal, and invite people over. People came from the
Charlotte office today – why go out when you can relax at
CEO Mike Sullivan: Stayed
Michael L. Sullivan, president and CEO, grew up in
Massachusetts and his Florida, where his father had law
enforcement jobs. After graduating in 1972 from the
University of Florida, he worked for the FBI, but in 1983
he began working in the publishing industry with Select
Magazines in New York City. He has had senior executive
positions with the News Group, Murdock Magazines, TV Guide
and Globe Marketing Services. In 2000, when he took the
CEO’s job at Comag, he and his wife moved from Charlotte
(where he had been an executive vice president for Hearst)
to Newtown. They have three children.
"Our people are really starting to put down roots," says
Sullivan. "There is a near universal view among our senior
staff that the move has improved our operation as a
business and resulted in a better quality of life for our
"So, that being the case, I wish to extend our thanks to
the area businesses who helped us with our space
renovation and to others who provide us with services.
Thanks for welcoming us to town. We’re happy to be here!"
Comag Marketing Group LLC, 155 Village Boulevard, Suite
300, Princeton 08540; 609-524-1800; fax, 609-524-1629.