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, Comag’s CEO.

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 Harrington, vice president of client services.

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 them.”

Harrington 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 Harrington. “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 Harrington, “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. Harrington, who lives in Basking Ridge, also stayed put.

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 York.

“I commuted to New York City for 15 years, and I had had it with commuting in general,” says Lawton.

Mike Harrington: Stayed

When Mike Harrington (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, Harrington 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 and shine.”

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.

Allison Fleming: Moved

Allison Fleming, 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 time.”

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.

Fleming loved having her toddler children attend Harmony School just a block from her office in Forrestal Village. “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 miss it.” But she is transferring them to a daycare center that is less expensive and nearer to her home.

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 city.”

His current drive from his condo at Eagle’s Trace, on Franklin Corner Road, takes him 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.

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 video/marketing firm.

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 the additional time, not having to commute on a daily basis, helped renew 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 City, 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 West Windsor at Old Trenton and Village Road.

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 to do.”

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. They find the shops and shopping centers much less crowded than those in northern New Jersey, and they like going to BYOB restaurants. Their favorites: the Ferry House and Elements Asia.

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. Then I saw this ad for manager of creative services.” 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 Nassau Park — Wegman’s or Panera Bread. (Wegman’s is also the hands-down favorite for lunch for Comag workers).

Still, these former New Yorkers have not adjusted to the pace of Princeton’s catering capabilities. 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 there, to sit in on some of the university lectures.

A native of Trinidad, she has had to learn how a different way to cook. “We like to buy fresh, that same day, it’s an island thing,” she says. “Now I don’t have people running through my house, so when I cook, I have to freeze my meals.”

Deprived of the chance to cook for family and friends, she has begun to invite other displaced colleagues. “What I started doing down here, for staff, is go to my house and cook a meal and invite people over. People came from the Charlotte office today — why go out when you can buy liquor and relax at my apartment?”

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 in Gainesville, 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, either in central New Jersey or neighboring parts of Pennsylvania,” 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 people.”

“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 of one kind or another on a regular basis. 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. Home page: www.i-cmg.com

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