Edward Bell & Rebecca Darwin: Take-Offs, Tough Times and Lessons Learned

October 31, 2017 – What a treat this week (for Halloween no less!) to have not one, but two speakers to deliver our message.  Edward Bell, perhaps more known to members as President of the Charleston School of Law, but he is also a co-founder of Garden & Gun, along with Rebecca Darwin.  Both of our speakers are natives of South Carolina, Bell having been born in Sumter and Darwin in Columbia.  Bell lives now in Georgetown where he practices law. Darwin moved to Charleston after a successful publishing career in New York when her husband, Cress, answered the call to serve as Pastor of Second Presbyterian Church.

Darwin was first up to discuss the lessons she learned in starting a magazine on the eve of the financial crisis in 2008.  The magazine started with four issues in 2007 and expanded to seven in 2008 and then the financial crisis hit and hit hard.  She explained that print magazines were folding right and left as advertising dollars dried up.  Garden & Gun had been begun under the auspices of the Post & Courier’s parent company, but as the crisis deepened, it became apparent to the owners, that the newspaper company needed to focus on its core business.  To keep the fledgling magazine alive, Darwin needed to reach out to investors and that brought Bell into the business along with Pierre Manigault.

The first principle Darwin applies to her business is to “think big.”  Despite the daunting financial landscape Garden & Gun faced, she set a goal of starting with 150,000 subscriptions and met that goal.  Starting operations in a portion of one floor of 409 King Street, the magazine soon took more and more room, eventually occupying the entire building and even out-growing that location.  Now occupying space at the Cigar Factory, the Garden & Gun operations have expanded far beyond magazine subscriptions.  Today the magazine has over 400,000 paid subscribers, publishes books and sponsors reader activities from trips to local get-togethers, including its upcoming fifth annual jubilee at Charles Towne Landing, December 1-3.

The second principle Darwin discussed was to “go with your gut.”  When she was considering starting a magazine she chose a name which met her inner view of its focus.  Many in Charleston know the history of the Garden and Gun Club, but outside Charleston the name created more confusion then understanding.  Darwin relayed with humor how most often she was greeted by quizzical looks wanting to know how the magazine was related to Guns and Roses by folks in other parts of the country.  Her gut told her, however, that the name implied just what the magazine was about – “garden” indicating articles perhaps of interest to the Southern female and “gun” showing that there would also be articles of interest to the Southern male.  Darwin’s inner voice told her that Garden & Gun was always intended to be more than a magazine and listening to that inner voice has led to operations much beyond publishing – becoming a platform for Southern culture throughout the United States.

The final principle which Darwin emphasized is to “build trust.”  She is proud of the fact that readers know they will be given truly authentic stories – not just “infomercials” pandering to advertisers.  Their stories actually change lives.  Darwin told how Chris Williams was working in finance, but had loved knives since he was a child and had a hobby of making knives.  The magazine featured his unique talents and he received Garden & Gun’s second annual “Made in the South” award.  Now Williams has given up the banker’s suit and has a burgeoning company doing what he always loved.

Bell’s presentation reiterated the importance of the element of trust.  In emphasizing the incredible independence of the magazine’s editors, he noted that early in his involvement with the magazine he attended an outdoor event in Georgia sponsored by a bourbon distiller which advertised with Garden & Gun.  Sometime thereafter the magazine featured a bourbon drink in an article, but mentioned another bourbon distiller, rather than the advertiser which had sponsored the event Bell attended.  The focus of the editors was to provide the authentic article readers trusted they would receive rather than kowtow to the financial interests of its advertisers.

As President of the Charleston School of Law, Bell is able to provide additional insight into the issues faced when turning around an organization.  Bell became involved with the school when the school’s founders were considering selling the institution to InfiLaw.  When Bell took over the school had a financial responsibility score of less than 1.0, which jeopardized the ability of students to obtain financing to attend.  He proudly noted that last year the financial responsibility score for the school had risen to 2.4 and is expected to exceed 3.0 this year.  The faculty is ranked in the top ten nationally by The Princeton Review and for the sixth year in a row the school’s tax law moot court team has won the national competition.  Bell has led the Charleston School of Law from a school with existential threats to one which now offers a joint degree with the Medical University of South Carolina in law and healthcare management.

There is no question that this week we had an opportunity to learn lessons from community leaders who have brought organizations through hard times to become beacons of excellence in their fields.  Let us hope we can take these lessons to our own endeavors.

Alex Dallis, Keyway Committee