By Shelby Deering
At times, inspired ideas have unexpected beginnings. Microsoft was started in a garage. Facebook was first brainstormed in a college dorm room. And for the founders of Nei-Turner Media Group — husband and wife Bill and Barbara Turner and Gary Nei — the friendship that blossomed at a high school in Park Ridge, Illinois led to a lasting business partnership and the creation of At The Lake magazine.
Still close friends to this day, Bill, Barbara and Gary started Nei-Turner Media Group in 1997, using Bill and Barbara’s business background as a springboard. Beginning in 1970, the two had owned a company called EduSystems which specialized in securing contracts in the education sectors of developing countries. In 1992, the couple additionally purchased the company B&B Publishing and produced children’s books. Then in 1994, Barb Krause joined the EduSystems team, a job that eventually led to her current role as publisher — or as Gary Nei calls her, “the reason for our success.”
THE EARLY DAYS OF AT THE LAKE
Bill and Barbara Turner, now married 52 years, first met as high-schoolers in a Chicago suburb. The two became fast friends with Gary Nei and his now-wife, Priscilla, and are still closely connected to one another, through the business and even where they live. The couples both spend a great deal of time in the same Florida community every year — the Turners are there for six months, while the Neis stay three months. And they of course all share a love for Lake Geneva.
Nei-Turner got its start from a chance conversation between Bill and Gary, who has an extensive background serving as a chief executive officer at several healthcare companies. He also currently owns Chicago’s Beverage Tasting Institute, a company that reviews over 20,000 wines, beers and spirits each year.
Bill explains, “Gary was in my office and he said, ‘What’s this publishing company that you’re doing?’ I said, ‘Well, we’re doing children’s books and we’re trying to look at some other projects.’ He said, ‘Why don’t you sell me half of the company and we’ll look at some projects?’ He did that in 1995. We looked at some further educational projects. We also tried to develop software for Little League Baseball scorekeeping. It didn’t work out.”
Eager to grow into new areas, in early 1997, the three suddenly realized something — there was no longer a magazine dedicated to the Lake Geneva area. Bill shares that they all said, “Okay, let’s give it a try,” and the first publication came out in 1997. But At The Lake almost came to a halt before its first anniversary. That’s when Barb Krause stepped in.
A NEW MAGAZINE
The Turners knew Barb Krause’s work well from her time with EduSystems, serving in the consulting division. They then hired her to work at the publishing company full-time, first as a photo research and editorial assistant and then as an interim manager, something that Barb calls a “temporary situation because the publishing manager had gone on maternity leave.”
The manager chose to stay at home with her child, and Bill says, “We were sitting there in 1998 wondering who was going to run the company. We offered Barb the job.”
By the end of 1999, Barb had fully-transitioned into her role of running At The Lake — it was “only me, the designer, the sales person and a part-time editor,” she says.
Luckily, Barb was already quite familiar with the Lake Geneva area. “I moved here at the beginning of my kindergarten year. My children now attend the schools I attended.”
In the beginning, everyone on the At The Lake team helped distribute the magazine throughout the area. Bill doesn’t mince words when he describes the challenges the publishing company faced. “It was a little bit of a tough road for a while. It took probably five to six years before the company finally broke even and started to earn some money.”
But the three continued to persist because they believed in their vision for the magazine. “The original vision was to come up with a magazine that had serious editorial content that would capture information about the history, the culture and the personalities of the area,” says Bill.
Barbara adds, “It certainly gives [readers] a picture of the people that are in this area rather than just restaurants that they patronize or the lakes that they go boating on.”
The dedication finally paid off. Bill says that after “about 2003” the company started doing “just fine” and “it’s been very successful ever since.”
Nei-Turner began to expand its horizons beyond At The Lake. In 2001, the company acquired the Geneva Lakes Area Visitor’s Guide and then added custom publishing projects, such as Grand Style, the in-room magazine for Grand Geneva Resort. And now, the company has a reach far outside the borders of Lake Geneva, and even Wisconsin.
“People see that we do a very, very good job,” says Gary, which has led to a number of acquisitions and incarnations of new publications. In 2007, Nei-Turner purchased a part of Trails Media Group — specifically, their custom publishing division and Wisconsin Meetings magazine. In 2012, they opened a Madison office to better serve its contracts to publish the Greater Madison Visitors Guide and the Parade of Homes Plan Book for the Madison Area Builders Association. Then in 2016, the group purchased Madison’s BRAVA Enterprises, a monthly women’s magazine.
Nei-Turner now owns an impressive two dozen titles, including outlets in Michigan and Arizona. It may seem like a big number, but Gary asserts that they’re a company that’s not shy about growing slowly. “I think the worst thing we could do is try to expand too fast or try to digest things that are too big for us.”
But the Turners and Gary Nei are particularly proud of the publication that started it all.
Gary says, “It’s almost an institution in the community. It’s our bellwether, our most important publication, and we’re very proud of what we’ve done in the area.”
All this from what Gary portrays as “a small publication that was barely able to put together much of an issue for its first publication because the advertisers didn’t feel as though we’d be successful in reaching readers.” He thinks of today’s At The Lake as “robust.”
A LOVE LETTER TO LAKE GENEVA
Gary is continually impressed with all the stories Lake Geneva never ceases to provide. “I’m amazed that after all these years that we can come up with something that’s fresh and interesting, and how small an area can offer in terms of diversity.”
Bill enjoys how the magazine touches upon the historical aspects of Lake Geneva, something that separates At The Lake from “magazines where you can skim through the thing and the articles are superficial.”
“I think our focus on history makes the place come alive,” he adds. “We always say that we want the content to be compelling, which is sort of our motto. I think a lot of the articles that we publish are articles that people want to keep and remember.”
Gary and the Turners attribute the bulk of the magazine’s success to Barb Krause and her staff.
“Barb Krause has just done a stellar job,” says Gary. “I just think it’s a great little company managed by a very talented young lady.”
The other component of the publication’s accomplishments lies in community support. Bill says, “We are blessed to live in a community that has been so supportive of us over time, and a community that has enough economic activity to support a magazine like At The Lake.”
Barb sums up the mission of At The Lake, saying, “Twenty years later, we haven’t run out of ideas. That’s how rich our lakes area is.”