The Best Of Est?

Werner Erhard's legacy lives on in a kinder, gentler and lucrative version of his self-help seminars

Time Magazine/March 16, 1998
By Charlotte Faltermayer

When Werner Erhard (born John Paul Rosenberg) founded Erhard Seminars Training, Inc. in 1971, the former used-car salesman from Philadelphia had a hook. Born of the theater-of-the-absurd atmosphere of the late 1960s, est (Latin for "it is") promised to help people get "it," whatever "it" was. Erhard's 60-hour seminars were strenuous ordeals, complete with "body catchers" and barf bags for the weak of mind and stomach. Trainers applauded bladder control and cursed those who didn't get it. Still, Erhard and his message proved popular, even winning celebrity advocates. Then, after two decades and two divorces, the self-help messiah vanished amid reports of tax fraud (which proved false and won him $200,000 from the IRS) and allegations of incest (which were later recanted).

Unlike Erhard, est is still around--sort of. In 1991, before he left the U.S., Erhard sold the "technology" behind his seminars to his employees, who formed a new company called the Landmark Education Corp., with Erhard's brother Harry Rosenberg at the helm. Rosenberg admits that Erhard was in Toronto briefly last June for a family reunion, but will not elaborate: "I'm not my brother's keeper. I'm not his spokesman."

But he has proved to be an able keeper of his brother's legacy. Landmark appears to be thriving. At its core is a four-part "Curriculum for Living," which starts with a 3 1/2-day seminar called the Forum and proceeds to courses that expand upon its brand of enlightenment. Since 1991, approximately 300,000 mostly professional and well-educated seekers have taken the introductory Forum (an estimated 700,000 took Erhard-era seminars). Revenues, which had been averaging $34 million annually, hit $48 million in 1997, with profits approaching 4%. Landmark is becoming a global brand name, with 42 offices in 11 countries, including a well-appointed San Francisco headquarters. Says Rosenberg: "If we were doing a bad job, we wouldn't have the growth that we have."

The secret of its success? Landmark lacks est's showcase celebrity following, but its programs are not as costly (tuition is down some 50% from Erhard days); they are not as lengthy (the basic course was originally spread over two weekends); and--most important--they are less in-your-face, nearly devoid of the shouting and door monitoring imposed by est's stern trainers. Says a former estie who attended a 1997 Forum: "est was much more militant. You had to have a doctor's note just to go to the bathroom. People humiliated themselves for it. est tried to break you. Landmark doesn't do that."

At a recent Forum weekend in a nondescript room on Manhattan's East Side, 52 men and 47 women gathered for a variety of reasons. The meek sought a voice; the proud, humbling; the lonely, companionship. All had signed a form stating that they are mentally and physically well. It is important that attendees be healthy. The Forum, which costs $350, still requires endurance. It consists of three 12- to 16-hour days--with time out for meals--and (after a one-day breather) a one-evening wrap-up.

The Forum started promptly at 9 on a Friday morning, when a svelte, spiky-haired woman named Beth Handel walked in and introduced herself as the Forum leader. The Forum, she said, is a game called transformation. Like every other game, it calls for good sportsmanship. One should be "coachable," or open-minded about the Forum's concepts, and committed to "forwarding the action." The name of the game is participation or, more specifically, "sharing," which was to take place at three microphones. The weekend, Handel warned, will be "an emotional roller-coaster ride."

First, though, Handel took a few preliminary questions. "What is Werner Erhard's role?" someone asked. Handel simply described him as the man who developed and sold the technology behind Landmark. "What if I doze off?" "Then you doze off," Handel replied with a shrug. A visibly nervous woman stepped up to the mike. "You said this was going to be a roller-coaster. But I'm afraid of roller-coasters. I never get on them." "You will learn how to stop letting fear hold you back," Handel reassured her.

Handel, 39, then drew diagrams on a blackboard as she held forth on a series of concepts: facts have no meaning; it is the stories we concoct out of those facts that give them meaning. She explained that "our rackets," that is, ongoing complaints, are "killing our lives." And "our winning formulas" are really losing formulas. She cautioned that Landmark's ideas ("Be for each other like that" and "People 'is' to death") aren't meant to fit together: "The Forum is holographic. It's not linear."

But outreach was clearly part of the agenda. Pupils were assigned to call or write people with whom they "want to make a breakthrough," thereby introducing others to Landmark. On graduation night participants were encouraged to bring guests, who were then led away to learn more and sign on. From Day 1, attendants were told that for a limited time, the Forum's tuition included a $95 follow-up, "The Forum in Action." The crowd was also repeatedly invited to sign up for the $700 "Advanced Course." Act now and get a $100 discount.

Some Forum grads weren't sold. Rabbi Yisroel Persky, 24, who chose to get his money's worth and take "The Forum in Action," today remains "unfazed" by what he calls the Forum's common-sense concepts cloaked in esoteric packaging. For Richard Giordanella, 49, a software executive, the Forum was enough: "I'm still high on the Forum's main message, that my life is in my control. But I can do without the narcotic effect of their reinforcement."

Others, though, are hooked. Anthony, 32, a stockbroker, came to the Forum because he didn't know whether he wanted to be married anymore. He owned up to stashing $50,000 in cash for a clean getaway. During the Forum, he said, "I had been pointing the finger at my wife. But I've got to work on me." Now Anthony has completed the "Advanced Course," and is taking the final course in the curriculum, "Self-Expression and Leadership." He says he feels like a newlywed. His wife agrees. "It's a miracle," she says. And the woman afraid of roller-coasters? Mildred Rodriguez, 33, has signed up to be a Landmark volunteer. Says she: "I'm glad I got on for the ride."

Critics say Landmark is an elaborate marketing game that relies heavily on volunteers. Says Tom Johnson, an "exit counselor" often summoned by concerned parents to tend to alumni: "They tire your brain; they make you vulnerable." Says critic Liz Sumerlin: "The participants end up becoming recruiters. That's the whole purpose." Psychiatrists who speak on Landmark's behalf dispute these claims. But Sumerlin says a 1993 Forum turned her fiance (now her ex) into a robot. She organized an anti-Landmark hot line and publications clearinghouse. Landmark officials made sounds to sue her.

Landmark alumnus Walter Plywaski, a Colorado electronics engineer who took on the company after his daughter ran up a $3,000 tab on courses, thinks Erhard is still pulling the strings. Says he: "Erhard is like the Cheshire Cat. He has gone away, but the smile is there, hanging over everything." Rosenberg says his brother is not and never has been involved in Landmark. Steven Pressman, author of a scathing 1993 biography of Erhard, calls that slick corporate maneuvering: "They've gotten out of the yoke of Werner because he became their worst p.r. man. But it's one of the greatest success stories in mass marketing."

Indeed, the transformation has been such a success that it was the subject of a recent case study by the Harvard Business School. According to the study's co-author, Karen Wruck, the product that Landmark sells is "an abrupt or jarring change, like an 'aha'"--a "peculiar" one, certainly, but patently marketable. But Landmark, the study notes, has challenges ahead. It will have to gauge the effectiveness of its volunteers in expanding the business and weigh the need to raise outside capital. Perhaps, Wruck says, it will need to go public.

--With Reporting by Richard Woodbury /San Francisco

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