Rupert Murdoch's move was even more startling because as you know, media executives have been reaching for the headache remedies more often in the past couple of years coping with a business category in turmoil. They know that people still want to be entertained and informed in these changing times, but they aren’t sure how to get them to drink from their brand of cool aid fountains.
It was in early 1988 that I briefly met Mr. Rupert Murdoch at a gathering of television executives (NATPE) in Houston. I was surprised that he had the wan and tired look of a person who slept little and didn’t get outside in full daylight very often. An acquaintance of mine who worked for him in building the Fox Network had described Rupert Murdoch as being very smart, demanding, fearless and possessed of a vision. When I saw the mogul again in January 1994 at a UCLA gathering of media’s “big brains” it became clear to me that he also operated above the heads of most others who managed publicly traded companies. At one point while watching Rupert Murdoch on a panel with other titans including Michael Eisner and John Malone I exclaimed to a CBS network executive sitting next to me, “this man has no boss and seems to have the courage to do what he wants.” People who have real vision tend to march that way, to the beat of a lone drummer. A reputed Mark Cuban quote says it well; “No balls-no babies.”
One of the joys of contemplating the Murdoch-Bancroft Family soap opera has been that it is a reminder of the days when very large enterprises were deftly guided by the ambition and grit of one person. Yes, Henry Ford, John H. Johnson, Howard Hughes and others had able supporting casts to help pave the road ahead, but the roadmap usually poured from a single brain. I doubt that they spent much time talking to Wall Street analysts or worshiping quarterly numbers. It would be surprising if any of them ever uttered the phrase “I’m doing this for shareholder value.” But history clearly lets us know they all lead from the front by articulating a vision, sometimes one that took the troops a while to understand.
Recently while discussing media matters with an employee of one of America’s best known media companies he offered an insight. He said “Murdoch dreams of being king of the media world while our top guy simply dreamed of becoming CEO.” That nicely describes the malaise affecting many of America’s best known public companies. The big corner offices are filled with administrators counting on a big payday based largely on the stock price. Vision is something they discuss with their optometrists and not something that possesses them.
By now we all know about the abilities and exploits of Warren Buffet, Steve Jobs, Robert Johnson, Mary Kaye Ash (deceased) and others who’ve walked an often lonely road to creating great businesses and brands. They are all over fifty years of age now. Where is the next crop of real business visionaries coming from? Do you think the young people who created You Tube and Face Book will still be doing deals in the same business category fifty years from now whey they are Murdoch’s age? There are probably differences between entrepreneurs, moguls and titans. I’d say that Rupert is joyfully working in the very rare air of the third category.
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