Friday, February 04, 2011

Rupert Murdoch & the long term CEO

I have a serious post continuing from Reducing Australian un and under employment 1 ready to come up, but this morning I really just wanted to browse around.

I was very tired yesterday and quite inefficient. I stayed up late the night before watching the Cyclone Yasi coverage. By the time I finally went to bed, it was clear that North Queensland had dodged the worst. I was interested in the coverage in a professional sense, as well as the events themselves. Somehow, the coverage didn't quite come-off. It was too bitsy, too many talking heads, not enough to say.

Last quarter, News Corporation wrote off $US275m on its acquisition of MySpace. Despite that, net profits more than doubled. News Corporation also launched The Daily, its new iPad publication.

Developed at a capital cost of $US30 million with weekly operating costs of $US500,000, The Daily is small beer by Mr Murdoch's standards. This is a controlled experiment.

I have been watching Mr Murdoch on and off for more years than I care to remember. There have been times when the very survival of News seemed in doubt. Mr Murdoch has had more failures or apparent failures than I can count. Had News Corporation been a normal corporation, had Mr Murdoch been a normal CEO, he would probably have been fired many times! No sensible board could have accepted the apparent risks involved.

News Corporation is not a normal corporation. Mr Murdoch's control of the company has given him the luxury that few CEOs actually have, the capacity to think in the very long term. During that time, apparent dogs, apparent risks, have proved to be successful enough to offset sometimes spectacular failures. In some cases, success has taken years.

Mr Murdoch's apparent risk taking is a little illusory. Preservation of control, protection of family assets, spreading risks, have always been important. It's just that time horizons have been a little different.

The normal CEO operates in very short term time horizons. You just can't sit there with an operation bleeding cash and and say to the Board it may be some years before we make money from this. No sensible independent Board could accept this. Yet this is what News has done.

The real issue in my mind is after Mr Murdoch, what? He belongs to a very small number of very long term and very successful CEOs - IT&T's  Harold Geneen, GE's Jack Welch are other examples. I had a special interest in Geneen and not just because he coined the phrase "empty desk, empty mind"!  His former Director Corporate Strategy  was one of my consulting associates, so I heard a fair bit about his operating style.

The difficulty is that such dominant personalities are hard to follow. The management approaches that they follow are often generalised and written up in the text books. Yet the reality as I see it is that their success lies not in the models, but in their personalities and abilities, and these are not easily duplicated.        

In the meantime, and despite his age (I think he turns 80 on 11 March), Mr Murdoch still seems to maintain his long term focus. I will continue to watch with interest.  

Past Posts

A few past posts just for my own reference purposes.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim

Mr Murdoch fits my "under a bus" theory perfectly. His rise, fall, rise, fall, etc., etc. is very interesting to watch - but really, would it matter all that much to the world if he, or Jobs at Apple, or in the political sphere, Obama, actually went under a bus one morning on the way to work?

I take your point about longevity of vision - and I wish there were more of it - but my unprovable thesis remains: what would it really "matter" if Mr M. died tomorrow?

Anonymous said...

Addition to above post by Anonymous:


sorry Jim

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi KVD. It is almost impossible to say what would "matter" and at what point if any of us dies.

The left used to argue the unimportance of the individual. History was all about broad movements. What I have found from my history is that individuals do matter.

I am not talking Hitler, Ghandi or Mandela, Julius Ceasar or Alexander the Great, but smaller scale stuff. I guess that part of the issue is what we mean by matter in the cosmic scale of things.

Anonymous said...

Not something I can prove, Jim, but my own belief is that a cause will always find a "rebel" individual figurehead. In other words the times produce the individual able to make the most of what is on offer.

This is not to play down the significance of those you mention, but just to wonder, for instance, if Winston Churchill would be held in such regard but for the times he lived in, or MLK, or a Jack Mundy or Eddie Marbo.

On the other hand I regard overpaid business leaders as just that; of little significance to the world we inhabit; interchangeable, replaceable, in an instant.


Jim Belshaw said...

I agree that times do find individuals, KVD. Churchill is a good example.

On business leaders, though, I would tend to distinguish between them as a "general class" and the individual cases that began the discussion. The reason for looking at Rupert Murdoch in the first place lay in my perceptions of difference.

So we can sometimes talk about business leaders in the same way that we might the military or the aristocracy, but when we come to look at specific changes such the rise of computing, we often come back to individuals.