Survivor Sumner: alive & unplugged

May 28, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Sumner Redstone is so feisty he challenges his own reputation as a litigious, tenacious, tough-as-nails, self-made billionaire who has fought for every inch of premium media real estate he has seized in his 77 years.
“I’m easygoing, loving and compassionate,” he said. “I am really by nature a laid-back person.”
But that is not the overriding impression he delivers in his autobiography, “A Passion to Win,” which will be in bookstores June 5.
The Viacom chairman and CEO conceded in an interview with Electronic Media, “I am a driven person. I am obsessive about being No. 1. I’m not saying I am always [No.] 1, but I am committed to excellence.”
And what safer venue to share his life story than his own Simon & Schuster Publishing, which was one of the assets he acquired in his 1994 purchase of Paramount Pictures.
While many of his peers-such as News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and Walt Disney Chairman Michael Eisner-chose outside publishing companies to handle their autobiographies, Mr. Redstone did not think his using Simon & Schuster would present a possible conflict of interest.
“I was concerned about this being my own publishing company. I said that would create some naysayers. But the people at Simon & Schuster said when it comes to business books, no one does it better. So why shouldn’t I use the best business book publisher, even if I own it?” Mr. Redstone said.
“People have said to me, `Michael Eisner didn’t use Disney’s Hyperion Books to publish his autobiography,’ and I said, `If Simon & Schuster were Hyperion, I wouldn’t have used them either!”’
And it doesn’t hurt that “A Passion to Win” is expected to be profitable.
Mr. Redstone insists his was a “straightforward story and straightforward deal,” with no special conditions. For instance, there are no provisions for the book’s adaptation as a movie or for an eventual revision. But it is unclear just how much scrutiny the book underwent by fact-checkers and editors concerned about accuracy and balance in Mr. Redstone’s recollections and representations, especially since he has been clear about his not tolerating “any interference” in telling his story.
Insiders at Simon & Schuster say the book and its handling has been dubbed “A Passion to Keep Our Jobs.”
Writer Peter Knobler, whom Mr. Redstone refers to as his “collaborator,” shares a byline on the book, which he helped document and assemble. “But the writing is mine,” Mr. Redstone insisted.
Mr. Redstone said he worked on the book for more than a year, recording sections on tape. “I stole time every once and a while and moved quickly,” he said. Still, publication of the book was delayed by a year because of all the deals Viacom was doing, including the CBS merger.
He is donating all proceeds from his standard royalty and percentage to Massachusetts General, the hospital where he was treated after sustaining burns on more than half his body when he barely survived a 1979 Boston hotel fire. He did not accept an advance for the book.
If he has no financial interest in the book, he does have other interests, such as setting the record straight.
“The book is my life-winning is everything!” he declared. Hence, his opening salvo in the book: “Viacom is me!” What sounds like a megalomaniac’s war cry is, for those who know him, testimony to his symbiotic relationship with the companies he commands.
Although the book is no kiss-and-tell yarn, it is a testament to Mr. Redstone’s entrepreneurial spirit.
“The circumstances under which I built this media giant Viacom were about as difficult as they could be,” Mr. Redstone said.
“After all, I was born in a tenement. I had nothing. I broke my back just building a small circuit of theaters-and a 400-screen circuit. I had a vicious battle to acquire Viacom from Terry Elkes, who I like. I had a terrible battle with him and his so-called independent committee. And then to go on to battle [Barry] Diller for Paramount and then Blockbuster and finally CBS-which was easy by comparison,” he said. “But I didn’t have deregulatory or technological winds at my back then.”
While Mr. Redstone speaks of his fondness for Viacom President Mel Karmazin, he makes a point of relaying how his middle-age children have left lucrative legal careers to join the family business.
Sheri Redstone, his daughter, runs the family’s Boston-based National Amusements (which is Viacom’s controlling shareholder) and sits on Viacom’s board of directors. His son, Brent, works at Showtime and is a member of Viacom’s board.
“Right now, Sheri and Brent are on the board. Could they play a larger role? Possibly,” he said. “Viacom will never have to look outside its management to find a successor. There are plenty of people on our management team who could run this company.”
The book is as much about the CEO’s life lessons as it is about his empire building.
“Whether you’re talking about surviving a hotel fire or the tanking of Blockbuster, my philosophy is that success isn’t built on success. It is built on frustration, failure and catastrophe,” he said.
In the book, he recounts how he personally led the charge at Blockbuster’s Dallas headquarters to revamp the newly acquired company in response to its slipping stock price and financials. His remedies included negotiating a precedent-setting revenue-sharing pact with major Hollywood studios to carry their releases in Blockbuster stores.
“Blockbuster for me was almost like a second fire, and in both cases we turned catastrophe into success. When Blockbuster tanked, I tanked too. I went from brilliant to being not so smart overnight. And Viacom [stock] was punished by more than the value of Blockbuster,” Mr. Redstone said.
Today, Blockbuster is a key to Viacom’s future, which will include the delivery of movies and other on-demand content directly to the home via branded services.
But that’s a future Mr. Redstone only hints at in his book. The second-largest media company in the United States “could grow again through acquisition but will look more to grow organically from within,” he said, despite speculation Viacom is eyeing such acquisitions as Yahoo!, other program suppliers and other TV station owners.
Whatever Viacom does next, Mr. Redstone’s tough negotiating will likely prove key.
“I learned the art of negotiation in the early days,” he said. “To be a great CEO, you really have to be a great negotiator. When I was very young and dealing with the film companies, I negotiated morning, noon and night to get movies quickly and to pay the least possible for them. And today our film costs are about 10 percent less than any other circuit in the U.S.”
The ultimate negotiation may be ahead of him, since the spirited CEO, who makes a number of age-sensitive remarks in his book, wrestles with his own mortality.
“The only Achilles’ heel Sumner Redstone has is the possibility, rare as it is, that he will pass away,” Mr. Redstone said. “Well, I’m not going. Period. Let other people worry about the estate tax. Not me. I’m not going!”