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Wright Retirement: Work, Good Works

Feb 12, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Bob Wright’s “retirement” role model is former “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw — not Jack Welch, the former chairman of NBC Universal parent company General Electric.

Mr. Wright, 63, will remain chairman of NBCU until May 1, when he relinquishes that title to GE Chairman Jeff Immelt. Mr. Wright will continue as vice chairman of GE.

Mr. Brokaw is now a bon vivant adventurer and occasional journalist. He advised Mr. Wright, who had led NBC since GE bought it in 1986, not to make any significant new commitments for the first few months after stepping away from leading the company. It’s too easy to make commitments that add up to no time for personal pursuits, Mr. Brokaw advised his friend.

“I also want to do personal things. I haven’t planned it out. I’m going to pace myself here,” Mr. Wright said after the announcement last week that Jeff Zucker would take over as NBCU president and CEO.

In comparison to Mr. Brokaw’s graceful retirement, when Mr. Welch stepped down he jettisoned a long-time wife and remarried amid a flurry of gossip-page headlines.

“My goal is to be on Page Six [at a happening night spot] at 5 a.m. on a Sunday morning with six bottles of vodka on my table and 23 people I’ve never seen before in my life,” Mr. Wright said with an infectious laugh.

More seriously, he will keep some commitments to NBCU, including a role in the battle against piracy, a key issue in NBCU’s digital future.

“I have a lot of unfinished business there,” he said. “There are other projects for GE that I can’t talk about now. But I’ve got to make decisions there, too, as to how much time I want to spend.”

He will have an office at GE headquarters in Fairfield, Conn., and at NBCU’s Manhattan headquarters, where he received a standing ovation at a town hall meeting the day after the management change was announced.

“I felt every bit of it,” he said. “I couldn’t get them to sit down.”

Perhaps more important, he’ll deepen his involvement with Autism Speaks, the organization he and wife Suzanne formed in early 2005 to raise awareness. The group’s profile has been raised by such things as being the subject of a challenge on the NBC reality show “The Apprentice” and staging awareness walks throughout the country.

He gives Mrs. Wright full credit for the bill authorizing $1 billion for autism research and education that was signed by President Bush in December 2006.

Basic research and talent have been consolidated at Autism Speaks through mergers with other autism groups.

“We’re making very good progress getting more and more money and doing it in an intelligent way,” he said.

Mr. Wright’s position as the top executive at NBCU has been invaluable in achieving the progress that Autism Speaks has made so for, but the corporate title is no longer essential.

“I’ve always enjoyed the marketing aspect of that,” he said. “I don’t have to be who I am and was to get that done.”