leadership

The end of an era: Five secrets of Rupert Murdoch, empire builder

Myriam Robin /

It’s an awfully humbling day for the world’s last newspaper baron. Rupert Murdoch is splitting his empire, and his newspaper assets are the undisputed orphan of the arrangement.

Murdoch’s made his choice: once the split gains regulatory approval, he will be CEO and chairman of the entertainment business.

He’ll also be chairman of the publishing assets, but he won’t be the CEO. It’s not clear who will be at this point.

It’s a testament to Murdoch’s business savvy that there are two businesses, one of them booming, to split at this point. Many other newspaper owners wish they had so diversified.

Murdoch’s been facing a lot of heat lately, especially in the United Kingdom, where he has faced an inquiry into phone hacking by some of his staff.

Leaders would do well to avoid his more blatant excesses, but there is also much to emulate in the feisty octogenarian’s leadership style.

1) His ability to reinvent his business and push into new industries

Murdoch inherited a newspaper, the Adelaide News, but today the majority of his wealth comes from his entertainment assets. He bought 20th Century Fox in 1985, and book publisher HarperCollins in 1989. And he perceived the importance of social media and bought MySpace in 2005. Though that play ultimately lost him a lot of money, it shows that Murdoch knew social media was important. He just backed the wrong horse.

Today, Murdoch heads a media conglomerate with a market value of $US53 billion ($AU52.74 billion). He’d never have gotten there with just newspapers.

Even today he’s open to new things. Not many eighty-two year olds are on Twitter. Hell, many fifty-year olds aren’t on Twitter. While Murdoch’s Twitter adventures haven’t been without hiccups, and he uses the social network sporadically, the fact that he’s created an account shows he’s curious and keen to stay on top of what the “youngsters” are doing these days.

2) His breadth of vision

A lot of Australian entrepreneurs don’t stray far beyond our shores. But Murdoch was always keen to expand globally. Today, News Corp owns assets in Australia, New Zealand, the UK, America, Italy, Hong Kong, and India, to name a few.

Murdoch was globally-minded long before it became fashionable. After buying up papers in Australia and New Zealand in the 1950s and 60s, Murdoch bought the UK’s News of the World more than 50 years ago in 1969 (the title closed last year amidst the phone hacking scandal).

He bought the San-Antonio Express News in America in 1973, and he moved to New York himself a year later. He ditched his Australian passport when it made business sense, becoming an American citizen in 1985 so as to buy the television stations that would go on to become the Fox Broadcasting Company.

3) His tenacity and longevity

Murdoch could have retired years ago, but there he is, still heading his empire at 82. Staying power is his big gun.

As Reuters columnist Jack Shafer has written, “Rupert Murdoch has endured more crises during his 80-plus years than Richard Nixon and Odysseus combined”. He fought the British printing unions in 1986, and won. He was nearly bankrupt by 1990, but secured a bail out.

He’s outmanoeuvred investors such as rival media baron John Malone, who in 2005 threatened the Murdoch family hegemony over News Corp by buying up 16.8% of News Corp’s stock (of which around half were voting shares), before Murdoch reached an arrangement to cement his family’s control.

He’s gambled, lost and won online. And he’s been declared to be “not a fit and proper person” by the British parliament.

But there he is, still fighting, planning, investing and changing. Nothing keeps Murdoch down for long.

4) His love of the newspaper business

Murdoch isn’t in it for the money alone. He’s known for having a keen interest in his newspapers, and to be a forensic reader of them. Murdoch insiders for years have pointed out his allegiance to print, and he himself speaks convincingly of his love for the press and its power to speak for, and to, the masses.

Murdoch is often accused of having no allegiances and no loyalties. But to journalism, few doubt his passion.

5) His networking and media-management

A lot of business leaders shun networking. Murdoch is so good at it he’s been hauled before a parliamentary inquiry in the UK to explain just how close he got to politicians.

His businesses, it must be said, have been a tool of political influence.

Networking is often a nicer name for lobbying, and it’s reasonable to say Murdoch strayed too close to the dark side. But all business leaders need to network, and Murdoch’s known for years that who you know is just as important as what you do.

Part of this is his willingness to change his friends, and his allegiances if it suits him. Murdoch’s media assets often lean to the right-wing, but he is more than happy for them to back left-wing politicians if it looks like they’re going to win. By backing winners, he has their ear when they’re in power.

Murdoch also apologises for his mistakes. Publically. Why? Well, when Shafer asked long-time Murdoch-watcher Ken Auletta for some management tips from the mogul, Auletta told him Murdoch knew “public memories are short, so apologies are inexpensive”.

When Murdoch fronted the phone-hacking committee, he said it was “the most humble day of [his] life”. It led most papers the next day, and sounded the note of contrition many wanted to hear. And on January 13th, he Tweeted that his company “screwed up MySpace in every way possible”.

Murdoch’s apologies may be sincere, or they may not. Regardless, they play well. It’s taken a long time for public opinion to cement as solidly against Murdoch as it has in recent months.

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Myriam Robin

Myriam Robin is a reporter for SmartCompany and its sister site LeadingCompany. She has degrees in economics, international studies and journalism. She likes writing about businesses taking risks and doing new things.

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