Sumner Redstone at Global Conference: "Take risks"
His father, Michael “Mickey” Redstone, didn’t live to see his son’s unqualified success in the business world. Sumner Redstone -- who controls two of the world’s preeminent media companies, Viacom Inc. and CBS Corp. -- has memories of his father that were etched during the Depression when the family lived in a West Boston tenement.
“I can remember him carrying rolls of linoleum on his back,” Redstone said Wednesday during an appearance at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills. “He believed in hard work. He had to work hard, and I had to work hard.”
The title of the Global Conference session was “What it Means to be an Entrepreneur: A conversation with Sumner Redstone.” Redstone was interviewed by Michael Milken, and the two men hadn’t gotten too far into their dialogue when Redstone groused that more than a quarter of a century ago, Milken charged him “an extra quarter-percent interest” on a loan that Redstone took out to begin building his empire.
Redstone still seemed peeved. “I’ve been paying for it ever since,” Milken lamented.
The legacy of Redstone -- who is three weeks shy of his 89th birthday --- has been written by many, including by Redstone himself. And, on Wednesday, Redstone told his story again to a standing room crowd in a small conference room at the Beverly Hilton.
The secret to success, the mogul said, was: “You have to be in control of your destiny. You can’t work for anyone else. It’s not about money, it’s about winning. You have to have a passion to win.” (That’s also the title of Redstone’s 2001 autobiography.)
“I’ve taken some perilous risks. But I never took them unless I was confident that the rewards far outweighed the risk,” Redstone said.
Perhaps his biggest risk was the hostile corporate take-over, in 1987, of Viacom Inc., then a cable television company with some puny channels named MTV and Nickelodeon. Investment bankers wanted Redstone to sell the channels to pay down debt. Redstone refused.
Now MTV and Nickelodeon are Viacom's financial engines.
“My father, he always thought I was taking too big of a risk on Viacom. He said, 'You’re betting your life on Viacom.' I told him that I wanted to,” Redstone told the group. “Unfortunately, he never lived to see the success of Viacom.”
Viacom now is valued at $27 billion. (CBS, Redstone's other company, has a $22-billion market cap.)
“I saw that content was king; I coined that phrase decades ago,” Redstone told Milken and the group, which included CBS Chief Executive Leslie Moonves; Mel Karmazin, chief executive of Sirius XM Radio Inc. and former chief operating officer of Viacom; CBS board member Arnold Kopelson; movie producer Robert Evans; music producer Quincy Jones; and former CBS personality Mary Hart.
Milken asked Redstone how he judged talent in the executive suite, although Milken didn’t mention the gallery of executives that Redstone, over the years, booted to the curb (including Karmazin in 2004).
Milken did mention one piece of talent. Tom Cruise, one of the most bankable stars ever for Viacom’s movie studio, Paramount Pictures, was dismissed by Redstone in 2006. “His behavior was terrible; he was jumping on couches,” Redstone said. “Women hated him, a lot of people said they would never come to see another one of his movies. And he made $10 million on the Paramount lot for doing nothing!”
But a few years later, Redstone said, Cruise told him that he wanted to make pictures for Paramount again. Redstone said he said yes, but also told Cruise, “You won’t get the same deal.”
“Today he’s one of my best friends,” Redstone said. “I’ve been for dinner to the house that he shares with his wife, Katie. And today, 'Mission Impossible' is grossing more than any other 'Mission Impossible' before it. It's on track to gross $700 million. People came back to the movies to see him.”
These days, Redstone has trouble getting around so he doesn't get out as much as he used to. But he said he watches a lot of golf on TV (“Tiger [Woods] will never make it again. He’s done,” Redstone predicted). Redstone also oversees his tanks full of exotic fish in his Beverly Park home.
“When you look at the fish, you relax. When you look at the fish, your blood pressure goes down,” Redstone said, adding that despite being worth nearly $4.5 billion, he still has stress in his life.
Milken and Redstone often discuss healthy diets, Milken said.
“I eat and drink every antioxidant known to man, and I also drink red wine every night," Redstone said "It, fortunately, prevents aging so it is of particular interest to me.”
-- Meg James
Photo: Sumner Redstone poses with his Hollywood Walk of Fame star. Credit: Paul Buck / EPA