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Netflix CEO deflects criticism with humor (and Albanian army dog tags)

January 8, 2011 |  9:27 am

Huffington Post Editor in Chief Arianna Huffington gave Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings a tongue-in-cheek opportunity to respond to some of the barbed comments leveled in recent weeks at the fast-growing subscription service by the head of media giant Time Warner.

As Hastings took the stage for a keynote conversation that was the highlight of the Consumer Electronics Show's Leaders in Technology dinner Friday in Las Vegas, Huffington described the former Peace Corps volunteer as "Jeff Bewkes' BFF" -- a tart reference to the Time Warner chief's caustic remarks about Netflix in the New York Times and CNBC. 

Bewkes, when asked about the competitive threat posed by the DVD and Internet subscription service, alternatively likened Netflix to the Albanian army and "a 200-pound chimp -- it's not an 800-pound gorilla."

"So which are you?" Huffington asked, eliciting laughter from the room.

Hastings described Bewkes as "one of the smartest people in the media industry," who built HBO into an entertainment leader whose programming had racked up "more Emmys than anyone."

"He's a very thoughtful guy," Hastings deadpanned, as he reached into his shirt to pull out a pair of dog tags. "When he says we're in the Albanian army, I guess he's right."

Huffington coaxed Hastings to talk about leadership -- and one early experience that informed his leadership style.

Hastings recalled how, as a 25-year-old software programmer, he would stay up all night, propelled by coffee. He'd leave an array of mugs on his desk. Once a week, he would discover the cups cleaned. One day, he arrived at work at 4 a.m. and walked into the bathroom to discover the company's CEO, sleeves rolled up, washing the collection of nasty cups.

"That whole time, I thought it was the janitor," said Hastings, who said this had been occurring for a year. He asked his boss why. "He said, 'You do so much for this company, this is the only thing I can do for you.' "

Hastings -- who told the audience he wanted to continue building Netflix into a thriving business so he would have more money to give to charities -- returned to the theme of humility when asked by Huffington what kept him up at night.

"Staying grounded," Hastings said, noting the heady experiences of landing on the cover of Fortune magazine as its businessperson of the year and the company's stock topping $200 a share. "People who go through that get consumed by it."

Hastings said he had a ritual that he performed while standing in front of the mirror, shaving.

"I turn on the faucet and feel the water, and I try to remember that this is a miracle that I can turn a ring and feel the hot, clean water."

-- Dawn C. Chmielewski