Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Team Riding the Tiger

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

The Team Riding the Tiger

Article excerpt

John W. Madigan, you've just pulled off the biggest newspaper deal in history and catapulted Tribune Co. into the elite ranks of national media players. Where are you going now? Not to Disney World. That wouldn't be the Madigan way.

"I hope it is a short ingestion period," Madigan says, allowing himself the only laugh in an interview, "and I hope after that we hit our targets and our goals. We want to create value quickly."

Another CEO might be tempted to brag a little in the wake of Tribune Co.'s $8-billion acquisition of Times Mirror Co. By any standard, this was a big deal. By newspaper standards, it was titanic. Not simply for the numbers involved - which were nearly seven times larger than any previous blockbuster deal - but also for the sheer audacity of convincing the Chandler family, and the much more reluctant nonfamily board members, to part with one of the best media brand names in the United States.

Yet, Chairman and CEO Madigan is eager to credit the acquisition to the team he has assembled in the executive suites of the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower in Chicago. There's even irritation in his voice as he discusses how the deal came about."Everybody is writing this up as a CEO thing. That isn't the way things usually happen," Madigan says.

Certainly not at Tribune. A group had been in place for some time looking around for just this kind of acquisition or partnership. "Our organization did this as a team," Madigan says. "We conceived the idea through the planning process. Part of that process was thinking, 'What are the major moves we could make to transform the company? What do we have to do to make it happen?' It happened through dedication, through wanting to make moves or a move that would make us significantly better."

That emphasis on process long contributed to the idea that Tribune Co. was a "conservative" corporation - another notion that irritates the courtly Madigan ever so slightly. "There should be nothing shocking about this," he says. "It is just more of our strategy to be an important competitor in major markets. That's what we're all about."

If people have an image of a conservative, reticent Tribune, one small reason may be Madigan's personal style. His idea of Casual Day, it sometimes seems, is to take off his dark suit jacket. His banker's demeanor has deep roots. Tribune's CEO since 1995 and its chairman since 1996, Madigan, 62, began his business career in 1960 as a financial analyst with Duff & Phelps Inc. in Chicago. After a stint with the accounting firm Arthur Anderson & Co., Madigan pursued his second career as an investment banker, first as a vice president with Paine Webber and then, in 1969, with Salomon Brothers.

An investment banker was just what Tribune Co. needed in the mid-1970s as it began laying plans to go public. Madigan joined Tribune in 1975 as vice president and chief financial officer and was quickly added to the board of directors.

Recruited to Tribune by then-Chairman Stanton R. Cook, Madigan's banker eye proved even more invaluable under Cook's successor, Charles T. Brumback. At a time when computers were showing up everywhere in newspapers - but not on the desks of top executives - Brumback was a rare technology enthusiast who was online from the very start of the 300-baud network services. Brumback was no hobbyist. He believed computer services would prove crucial to newspapers - and because, like everyone else, he could not know which new services would pan out and which would not, he had Madigan and others spread around Tribune's bets on likely ventures.

Some, such as the company's investments in America Online and the WB network, proved wildly successful. Others, such as its investment in the Peapod computer grocery delivery service, proved shaky. It was all research and development, Brumback used to say, and it's a pattern Madigan has continued through Tribune Ventures. …

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