NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- Sumner Redstone, the 84-year-old chairman of Viacom Inc., is the luckiest executive in the world. Come to think of it, he just may be the luckiest person on the planet -- and it's not because he is rich and famous and accomplished.
Redstone, who once saved himself by clinging to the window ledge of a Boston hotel while fire raged inside, is fortunate because he doesn't need a succession plan. Nor does he require an heir apparent, as he keeps dismissing them in rapid (rabid?) succession.
The reason Sumner is such a lucky man is that he must have convinced himself that he will live forever.
Otherwise, why would the media maestro, whose corporate assets include CBS, MTV, Showtime and Nickelodeon, continue to scrap one No. 2 after another? The latest one to fall out was Shari Redstone, his 53-year-old daughter.
I've interviewed Sumner Redstone twice: once when his memoirs were published, and again when the shares of the newly divided Viacom debuted on the New York Stock Exchange. What struck me was his vigor and feistiness. At the NYSE, we had to wait a few minutes to get some technical glitch cleared up, and you would've thought by his impatience that he had been told to sit tight for an hour.
Redstone was ready to bolt but I managed to coax him into staying. When the red light went on, he was charming and self-aware, as usual when a camera is rolling. (Check out the installment of "Iconoclasts," the documentary series that featured him and movie producer Brian Grazer. It's an example of Redstone at his best.)
Sumner wants to be taken seriously on Wall Street, but it's hard to imagine his unpredictable behavior is doing wonders for the image he covets, that of thoughtful strategist. His luck will run out. Lauren Silva of Breakingviews.com made an apt analogy when she compared Redstone to King Lear.
Investors value stability and disdain screaming headlines such as "Redstone Split Bears on Future of Viacom, CBS" (Wall Street Journal) and "Family Feud at CBS and Viacom" (New York Times), both of which appeared on Friday.
Viacom's Class B stock jumped nearly 3% on Thursday, immediately following the disclosure of the Redstones' split. A money manager told me that was more a result of the Street showing its relief about Shari's fate, than an endorsement for her father's assertiveness. CBS Corp. eked out a gain that day, too.
Don't get too close
Shari is not the first executive close to Redstone -- too close, evidently -- that ended up under a bus. She isn't even the first member of her family to have a falling-out with her fiery father.
You could hold a perfectly congenial cocktail party by inviting only the victims of the imperious Redstone.
I can picture how it might go: "Shari, meet Mel Karmazin. He used to run CBS. Over here is Tom Freston, who was booted because Sumner fretted that he was too slow on the draw in buying growing online properties.
"Surely you recognize your brother, Brent, a charter member of Sumner's Ex-Children's Club. Technically, Brent hadn't emerged as a clear successor to your dad, but was excommunicated just the same. The familiar-looking gentleman in the corner is Tom Cruise, the couch-jumping guy.
"Sumner cut ties with Cruise, you'll remember, not too long after he went wild on 'Oprah' professing his love for Katie Holmes, and doing some other things that Sumner thought were flaky."
There may well have been others in Sumner's back pages ("I was so much older then/I'm younger than that now"). But since this is the Internet age, and nobody wants to be burdened with ancient history, I've only gone back a couple of years.
Lots of company
Not that Redstone is the first aging mogul to act impulsively to fend off hard-charging associates. Every industry is rife with case studies.
For instance, Sandy Weill of Citigroup Inc. was crticized for losing his well-regarded second in command, Jamie Dimon, and for staying in control for too long.
This succession issue pops up everywhere.
Right now, callers jump on New York talk-radio stations and speculate that New York Yankees manager Joe Torre has lost his fastball and should be replaced by Joe Girardi. A much younger man than Torre, Girardi is a former major-league skipper and currently a broadcaster who seems to be the Yankees manager in waiting.
Rumor has it Girardi turned down an opportunity to manage the floundering Baltimore Orioles, because he felt he had a good shot at landing the Yankee job after the end of the season.
The autumn of Sumner
Redstone may well have been correct to deduce that all of his former prospects for succession weren't up to snuff. But I wonder whether he recognizes how wacky he looks in the execution.
He may have been right about Karmazin, et al. The question remains why can't this executive manage to find a successor?
The answer seems simple enough: He just doesn't want to.
MEDIA WEB QUESTION OF THE DAY: Does Redstone make Viacom more attractive as an investment vehicle, or less appealing?
MONDAY REPORT CARD: The semihysterical tone of the coverage of Amy Jacobson, the former TV reporter in Chicago, was over the top. Every story I saw got around to mentioning that she was wearing a bathing suit (two-piece, ye gads), as if that mattered in the slightest. Yes, she showed questionable judgment and she will be a cautionary tale. But if a man had been caught in the same ethical lapse, I doubt that anyone would have felt a need to describe his poolside wardrobe.
READERS RESPOND to my column on Brian Lamb of C-Span: "He may be registered independent, but he certainly leans left. He is so much tougher on Republicans. Nice puff piece." Michael Constantinou
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By Jon Friedman