I’m a lucky guy in that I get to meet so many intriguing people when doing interviews for my books.
Robert Charles Wright is one such man.
Bob Wright enjoyed a stellar career in broadcast television, retiring in 2007 as Chairman and CEO of NBC TV (the oldest major broadcast network in the U.S.). He's been credited with overseeing the company's expansion into a media conglomerate and leading growth to record earnings. Not bad for a resumé that also features several executive positions with the network’s then parent, General Electric, culminating as GE's vice chairman, a role he retired from in 2008.
It was a real thrill for me to spend time with Bob at his stylish waterside residence in Palm Beach, Florida where I talked with him for my book “Pushing The Boundaries! How To Get More Out Of Life”.
Bob told me that his boss for much of his time at GE was the famed John Francis Welch, Jr. Now, I thought Jack Welch was a champion of business – let’s face it, during his tenure, GE's value rose 4,000% and Fortune named him "Manager of the Century"– but I’ve just read David Gelles’ book “The Man Who Broke Capitalism: How Jack Welch Gutted the Heartland and Crushed the Soul of Corporate America” and it tells a very different story (as you might guess by the book’s title).
Still, Bob Wright told me, “Jack was one of those 'Can-Do' guys. I got along with him well. He was a scientist... but a crazy scientist. I love that. And I did some things on the business side that were very attractive to Jack, so he said to me, 'Why don't you come over here [to the corporate side] full time.' You know Peter, he was a real carouser. He didn't need any sleep. He could drink you to death or run you to death or play hockey with you, and still get up the next day and be the first one at the office. He'd run ya! But that was not out of style at the time, in the 70s."
Welch liked the fact that Bob was always the guy asking what the real problem was. "People would say, 'We don't have enough money' and I'd say 'You're not spending it right. And by the way, before we try to get more money, you need to explain what’s happened to the money you’ve already spent.'"
Welch was also impressed by the way Bob changed how television covered the Olympics. “We were always in an auction against the other networks,” he told me, “so it became clear we had to have a different approach: to bid high, yes, but also have a program theory that was better than the other guys. We needed to offer more, but we also needed to get more return from it. So we took a look at a game plan that was wildly different, inventing a 'studio-in-a-box' kind of thing. We really pushed the boundaries on this... building a control studio for the Olympics that could last for 10 years! Not just for one set of Games, you understand, but use 'em, pack 'em up, store 'em and bring 'em back again in 4 years for the next one... make it work for a few cycles as opposed to using it once and then selling it at 20 cents on the dollar, which is what was normally done."
"Kind of like NASA's shuttle?" I suggested.
"Yes, exactly!" Bob said. "You're right, just like the shuttle. Periodically it would have to be updated, but then it was good for another 10 years. And the other part of it was programming. Problem was, you only have so much time on a single channel. So we came up with the idea of using a series of channels on Pay-TV. ‘
Bob mentioned that for the Olympics, NBC had a partner in Chuck Dolan of CableVision Systems. "50 million he had to spend and 50 million we had to spend at GE," he explains. "I remember Jack Welch telling me, 'You're gonna get killed on this, Bob! He doesn't have the money. He can't pay his share of the loss. I'm going to write it off.' I said, 'No, no, I talked to him and he says he's going to pay.' In the end, a guy came to my office and he says, 'Mr. Dolan has a note for you.' I opened it up and it was a check for $50M. So I went to Welch and said, 'I'm working on Dolan,' and he says, 'Don't waste your time,' And I said ‘Well, I got this note from him,' and handed over the cheque. Welch looks at it and says, 'I can’t effing believe it!!' And he was thrilled because it made him look good too. We still lost $50M but the next time, we were better prepared with cable. Now we had MSNBC, CNBC, and we took those channels and converted the programming to cover parts of the Olympics that people never get to see: equestrian, boxing, wrestling... that went over very well. And when we added a channel, we'd add more programming. So it was all about looking at things differently, thinking outside the box, pushing the boundaries... and it worked!"
My take-away is that Jack Welch may well have ushered in a new, cutthroat era of American capitalism, yet he still created a hugely profitable enterprise that at the time did not appear to be the root of all that’s wrong with business today. And he also promoted stars like Bob Wright who created imaginative solutions to business challenges.
"Thanks for asking intriguing questions,” Bob told me as I left. “Come again, I've enjoyed this."
I’ll do that for sure when next in Palm Beach. Meanwhile, I invite you to read more about the amazing Bob Wright in Chapter 7 of “Pushing The Boundaries! How To Get More Out Of Life” (pushingtheboundaries.life).