“Succession” in Real Life

Jonathan Crystal
Jonathan Crystal
CFO, Crystal & Company

Those of us involved with multi-generational family businesses are transfixed by HBO’s Succession. And why not? Generational transitions in the media industry have made for some of the most colorful business stories of the past decade. To wit: Shari Redstone’s efforts to maintain control over CBS and Viacom are playing out nearly daily. Meanwhile, Disney and Comcast’s near $80 billion fight for 21st Century Fox, is intimately connected to succession within the Murdoch family.

These families’ experiences should surprise no one. First-generation handoffs, from entrepreneur to successor generation, are notoriously prone to conflict. Meanwhile, the above-referenced family-controlled enterprises are publicly listed and subject to the media’s narcissistic self-scrutiny. In other words, these business transitions are high-wire acts under a glaring spotlight.

Meanwhile, compare the outcomes of third- and fourth-generation successions, like the Sulzbergers (New York Times) and Bancrofts (Dow Jones), which reflect the quality of family governance over generations. The Sulzbergers successfully transitioned the New York Times’ Board and Publisher to the next generation with barely any public notice. Conversely, the Bancroft family’s sale of the marquee Wall Street Journal in 2007 resulted in family acrimony and regret years later.

Bottom Line: The most interesting story to come may very well be at Bloomberg, where succession plans are inextricably connected to the founder’s political aspirations.

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