It was Wednesday, November 10, 2004, 7:30 a.m. in London, England.
Alone, bleary-eyed and mainlining coffee, I’m seated at a table in Indigo Restaurant, within the confines of the very shi-shi One Aldwych Hotel. I’d arrived from New York the day before and would be doing the reverse commute the day after.
The purpose of my trip was a pending daylong ebookers plc board meeting — at that time a publically listed company whose board I sat on and were the ones kind enough to put me up at this trendy hotel. In July, a decision had been made to sell the company. Today, investment bankers from Credit Suisse were going to walk us through the various suitors’ offers. The company’s CFO was picking me up in the hotel lobby around 8:30 a.m.
Half glancing at the Financial Times, half trying to pull it together — the afte-reffect of a late night emptying wine bottles with an old colleague from my early-1990’s WPP days — I’m jolted by some rather spirited political chatter at the next table. I lift my throbbing noggin and look over towards the debate. Zeroing-in and shaking the cobwebs, “Holy crap, Rupert Murdoch and a few of his lieutenants, shooting the morning breeze.”
Going from groggy to wide-eyed in a flash, I’m thinking, “How fortuitous … hold on, run the checklist:
· When opportunity arises seize it — This is that.
· No gods, only people, on earth — Amen.
· Approach only if having something to offer — Big time.
· You don’t know if you don’t ask — A rare hold back.
· Don’t interrupt — Damn!!!
· There’s always a way — Exit stage left, Plan B time.”
The serendipity of the situation was uncanny. I’d recently heard from a friend on Wall Street that Murdoch had said in a meeting, with News Corp. investors, that he had looked at buying Monster Worldwide — my former employer — but its CEO & Control Shareholder, Andy McKelvey, wasn’t selling. No doubt easy for Rupert to understand as he was ensconced similarly at the much larger News Corp.
Meanwhile, no one wanted Monster sold more than me. Despite quitting in 2002 — over strategic, governance, and morality differences with McKelvey — I was still Monster’s second largest individual shareholder. I couldn’t bring myself to sell at share values depressed by managerial ineptitude — a long-running battle line between McKelvey and me. I’d been trying to get him to resign or auction off the then very valuable banana republic for at least five years.
When I first heard of Murdoch’s interest in Monster I wrote to McKelvey (and his board) to put him on notice, including the additive phrase also attributed to Murdoch about Monster, there would be a lot of buyers.”
Now was my chance to validate Murdoch’s interest and offer some insights. Looking at my watch, now about 8:15 a.m., I calmly motioned for the check, signed-off, packed-up, and headed for the elevator. Plan B? Back up to my room before going down to the lobby. Once in my room, I dropped my bag, plopped down at the desk and rifled through the drawers in search of the standard-issue hotel stationary. I began writing under the One Aldwych letterhead, something like:
I saw you and your team dining this morning but didn’t want to disturb you I’ve heard rumour that you might be interested in Monster Worldwide and were put off. I’m their former President/COO and, as far as I know, still their second largest individual shareholder — albeit diminutively so, in comparison to Andy McKelvey’s stake.
From my perspective, Monster is stewarded rather poorly and would be a perfect fit inside News Corp. for a variety of reasons… both large organic growth and expense-reduction opportunities…etc. … If this is of any interest to you I’d be more than happy to sit down and explore it sometime. If not, please forgive the intrusion… I’m in board meetings all day and head back to the United States tomorrow but you can always reach me at XXX-YYY-ZZZZ and/or [email protected]
I folded the note up, sealed it in a One Aldwych envelope and wrote on it, “RUPERT MURDOCH — PRIVATE & CONFIDENTIAL. ” Note in one hand, I grabbed my bag with the other and raced for the elevator — leaving my overcoat behind, thank goodness for a day of door-to-door car rides.
The elevator opened and I leapt into the lobby, aware that I was a bit late. The first thing I see is ebookers’ CFO, Michael Healy, smiling at me. After greetings, a quick apology, and Michael’s assuring me that we had more than enough time to arrive promptly for the board meeting, I asked for his indulgence for just another moment.
Zipping over to the hotel bellman: “Excuse me…good morning…I saw Rupert Murdoch upstairs at breakfast…I have no idea if he’s staying here, checked-out, whatever and I know you certainly aren’t allowed to tell me but if you would just do me this favour…” — handing him both the envelope I marked for Rupert and a twenty pound note — “…if he is staying here and not already left can you see that he gets this…if he’s not, or you cannot, no worries, just toss the note after I leave…thank you…enjoy your day…”
High-stepping back to Michael, jogging out the lobby door, hopping into his car and off to the board meeting.
The board presentations began around 9:30 a.m. and went into the early evening — a long gruelling day reviewing each of the proposals, contemplating the impacts of each on the various stakeholders (shareholders, clients, users, employees), agreeing a course of action, etc. Toss-in my minimal sleep, aching head and tuning in to fast-moving British accents, I was ready to hit the hay. But Michael and the investment bankers would have none of it. It was a hugely productive day and they were insistent on entertaining the board’s lone Yank. Who could refuse such hospitality?
Needless to say, they took me to a terrific restaurant. We had a sumptuous meal and the wine was flowing. Good company, fine food, some hair of the dog that bit me.
Feeling no pain or chill, despite no overcoat, I poured myself into a cab, at roughly midnight, for the trip back to One Aldwych and a much-needed repose, collapse perhaps a better description. On the ride back all I was thinking is “thank god I have nothing to do tomorrow but make an early afternoon plane, I can sleep-in.”
R-I-N-G — R-I-N-G — R-I-N-G — WTF??? Where am I? Oh yeah. Reaching for the phone, noting the clock, 6:15 AM, “Who’s calling me at 6:15 a.m.?” Looking around, jacket and shoes on the floor, shirt and suit pants still on, prone on top of the turndown service, oh boy… Hoarsely, “Hello?”
“Good morning, Jim. Is it you?”
“Who is this?”
“It’s RUPERT! I got your note. Can we meet for breakfast in a half hour?”
“Holy crap, again…he got the note, bless the bellman…this guy wastes no time if he has an interest…now what do I do…no way can I do this in a half hour…serious bedhead, stubble… must shower, shave, search for unwrinkled clothes…besides never good to look too eager…Rupert, I’m sorry but I had a few crazy nights here and don’t think I can make it in a half hour…”
Chuckling, “OK, Jim … I have a full schedule, was just trying to fit this in while we were both still here … I’ll get in touch with you when I’m back in the States … We can arrange a time to meet then … All right?”
“That would be great, Rupert…I’d look forward to that and am happy to travel to you at a place and time of your convenience…”
We finished-up and I’m thinking, “Hope he means it, damn wine…” Then I drifted back off to sleep — under the sheets.
So how did this all end up? Board meeting success and checklist validation!:
· I’d put Rupert out of my consciousness, figuring I blew it and he had moved on. Then on Monday, December 6th, the phone in my den office rang. I picked it up, “Jim? Is that you? It’s RUPERT!” Love how he dials himself, here a man after my own heart.
In the broader sense, as in whereto from here? Let’s leave it at a long story, with many episodes. There are many moving parts and consequence to all battles. For another time…
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