Sumner Redstone: Winning Above All Else.
"My goal is to be number one. I would like to be number one in anything I did. I don't say I can be. I don't say I should be. I'm saying I would like to be."
In 1979, Sumner Redstone, owner of a regional theater chain, was dangling by his hand from a hotel windowsill. A disgruntled employee at Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel had set a fire. Redstone was trapped in his room. The man in the room next to him walked out into the corridor and died. “I was enveloped in flames,” Redstone recalled. “The fire shot up my legs. The pain was searing. I was being burned alive.”
Redstone was rescued with third-degree burns on almost half of his body. His mangled right hand would forever remind him of that night.
“Determination is the key to survival. If I hadn’t learned that lesson before, I knew it well now.”
At the time of the fire, Redstone was getting bored with his successful chain of movie theaters. It lacked growth and excitement. At 56, he needed a new challenge. The fire seemed to rekindle his burning ambition to be number one on a bigger stage.
"I think I was always driven before, but out of that fire came most of the exciting things I have ever done."
Sumner Redstone’s story is fascinating in a scary way. Starting with his father’s regional chain of drive-in movie theaters, he battled his way through the full range of competitive forces and often faced them down in the courtroom. First, he fought his suppliers, the movie studios. Then he mastered competitive rivalry by setting up multiplexes, pushing the operators of drive-ins and single screens out of business. He saw the threat in substitution from cable TV and VHS video cassettes, so he bought Viacom (and later Blockbuster). To complete the vertical integration of his empire, he wanted his own studio, Paramount. In the process, he fought new distributors, the cable operators. The peak of his power coincided with the peak of the old-media world. Redstone had triumphed only to be toppled by the arrival of streaming and digital media.
After Redstone passed away in 2020, I read his autobiography (A Passion to Win) and biography (King of Content). His story looked familiar: an ambitious entrepreneur rises from running a small family business to become the tycoon of his industry. It looked like a crash course in dealmaking, discipline, and drive. But there was another side to him.
“The very ruthlessness that made Redstone a great businessman made him a terrible father,” his biographer wrote. “His relationship with his son, Brent, ended in 2006 when Brent sued him. His relationship with his daughter, Shari, had run hot and cold for decades, at one point becoming so strained that they communicated only by fax. Sumner had also squared off in court against his brother, his nephew, his wife, and his granddaughter. The theme running through much of the litigation was Sumner’s obsession for total control of the family business and his willingness to push aside anyone he had to, including — indeed, especially — his own flesh and blood, to get it.”
Things clicked for me when I read this assessment from Charlie Munger, quoted in Richer, Wiser, Happier: How the World’s Greatest Investors Win: “Almost nobody ever liked him, including his wives and his children. Sumner Redstone and I graduated from Harvard Law School about a year or so apart, and he ends up with more money than I did. So you can say he’s the success. But that’s not the way I look at it. And so I don’t think it’s just a financial game, and I think it’s better to do it the other way. … I use Sumner Redstone all my life as an example of what I don’t want to be.”
This was not the inspiring story of someone whose life I wanted to emulate. Still, I’m fascinated by the bright fire of people with the ambition to bend the world to their will, whose efforts alter entire industries — even if they are deeply flawed.
Redstone fought for control of his destiny in the media value chain, in his company, and within his family. I won’t focus on the latter. You can find the sordid details in King of Content or in Vanity Fair, the Daily Mail, and the tabloids. etc. Instead, I’ll try to find key lessons from his life.
Getting into business.
Fighting the power.
The second act.
Becoming the power.