Media: Welcome to the family, Wendy

Rupert Murdoch is said to be `besotted' with his new bride, Wendy Deng. More importantly, he admires her business acumen and her understanding of China. But where will she fit into the family business? By Stephen Vines
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The Independent Culture
Rupert Murdoch has now revealed that Peter Chernin will succeed him as the head of his media empire, keeping the seat warm for a family member, when they "are ready". This raises the intriguing question of what role the newest family member will play. Wendy Deng (or Deng Wendi in Chinese), 31, a former television executive, is settling into her new existence as Mrs Rupert Murdoch III.

All the signs point to her interest in playing a role in the family business.

Ever since Ms Deng managed to get out of China she has demonstrated a ruthless determination to improve herself, rise rapidly in the business world and work like the clappers to achieve these aims.

Lachlan Murdoch, the heir apparent to the Murdoch News Corp empire, knew Ms Deng during her days working at the Murdoch-controlled Star TV satellite network in Hong Kong, and is well aware that the emergence of a new spouse for the 68-year-old media tycoon will, at best, complicate his aspirations to take over the family business.

A News Corp executive who worked with Ms Deng while she was in Asia, says that besides being "besotted" with her, Rupert Murdoch is attracted by having a partner who shares his business and media interests and, this is the point, understands what he is doing. She particularly understands the media scene in China which, alongside the Internet, is Rupert Murdoch's latest focus of attention. Asked, a couple of years ago, where he saw the future of the company, he answered in four words: "China, China, China and China."

Wendy Deng has now formally resigned from her position as a vice-president at Star TV but it is hard to imagine that, at the very least, she will have nothing to do with the company's China plans. It is more likely that, formally or informally, she will seek a wider role.

Lachlan, the oldest son; Elisabeth, the only daughter; and James, the youngest son, occupy formal positions within Murdoch's News Corp empire. Both Lachlan and Elisabeth are running major parts of the business. The new Mrs Murdoch will not be readily accepted by them as an equal and there may be some unease if she is given a part of the company to run.

However, Wendy Deng has demonstrated an ability to live with unease and a determination to burst through barriers which appeared to have been lowered. As one of her colleagues put it: "She was very keen to learn as much as she could from anyone, if it would improve her career." A less benign view of her determination comes from a female acquaintance in Peking who claims that Miss Deng told her that as far as boyfriends were concerned "she didn't care if they were young or old, as long as they are rich".

Much remains murky about Ms Deng's background, not least because she was careful to withhold information even from colleagues working quite closely with her. Some of her Chinese colleagues, for example, were not even aware that she originates from the dirt poor Shangdong Province in the north east of China. The confusion arises because her family moved south to Guangdong Province where she learned to speak the local Cantonese language.

A decade ago she realised a life long ambition of leaving China to live in America, thanks to the sponsorship of an American sports goods manufacturer, whom she is reported to have married. However in Los Angeles she lived alone. Once in the US Wendy Deng enrolled for an economics degree course at California State University and set about perfecting her English, which is now so good that many people believe her to be a Chinese American.

As well as studying, Ms Deng plunged into the business world having befriended China's most famous athlete, the triple-Olympic gold-winning Li Ning. She helped Mr Li run a gym he had opened in Los Angeles, and started her own import and export business.

Although she could presumably have made a reasonable living by developing these interests, Ms Deng quickly realised that the route to senior management in really big companies required a masters in business administration (MBA). She won a place at Yale, which offers one of the best business studies courses in America. While there, she realised that her most marketable skill lay in Hong Kong where Chinese speaking MBAs from prestigious American universities are at a premium.

The story of how she got a job at Star reads likes something like a tale from a too-coincidental novel. However, it is no fiction. Like all MBA candidates Ms Deng was required to serve an internship in a big company before graduating. In what her colleagues describe as a characteristic Deng-style move, she invested in a airline ticket at the front end of a plane going to Hong Kong and struck up a relationship with the man sitting next to her. He was Bruce Churchill, one of the top executives at Star.

Mr Churchill fixed her up with an internship in the business development department, a fairly menial job which she worked hard to expand and used to make contacts with everyone who mattered at Star. By the time she had finished being an intern she was offered a full-time job once she got her degree.

At Star business development mainly meant getting a toe-hold in the vast Chinese media market. People got the impression that she was well connected in Peking, although the truth was that her most influential Chinese contact was Li Ning, whom she knew from America. The other contacts only came after she started to work for Star TV.

However, Ms Deng is an impressive networker and cultivator of useful contacts, so she quickly got to know the Chinese officials responsible for media activities.

Colleagues at Star were blown off their feet by her ability to cultivate useful friendships. When she was still a humble intern - finishing her stint before returning to America - she made a point of going round the entire office warmly embracing everyone who mattered and telling them how much she would miss them. Some recipients of her embraces were quite bemused as they hardly knew her.

As soon as she landed in Hong Kong she set about socialising with all the people who mattered in the former colony's small community of international television companies. She even shared a flat with one of them, Steve Smith, who now runs Channel V, the pop music television station in Asia. Not only did she know a lot about the business, but she quickly took up the pastimes most enjoyed by these senior executives types. It is no coincidence that she has a more than decent golf handicap.

The peak of her networking success came in late 1996 when she flew back to Hong Kong from a business meeting in Peking to attend a cocktail party given in Rupert Murdoch's honour. The great man quite likes chatting to younger staff members to see if they have any bright ideas. Usually it is a perfunctory chat. But with Ms Deng he chatted, and chatted, and chatted until the other people at the party started to wonder what was going on.

Afterwards he told one of the executives present: "We need more people like that in the office." Shortly afterwards Ms Deng emerged as the person who accompanied Rupert Murdoch in China and acted as his assistant. She was promoted to the post of vice-president, a definite step up the ladder, but not close to the top, as there are quite a number of vice-presidents on the lower rungs.

Slowly word spread among the staff that she was something more than a simple assistant. At first Murdoch's long time executives did not believe the story because he was not known as a womaniser. However, definitive intelligence was supplied from the less-elevated, but rather better-informed drivers who took the boss and his new girlfriend to various wining and dining establishments.

Some of her former Star colleagues simply describe her as a woman with an eye to the main chance and little hesitation about using her charm to get as far as she could go. Others acknowledge that she is genuinely smart, diligent and has a good grasp of the business.

Once the nature of the Deng-Murdoch relationship was known inside Star - although remarkably kept under wraps for about a year - Wendy Deng's position in the company became less clear. She was involved in the high level dealings with the Chinese, although in seniority terms she was not a crucial decision-maker.

When she finally started living with Mr Murdoch at New York's swanky Mercer Hotel, she was still nominally employed by the company in Hong Kong, although it is safe to assume that no one was making it their business to question her absence.

She now only has one job title to put on her passport. However, the word "housewife" is an unlikely description of either what the new Mrs Murdoch does, or wants to do.

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