City: Father Time

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The Independent Online
IN ALMOST every respect, the death last week of Steve Ross, chairman of Time Warner, represents the passing of an era. Mr Ross was one of the most remarkable business success stories of modern times. From humble Brooklyn beginnings, he began his working career as an undertaker. Taking in New York parking lots along the way, he rescued Warner Brothers from a seemingly irreversible slide into obscurity and built a thriving communications empire on its back.

But perhaps his most remarkable achievement was to persuade Time Inc, the very face of establishment publishing in the US, to overpay hugely for Warner, and then slide effortlessly into the chief executive's job. Along the way, he became the highest- paid executive in the US and a symbol of 1980s-style corporate greed and excess. His various remuneration wheezes - ranging from shadow options to deferred bonuses - secured him total pay of dollars 275m over 15 years, with a potential dollars 336m to come in stock option profits. But by God, did he do a good job for shareholders.

In the last year or so, however, his influence has been largely destructive. Everyone thought Mr Ross was recovering from prostrate cancer, and while there was any chance of him making a comeback, nothing could change at Time Warner. The picture was one of drift and inaction. Like some absentee landlord, he seemed to dominate the company even from his sickbed. Time Warner has a massive debt problem to correct, another of Mr Ross's legacies. For the conservative old guard at Time Inc, which can now be expected to re- establish itself, Mr Ross's demise came not a moment too soon.