STEVEN ROSS, the smooth-talking New Yorker who parlayed a mortician's charm into a post as Hollywood's biggest sugar daddy, will be remembered either as the father of Time Warner, the world's largest media conglomerate, or as the man who made Madonna a multi-billionaire.
A brilliant dealmaker, Ross was a studio executive who not only understood how to relate to those he termed 'talent', but also had an uncanny feel for how the 'entertainment software' business - as he would also say - was being revolutionised by technology in the past two decades. Ross enjoyed telling people that show business was not all that different from the funeral business, where he got his start working at a Manhattan mortuary run by his first father-in-law. Both are 'people businesses', he would say, and his effortless passage from consoling bereaved relatives to stroking fragile celebrity egos suggests he was on to something. The studio's fleet of corporate jets and helicopters were always at the disposal of some self-important rock star or under-appreciated board member, and when some celeb decided he or she needed a facelift, Warner was only too happy to pick up the tab.
For Ross, who seemed to crave proximity to stardom even while he exploited it, this was the best part of business. The rest, the nuts and bolts of corporate governance, he was always willing to delegate to trusted lieutenants. They rarely let him down, from the time his family firm - by 1969, a publicly traded hodge- podge of parking lots and limousine services - snapped up faded Warner Brothers-Seven Arts, through its extraordinary growth in the 1970s and 1980s, and throughout the past year, while he lay stricken with cancer.
Ross instead fancied himself a dreamer, and it will be a decade before we will know if his vision of a global multi-media industry has been borne out. But almost all his earlier bets paid off, from video cassettes to cable television to MTV, America's first music-video channel. His last big wager on the 'hardware' side was interactive cable, and he never gave a speech in the 1990s that did not mention the experimental 150-channel system that has turned the people of Queens, New York, into a population of couch potatoes.
But it was in the controversial merger of free-wheeling Warner with the more conservative Time group in 1989 that Ross most definitively combined his willingness to gamble on the future with his mastery of the art of the deal. The company that emerged, with holdings that dominate industries ranging from television production to music recording to magazine publishing to theme parks, is a reflection of Ross's belief that there ultimately will be only one 'show business' - that the future of the entertainment, communications and electronics industries will be a multi-media one.
The merger with Time, however, was also one of the great business coups of the decade - for Warner shareholders and managers, at least, who sold their shares to the hapless Time for dollars 14bn and managed to remain in control of the new global conglomerate. And in the end, Ross proved to be his own best sugar daddy, rewarding himself with dollars 73m-worth of perks as part of the merger deal. Ross, who for all of his risk- taking never owned more than 1 per cent of Warner's shares, died with Time Warner - still some dollars 10bn in debt as a result of the merger - owing his estate as much as dollars 300m in salary, death benefits, bonuses and stock options.
'Steve Ross's clarity of vision, exceptional intellect and personal magnetism were the driving force behind Time Warner,' his successor, Gerald Levin, said in a statement issued on his death. The very same day, however, Levin forced the resignations of a half-dozen Ross loyalists from the Time Warner board, expressing concern about 'the influence of insiders'.
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