Ambitious upstart builds his own financial empire MICHAEL BLOOMBERG -- TERMINAL MAN

November 21, 1993|By David Conn | David Conn,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- The 15th-floor reception area of the building at 59th Street and Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan is a frenzy of contrasts.

Men in gray-flannel suits sit in tiny glass-enclosed conference rooms; long-haired, blue-jeaned techies stride on a spiral stairway that leads to the floors above and below. Harried employees grab snacks from counters in the middle of the room, while tropical fish float serenely in aquariums stuck in the middle of support columns.

Into this madness enters the nonstop Michael R. Bloomberg. He fields questions from employees, grabs a couple of 30-second ++ phone calls and squeezes in a brief chat with visiting executives from Nintendo Co. Ltd. Then he settles into a small conference room tucked behind his desk in a futuristic beehive of a newsroom.

This is ground zero of the exploding Bloomberg Financial Markets empire. It reflects the manic productivity of its 51-year-old founder, a brilliant, driven and occasionally bawdy former Salomon Bros. partner and Johns Hopkins University engineering graduate -- who now heads the school's fund-raising committee.

In less than a dozen years, Mr. Bloomberg has built a financial media empire in his own image: smart, aggressive and quick on its feet. Starting with a computer that provides financial data, the company has expanded into news, radio, magazine publishing and now television, with the planned January launch of a business-news program with Maryland Public Television.

Meanwhile, his company is eroding the information monopoly that the biggest Wall Street investment firms have held for a generation and is helping to create a more public market for all kinds of fixed-income investments. His secret: understanding Wall Street's insatiable appetite for faster and better information.

Lately, his competitors, principally Reuters Holdings Plc. and Dow Jones & Co., have turned up the heat, with new products and services and far deeper pockets to support them. And skeptics wonder whether Mr. Bloomberg's hands-on style remains viable for a company that does business in 140 countries.

For now, though, Mr. Bloomberg "is certainly the center of conversation when the industry gathers," said Stephen C. Keeble, president of CDA Investment Technologies in Rockville.

An overachiever from the start, Mr. Bloomberg let his acerbic personality cut short his career at Salomon, where he lost a political battle and then lost his job in 1981. With tons of money and no other job offers, the Harvard Business School graduate came up with a computer terminal that gave fixed-income investors access to a variety of bond-pricing information.

More important, "The Bloomberg," as the machine is modestly called, gave customers the ability to make historical comparisons of bonds and to perform complex analyses of the data in seconds -- a skill previously confined to a few Wall Street "rocket scientists."

Bolstered by a $30 million investment from Merrill Lynch & Co., its first supplier of bond prices, Bloomberg has grown to more than 1,300 employees, with a news service that has 40 bureaus worldwide. Its 2,000-plus news articles a day are provided at no extra charge to Bloomberg subscribers (and to more than 50 newspapers -- including The Sun -- that use the terminals for free).

Last year, Bloomberg began publishing a glossy monthly magazine, free to subscribers of the computer terminal. This year, it bought a New York radio station and created the 24-hour all-news WBBR-AM, which is not profitable but is beginning to syndicate its programming to other stations, including WTOP in Washington. And in January, it will start a 15-minute morning business-news show, co-produced by Maryland Public Television.

That rapid growth has boosted annual revenue to more than $400 million, and observers say the company is profitable. Mr Bloomberg won't comment on profitability but says the company has a simple goal -- "to provide all of the information our customers need to do their jobs."

The Massachusetts native, who owns about 70 percent of the company, seems bent on doing that almost single-handedly. A workaholic, Mr. Bloomberg jogs at 5 each morning and flies his small jet on weekends. And he spends more time than ever on charities and nonprofit groups. He visits Baltimore twice a month as a Hopkins trustee and chairman of its fund-raising committee -- Mr. Bloomberg donated $5 million toward the new physics and astronomy building that bears his name.

"I think that anybody who is repetitively successful has a deep-seated need to constantly prove themselves," he said, in one of his practiced quotations for reporters. "You could call that an inferiority complex if you want to."

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