When wheeler-dealer Steve Ross played the game, worlds would collide

April 24, 1994|By Steve Daley | Steve Daley,Chicago Tribune

As she did in "The Predators' Ball," her deliciously revelatory portrait of Michael Milken and the junk-bond gang, Connie Bruck weaves fact and anecdote in "Master of the Game," which examines the life and career of Time Warner deal maker Steve Ross and is nothing short of dazzling.

Giving her complex subject more than his due, Ms. Bruck peels away the congratulatory mythology that grew up around Ross. He was the one-time Brooklyn, N.Y., undertaker who, before his death in December 1992, brokered the creation of the largest entertainment and media corporation on the planet and helped redefine American entrepreneur.

Ross, it seems, possessed all the requisite characteristics of the captain of industry save the willingness to risk his own money. Whether it was a funeral parlor, a parking-garage venture or a movie studio, he never held more than 1 or 2 percent of the company shares. Examining the course of Ross' career, Ms. Bruck also reveals the remarkable ways in which such modern-day barons of business can dodge accountability, often with the help of those people and institutions charged with protecting stockholders.

The circumstances of Ross' life and his rise to the corporate pantheon are beguiling. Born Steven Rechnitz, educated in public schools, he attended a vocational college in upstate New York and labored in the garment industry.

During the 1950s he parlayed his father-in-law's funeral home business into several new ventures, including a parking-garage business and a limousine company. Then, in 1969, he purchased the moribund Warner-Seven Arts film and record company for $400 million.

From there, Ross charmed and wheedled his way into control of a vast amalgam of communications entities -- comprising movies, cable TV, sports franchises, magazines and the Atari video-game division, which, for a time, provided much of the revenue for Warner Communications' corporate expansion and Ross' own opulent lifestyle.

His management style set a dizzying standard for generosity, as did his own compensation package -- $78.2 million in 1990. As Ms. Bruck documents, Ross spread the money around, inside the company and among the array of celebrities he courted. Chief among the latter were Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg, who reportedly showed actor Liam Neeson home movies of Ross to aid him in his cinematic portrayal of Oskar Schindler.

Ms. Bruck does not question Mr. Spielberg's devotion to Ross: "Steve was very much what I wish my father was," the director told her. But she does suggest that Mr. Spielberg's loyalty may have been fueled by the $23 million licensing deal Ross made with the director in 1982 for the video-game rights to "E.T."

Ross ponied up the money despite assurances from his own advisers that the "E.T." game would go bust in the marketplace, which it did. That same year, Warner Communications endured a $1 billion reversal when Atari collapsed.

Ross first met Ms. Streisand at a 1970 dinner party, where he listened to her complain about a house she had acquired. It needed a new roof and a new heating system, and the singer was worried she couldn't unload it. That night Ross -- and his stockholders -- bought the house for about $450,000.

Later, Ross pandered to the singer's art-collector ambitions, shipping her costly paintings and sculpture that were paid for out of company funds. In return, Ms. Streisand championed Ross in his world, helping him stave off a takeover by Rupert Murdoch, writing letters to stockholders, turning up at gatherings with powerful Wall Street figures. Game to the end, she sang "Papa Can You Hear Me" at his funeral.

Ross paid his executives well above the going corporate rate, swamping them with bonuses, once saying that "Incentive compensation is the most important thing in business." For those close to Ross -- and this was not a small class of folk -- cosmetic surgery could be arranged at company expense and recovery could be eased by stays in corporate hideaways in Acapulco and Aspen, Colo., or at Ross' Long Island estate.

Stories of wretched excess abound in "Master of the Game." In the best of them, Ross purchased an entire Italian village, explaining that he wanted the daughter of his wife, Courtney Sale, to become bilingual.

What Ms. Bruck is about here, however, is more than gratuitous '80s-bashing. Examining in detail her subject's empire-building, notably the landmark 1989 Time Warner deal, the author homes in on the character that she and others referred to as "the good Steve Ross."

rTC "He was unusually far-seeing," Ms. Bruck writes. "He recognized the potential of cable when few others did, and he was the only one among his peers in the movie business to do so. . . .

"He had a knack for finding good people. And, with them, he had the attributes of an excellent teacher: he supported and empowered his divisional people -- he was not threatened by them but knew that by giving them freedom they would do their best for him. . . .

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