Having held top posts in the entertainment industry, Strauss Zelnick is the prototypical establishment figure. But he departed from the standard career track to found ZelnickMedia, a billion-dollar business with eclectic holdings including a Japanese music company, a professional bike racing circuit, a retail catalog and the Liberty magazine archive. Excerpts follow of Daily Variety’s sit-down with Zelnick, who is about to join the board of the paper’s parent company, Reed Elsevier.

Q. Is specializing overrated?

A. Well, maybe for me it is. I may be a poster child for the effectiveness of ADD. I double-majored in college. I attended two graduate schools at the same time, and even now I have to restrain myself from multi-tasking as a way of life. Having said that, I don’t think you can be effective in business if you don’t minimally know the history and understand the key leverage points.

Q: After leaving BMG you said, “If you don’t own the candy store, don’t complain about how they arrange the candy.” So now you’ve built your store. Any complaints?

A: Sometimes it’s harder to find candy than I’d like, which is to say that we’re pretty disciplined buyers. In an environment of capital excess not everyone is as disciplined, from our perspective. Finding great companies to buy on terms that we consider reasonable is hard.

Q: Which part of the business is your favorite?

A: The most fun is obviously an area that’s creative. We make television shows at Time-Life. We make records at Columbia Music. I obviously enjoy that most. If I didn’t care about our underlying creative products, I’d be in a different business. Having said that, figuring out new business paradigms is also very compelling and intriguing. We have several thousand employees today. One of the things I enjoy most is spending time with them, understanding what makes them tick and, hopefully, leading them to achieve greater things than they’ve been able to in the past.

Q: Give me an example of an industry insider — any industry — whose resume made him or her seem like an ideal hire but ended up not being so.

A: Al Dunlop at Sunbeam. He understood how to reduce costs and he did it effectively, but he over-promised in terms of rebuilding revenues. A turnaround takes time and you can’t save your way to prosperity. You need to come up with ideas for new products and services. You need to launch them, and the market may take a while to accept them. By over-promising on that basis, Dunlop ultimately got into a world of hurt at Sunbeam. I’ve done an awful lot of turnarounds, and they typically take 18 to 24 months.

Q: What about in the other direction? An outsider who came in and “got it” right away?

A: Andy Lack at Sony Music.

Q: What do you think of the inherent difficulty in the movie industry, where adults make decisions and create product for children and teenagers?

A: There’s no question that people who develop motion pictures or, in fact, video games — your technology folks, your creative folks — have to be gamers and are, therefore, most likely somewhat younger; although videogames have been around for a couple of decades so they don’t have to be that young. I think that’s natural and appropriate. We operate, of course, at the decision-making level. We balance the creative side and the business side. Creative drive without business knowledge is a recipe for disaster in the entertainment business. You need people who are highly attuned to the creative interest and aspirations of their target audience. And you need people who are highly experienced in what are now very mature businesses. If you try to break the business rules you can get into trouble. Breaking creative rules is always a good idea.

Unger is a leading exec recruiter. At various times, he led the media and entertainment practices of the world’s three largest executive search firms. He can be reached at sa.unger@verizon.net.

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