The National Geographic staffers were a little anxious.
About a week after 21st Century Fox unveiled its expanded partnership with the National Geographic Society in September 2015, Fox executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch and other execs traveled to Nat Geo’s headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Murdoch made a big impression that day on a roomful of journalists, photographers, scientists and naturalists. He made clear his appreciation of the photojournalism that has long been a hallmark of Nat Geo. He spoke about the work of photographers in the room in a way that went well beyond talking points. And Murdoch demonstrated his keen interest in rock climbing by discussing in detail the accomplishments of renowned explorers in attendance.
Murdoch’s familiarity with Nat Geo’s mission went a long way toward easing concerns about the deal, which boosted Fox’s stake in the worldwide Nat Geo channels group and brought the storied magazine and other assets into the National Geographic Partners joint venture. The deal was valued at $725 million, an investment that increased the nonprofit National Geographic Society’s endowment to nearly $1 billion.
The Nat Geo pact also made a statement in being the first major transaction at Fox after Lachlan and his brother James Murdoch took the reins of 21st Century Fox as chairman and CEO, respectively, in July 2015. The two jointly run the empire built by their father, Rupert, with all of the business units reporting to both of the younger Murdochs.
As he demonstrated that day in Washington, D.C., Lachlan Murdoch brings a mix of a personable manner and a sharp grasp of detail to his leadership of one of the world’s biggest media conglomerates. Friends and colleagues say he is extremely down to earth and approachable, particularly for a man who was born into moguldom.
Based in Los Angeles, Murdoch has established a strong presence on the Fox lot and is focused on the details of its creative businesses, particularly in the arena of marketing and burgeoning direct-to-consumer opportunities. Lachlan’s experience as a private investor in Australia — during the decade he spent working outside the family business from 2005 through 2014 — is evident in his views of the fast-changing U.S. market for television.
But he is not a micromanager. Insiders credit Lachlan and James with continuing their father’s practice of giving top lieutenants wide berth to be entrepreneurial, so long as they meet high expectations. The brothers are good at maintaining the 20,000-foot view.
“Lachlan’s deeply engaged with the strategic direction of the company, challenging us to digitally transform every aspect of our business for the future,” says Peter Rice, president of 21st Century Fox. “Having him based in Los Angeles is a real asset as he is so committed to our relationships with the creative community.”
In the two years since the baton was passed from father to sons, the brothers have made a significant mark in Fox’s Hollywood operation through the restructuring and refocusing of resource priorities that led to hundreds of employee buyouts last year. Insiders say the pair are focused on ensuring a vibrant and inclusive workplace culture at 21st Century Fox businesses. That ethos forced them to implement big changes at Fox News when sexual harassment scandals engulfed the unit’s late leader, Roger Ailes, and star anchor Bill O’Reilly.
Industry veterans say the working environment at Fox is notable for its focus on strategic priorities and opportunities rather than quarter-to-quarter performance. The Murdochs, with their iron grip on 21st Century Fox and its sibling News Corp. unit, are in it for the long haul.
“With all the disruption that our business is facing, it’s refreshing to work for someone who is calm and supportive and has the long view,” says Stacey Snider, who joined Fox in 2014 and was promoted to film studio chief last year. “Lachlan and James are owner-managers who are willing to look around the corner toward the horizon. That provides a lot of stability at a time when the business really needs it.”
Those who know Lachlan well also admire his commitment as a husband and father of three young kids. James Corden and his family have become close friends with Lachlan and his wife, Sarah Murdoch, ever since the Corden clan relocated from London for his gig as host CBS’ “The Late Late Show.”
“The greatest thing about him is that he’s really interested in other people,” Corden says. “He almost never talks about his role [at Fox]. Some of those big CEOs tend to think that there is no other world outside their empire. He’s interested in the normal stuff of life — ‘How’s the kids, how’s your summer, hey, let’s go cycling.’ He’s a really, really good guy to have as a friend.”