A WAVE OF FIRINGS always seems to hit Hollywood as the holidays draw near, reminding us of the industry’s unique spin on the Christmas spirit. Not surprisingly, Frank Biondi was this wave’s best-known victim.
I say not surprisingly because the 53-year-old Biondi has truly raised getting fired to an art form. The Harvard Business School should require careful study of his exit skills, his civility in accepting dismissal, his generous words for the boss who fired him and, finally, the consistency with which he extracts extraordinary largess.
Biondi is surely the superstar of the golden parachute set, a man who has turned two firings in three years into a $45 million windfall.
Always self-effacing, Biondi would be loath to boast of his skills, but were he to create a manual called “How to Get Rich by Getting Canned,” I think its guidelines would read something like this:
- Always recruit your boss, don’t let them find you.
- Be sure you and your new boss are fundamentally incompatible in terms of style and temperament.
- Work diligently in your initial months on the job to exacerbate these differences.
- Encourage your new company to deal off that sector of the business that constitutes your principal specialty, thus rendering you irrelevant.
- Create a public image through press interviews and industry speeches that is at once respected yet invisible.
- Construct an exit strategy focusing on lavish perks that cannot possibly be withdrawn or rescinded upon termination.
- Always speak well of your former bosses so that, if necessary, you can make the rounds yet again.
IN IMPLEMENTING these stratagems, Biondi set about becoming CEO first of Viacom, then Universal, thus putting himself under the aegis of two hands-on, get-it-done bosses in Sumner Redstone and Edgar Bronfman Jr. Both Redstone and Bronfman are unique in that they essentially own as well as manage their corporate empires. As such, both manifest a need for instant gratification when it comes to achieving strategic objectives.
Even at age 75, Redstone always seems to be climbing aboard his jet, intent on negotiating a complex deal. To be sure, this impulse was inconsistent with Biondi’s Harvard-bred philosophy whose central dictate was, “don’t do it if you can delegate it.”
In his position at Universal, which entailed a move to Los Angeles, Biondi’s low-key approach began to border on the laconic. No one was especially shocked, therefore, when Bronfman flew West last week to have a dialogue with his CEO. As disclosed by Biondi, Bronfman said, “Frank, I want to be more hands-on. Therefore, please resign.”
“So I did,” replied Biondi, flashing his customary eloquence.
This episode seemed inevitable as a result of Universal’s move last year to deal off its cable TV assets to Barry Diller. In making this deal, Biondi was left managing such assets as theme parks, movies and music, for which he had little firsthand experience.
I ONCE HAD a vivid conversation with Biondi in which I asked him how he felt about running a music company. “It’s a business,” Biondi replied.
It was insights like this that earned Biondi a heavy schedule of invitations to speak before industry groups and to dispense interviews to reporters. In his public addresses, he was at once statesmanlike and soporific, leaving audiences consistently puzzled as to what he had imparted.
In dealing with the press, Biondi mastered the technique of the quoteless interview. A Variety survey of journalists who had interviewed Biondi over the past year revealed that, while 90% approved of his graciousness, only 5% could remember a single point that he’d espoused or could quote a single epiphany.
It was Biondi’s exit strategy that clearly made the most vivid impact on industry colleagues, however. In moving West for Universal, Biondi had secured a commitment from the studio to construct a $2.5 million screening room. His deal provided that Universal could reclaim the studio upon termination, though it was unclear why Universal would need a screening room in Brentwood.
THE $2.5 MILLION cost also raised a few eyebrows, even from those familiar with the construction of screening rooms. I consulted one expert who commented: “Even if the room had a sound system that put the Academy theater to shame, I’m frankly puzzled, unless he’s installed velvet curtains with gold tassels, silk moire padded walls and leopard skin art deco seats with snakeskin piping.”
One rumor had it that the studio also had built him a clay tennis court with underground sprinklers. But Biondi, with his customary modesty, consistently denied it, even though his tennis game has shown remarkable improvement over the past year.
Having superbly implemented his strategies, would Frank Biondi find a new corporate home?
I put this question to one distinguished headhunter and his reply was immediate. “Of course some company will seek him out,” he assured me. “Any man who can negotiate parachutes like that could also negotiate mergers and acquisitions. There’ll always be a market for his skills.”
I asked Biondi to comment on this observation, and he had a good reply. For the life of me, I cannot recall what it was, however.