A remarkable woman with some truths from the past
IT IS rare that someone who, by her own admission, is not a writer of note, can keep one riveted for 625 pages of autobiography. This is most certainly the case with Personal History, the story of Katharine Graham, controlling shareholder of the Washington Post Company and one of the most remarkable women of the century.
Graham's father, Eugene Meyer, was one of the great Jewish financiers operating in the US at the turn of the century. Even then he was worth many tens of millions of dollars. However, it fell to Katharine Graham, a most unlikely candidate for heroics, to take a part of her heritage, turn it into billions and become the first woman CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She made possible, in the face of vicious business and psychological pressure, the destruction of the Nixon presidency, successfully raised a family of four and spent almost 40 years as a widow in a man's world where she more than held her own.
As a newspaperman who has had to contend with owners who knew nothing about newspapers, I envy those who have spent their journalistic careers with the Graham family. These are people who deserve to own and run newspapers, and to make money doing it.
I share with Graham a belief that good journalism is good business, that accurate, objective reporting earns credibility which translates into reader and advertising support.
Something else we share is an abhorrence of management consultants. If you are paid to manage then do it, don't ask consultants how you should do it. You will usually find that the ordinary people in the enterprise know precisely what needs to be done to run it better. This is a lesson the ANC does not wish to learn as it fritters away billions in consultancy fees so as to have someone to blame when matters go wrong.
The brilliance of Graham's husband, Phil, laid the foundations for the later greatness of the company. Before he died, committing suicide while suffering from untreated manic depression, Katharine Graham lived a sheltered life. She had a great deal of money, but knew nothing it. She was immersed in her children, her friends, her husband's needs and their ceaseless social schedule.
She learned business by trial and error, with a great deal of help from the legendary Warren Buffet. Early on Buffet saw the potential of the company, invested heavily and made many hundreds of millions as a result.
But like so many others, Graham was seduced by consultants. On the advice of a former executive, she retained the consultants McKinsey and Company to assist her.
In her view all they did was to "regurgitate what we told them in a slightly different but not very helpful way". McKinsey, she says, also told them to stop buying in their own stock, a strategy which Buffet had encouraged. This advice cost them half a billion dollars. Beware of consultants bearing advice.
There is not space here to do justice to Graham's fascinating story. But I must say I found quite comforting Graham's exasperation with those journalists who were critical of her when a printers' union trashed her presses, assaulted her managers, violently picketed her building and refused reasonable offers of settlement, including guaranteed lifetime employment. Ironically, this Luddite strike enabled Graham to institute, well ahead of schedule, technological changes which led to massive benefits.
Finally, her view of editorial independence is interesting and, as it coincides with mine, obviously laudable. Editors, she writes, must have "real autonomy".
But she, as CEO, insisted that she didn't want to "read anything in the paper of great importance or that represented an abrupt change which we hadn't discussed . . .." Editors enjoy a degree of discretion unknown in other businesses. They must exercise this wisely.