After All, Someone Needs to Get the Job Done

by Norman Horowitz

I am the product of the industry in which I have worked for 50+ years. In fact, the only insight I can bring to anything is not based on my intellect, but rather on my experiences in life in general, as well as the Air Force and the business of television.

I grew up watching my father run his small dress manufacturing business at 1385 Broadway in New York. To me, he was to me the ultimate operating executive in that he knew everything he needed to know to run his business. Everyone who worked for him had a job to do (including my Dad). He had no “formal” business training, yet he ran a profitable business for many years.

My career in the entertainment industry started as a part-time, minimum-wage shipping clerk and messenger for the editorial department of Screen Gems Television in New York. In the intervening years, I became a functioning operating and sales executive. Although I’ve had many staff positions in the intervening years, I’m still an operating guy.  

Sadly, for the most part, I have reported to corporate “staff” people who had no clue what our people were doing. The Columbia CFO was very upset with me because I wasn’t happy that the “corporate” people took large profit-sharing awards for themselves and gave little to me and my people. When he told me about “their” great overall responsibilities, I suggested that that they “just kept score” while we actually did the business.

In the late ’70s, following an annoying budget meeting with my Columbia Pictures management, I met with the company’s president in his hotel.  I told him I was upset that neither he nor his people had the slightest idea what my staff and I had presented to them and that they had asked no questions about any aspect of our business. We made a detailed presentation about our business and its future, and not a single question was asked nor did they say anything other than they wanted us to spend less.

I pointed out to him that he was a tax lawyer, his COO had been the chairman of a car rental company, his CFO had been with an accounting firm, and his general counsel had been a partner in a law firm prior to joining Columbia. None of them had any operating experience whatsoever. None of them had a clue what we had been talking about. My associates and I had spoken about the expansion of the media, and no one seemed the least bit interested.

At Polygram, a multi-billion-dollar company, I was the only divisional president who was not a lawyer.  As I remember, they had 19 operating divisions.

At MGM, it was mostly the same. The President was a lawyer without an operating clue, nor did any of the corporate staff have any knowledge of our industry.

In order to end whatever vestiges of a career I have in the entertainment industry, I will comment briefly about “senior managements” I’ve reported to at Columbia Pictures (twice), CBS, Polygram, and MGM.

  • Columbia Pictures, 1960-1968: Abe Schneider and Leo Jaffee — chairman and president, respectively — were finance executives and didn’t have an operating clue about their movie and television businesses.
  • CBS, 1968-1970: Bill Paley and Dr. Frank Stanton operated the “Tiffany Network,” and look at the results. They respected their operating people.
  • Columbia Pictures, 1970-1978: Alan Hirschfield told me something like, “Norman, you’re making a lot of money for the company. If anyone gets in your way, let me know, and I’ll take care of it.” Now how great is that? He “protected” me from the invasion of corporate staff people who only wanted to discuss and “approve” everything that we did, even though none of them had any operating experience.
  • Columbia Pictures, 1978-1980: Francis (Fay) Vincent and Robert L. Stone. A total disaster. Vincent had no experience, and Stone was a notorious “cost cutter” who didn’t have an operating clue. I ended up reporting to Stone. He made my people crazy with his “expense policy guidelines.”
  • Polygram, 1980-1985: Harvey Schein. Again, a lawyer without an operating clue. He was mostly interested that everyone knew that he was in charge!
  • MGM, 1986-1992: Lee Rich (the chairman) once said something like, “Norman, I hired you to do a job. Just do it, and leave me alone.”

It’s still my opinion that, if you’re going to “manage” operations, you need to have had at least a modicum of operating experience in doing something.

I functioned as a manager of sales and production companies. Because of my operating experience, I understood the barriers to maximizing revenue. I tried to hire the best people I could get, pay them as much money as I could, clearly outline our goals, and “set them loose” to do their jobs. I also realized the importance of minimizing expenses but at the same time not being stupid about it.

Because none of my managements had an operating clue about what we did and how we did it, I would try to explain to them that they needed to love and encourage their staff and not take issue with them for small amounts of money. Bob Stone at Columbia exemplified the wrong attitude about this issue and would be critical of our sales guys for spending very trivial amounts of money. An associate and I were once in the middle of trying to conclude an $8 million deal when Bob Stone called me about a $25 item on a salesman’s expense report. Not good.

It was my attitude to have the “corporate staff” serve the “operating staff” and not the other way around. Now how quaint is that?

I’m reminded of the rabbi who had to give a eulogy about a reviled 90-year-old. He said, “What can one say about Jacob Abramowitz?” His mind was racing as he repeated the question, until a member of the congregation shouted out, “His brother was worse!”