When a family member died unexpectedly, he was given the reins to the family business, the third generation to run it. He was just 37, and although he had been an exec at the company, he described his position as “vice president in charge of nothing.”
Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, former publisher of the New York Times, died this week at the age of 86.
The “newspaper of record” won 31 Pulitzer Prizes during his tenure. Punch, as he was known, is remembered for being a staunch defender of freedom of the press, no more so than when he made the controversial move to publish the infamous Pentagon Papers on the front page in 1971 about the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
That got the New York Times involved in a skirmish of its own — the lawsuit for libel landmark New York Times vs. Sullivan, which became a landmark First Amendment decision by the Supreme Court.
Punch’s death brings to mind a topic that I deal with often in my work as a turnaround specialist: succession in family businesses. As I mentioned in my last post in this series on family businesses, the greatest threat to a family business is the failure to plan and manage succession well.
There were no emergency family meetings called when Punch died, no anxious creditors waiting at the door, wondering who would be running the company. No sibling infighting, lock changing or festering family feuds.
Arthur Sulzberger had turned the reins over 20 years prior. In 1992, his then 40-year-old son Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., became publisher.
Punch’s transition to the top post wasn’t as easy. Although he was working at the Times, he thought he had several more years before he’d take over from his brother-in-law, Orvil Dryfoos, who had become publisher in 1961.
Then Orvil died suddenly just two years later from heart failure at the age of 50. And Arthur’s time had come. From vice president in charge of nothing to publisher of the New York Times. Not exactly an optimal situation for the continued smooth running of a company.
It worked out in his case. During his tenure revenues of the Times’ corporate parent rose from $100 million to $1.7 billion, and circulation for the Old Gray Lady soared from 714,000 to 1.1 million.
But it doesn’t always go so well. That’s when I get hired.
The Times in now being run by a member of the fifth generation, with a sixth on his way up. Punch’s grandson, Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, joined the Times in 2009 as a reporter and was promoted earlier this year to editor on the Times metro desk, and is reported to be in line to take over one day.
Joseph Astrachan, a professor of management and entrepreneurship at Kennesaw State University in Georgia who studies family businesses, said in an article in USA Today that the odds of a family business surviving to the sixth generation are 500 to 1.
The New York Times may beat those odds. Wouldn’t you like your family business to as well? Do you have a family succession plan in place?
* Photo Illustration by Chris Mueller; Digital Colorization by Lorna Clark. Photographs, From Left: From The Museum of the City Of New York/Getty Images; From Bettmann/Corbis (3); By Andrea Renault/Globe Photos; From Granger Collection (Background Headlines). All Other Newspapers: From Bettmann/Corbis.