I Remember - David Geffen
In my life as an analyst, I met some influential people. Some were very wealthy people who ran some very large companies. Some of these people who wielded great power were paradoxically very weak individuals. They presided over the demise of their company, or credited themselves with its success when such success occurred in spite of them and not because of them. On the other hand, there were some executives who were strong and visionary leaders, and as such they were profoundly inspirational and left their mark of success on everything they touched.
David Geffen was one of these latter types – a visionary and a creator of wealth and success.
In the mid 1990s three men decided to form new company. Those three men were Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. The company was to be called Dreamworks.
I was an analyst. I was covering Seagram, which owned Universal Studios at the time, and there had been an important relationship between Steven Spielberg and Universal. If Spielberg was no longer going to distribute films through Universal, there was going to be a material impact to Seagram’s bottom line. The investment community had made guesses, but no one really knew what was going on. I needed to know more about Dreamworks.
Of the three founders, Spielberg was inaccessible. Not yet covering Disney, Katzenberg was an unknown to me, but Geffen had been quoted in the newspapers subsequent to the Dreamworks announcement. David Geffen, one of the richest people in the world, the man who had created perhaps the most successful record label in history… seemed to be in the mood to talk.
I decided to lob in a phone to David Geffen.
The receptionist asked me who I was, and what was the nature of my call. I figured I’d leave a message and that would be that. After a short pause, Geffen came on the line and said hello.
Alrighty then. I explained who I was and what I was after, and he gave me a few opaque factoids. I asked him if he would take a meeting with me, and he said sure.
Well I’ll be.
And that is how I found myself on a plane bound for Los Angeles one day in my rarely-boring life, on my way to meet the multi-billionare.
It was very warm when I finally checked into my hotel in Burbank. The place was filled with an assortment of entertainment industry creatures. I called Geffen’s assistant and told her I had arrived. I had most definitely arrived, I thought. In truth, this would be a big coup for me; every investor-client would want to know what I had learned.
Imagine my dismay when the nice Mr. Geffen called to ask me, in a newly impatient and dismissive tone, why we couldn’t just do this on the phone. As I sat in California, thousands of recently-flown miles away from my office, having breakfast on the terrace in the hot sunshine, Geffen was annoyed that I had come and was looking for a way out of the interview. He was busy. Can’t we do a phone interview, he asked me-told me. I was nonplussed. Whatever answer I blurted out I cannot remember.
Geffen said he would send a car.
Sometime later the car arrived. We rolled through the restricted alleys of the Universal Studios lot and pulled up in front of a small structure not much bigger than a couple of trailers. From the sun, I went in and stood hot inside in the reception area, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the subdued light. I sat in my damp gray business suit, peering at a few others who waited also. They were dressed for summer. A courrier was delivering a script.
It didn’t take long to get ushered into Geffen’s trailer park office, casual and vacation-like. Geffen looked like a middle-aged relative I might meet at the golf club.
And so it began, my long sought interview. From the time the secretary closed the door, Geffen became absolutely unhurried, like he had all the time in the world to talk with me. For my part, I never forgot why I was there, and blended social chatter with risky questions. Geffen was extraordinarily candid, considering this was an on-the-record talk with an analyst. Nevertheless he said what he felt like saying, and left the burden of distillation and dissemination up to me.
I learned things in that humid office-box. I learned that above all, the business world was a world fueled on relationships. The adage “it’s who you know” was borne out right there, as I saw how the Dreamworks deal would benefit – not harm – Universal, because of the chemistry between (Seagram CEO) Edgar Bronfman Jr. and Geffen. If you were friends, you took care. You didn’t screw your friends. You didn’t betray people. That was how David Geffen’s world worked. Even to the point of taking a full hour to talk one-on-one with an analyst from Toronto.
I remember David Geffen as an unapologetic man who said what he thought, who didn’t suffer fools, but didn’t abuse his station either. Geffen was a person I enjoyed speaking with. I remember him as a bright, outspoken yet gentle man. A mensch.
Posted by Steve Holt on Monday, November 26, 2007