Sumner Redstone has done more after the age of 65 than most people do in a lifetime.
As chairman and controlling shareholder of CBS and Viacom, whose television shows and movies are seen all over the world, he says he has no plans to step down any time soon from running the media empire he started building more than 20 years ago.
"People make a mistake when they judge people by their chronological age,” he said. “They should judge them by the way they look, by the way they act, by their achievements, by the way they travel all over the world. That's me.”
Though he recently turned 85, Redstone says he feels “feel as good today as I did when I was 20 years old.”
He’s has stepped back from day-to-day management, but he's always looking for new opportunities — traveling the globe to hawk Viacom's brand in markets like China, Japan and South Korea. He maintains a travel schedule that would be grueling for a man half his age frequently commuting between Viacom Headquarters in New York, and Los Angeles. He even makes the roundtrip in a single day, as he did when we caught up with him at this benefit honoring Viacom's contribution to world health.
“I'm like a puppet,” he said. “I go where they want me to go.”
For many years, the restless billionaire lived in hotel suites. But today, when he's not on the road, he is at the Beverly Hills home he shares with his wife of five years, Paula. On most days he can be found in his study, watching the stock prices of the two companies he loves.
In constant touch with his broker, Redstone orchestrates the share repurchase plans for CBS and Viacom, deciding when and at what price both companies will buy back some of their stock.
In the last year, his net worth has almost been cut in half, to a little more than $4 billion, as shares of CBS and Viacom plummeted. But Redstone, optimistic as always, remains focused on every tick.
“The stock was $45 not so long ago; it's around 36 now,” he said. “Why wouldn't we want to buy stock?"
When he isn't buying his stock, he's trying to buy himself time. Redstone survived a bout with prostate cancer in 2004 and is consumed with prolonging his life. He says he swims and usually rides a bike for 25 to 30 minutes every day.
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Sumner Murray Rothstein grew up in a tenement in Boston, the son of a linoleum salesman with a family to support.
“The apartment didn't even have a toilet,” he said. “My mother was a very tough woman to live with because she was driving me to education.”
His father changed the family name to Redstone while Sumner was a senior at the prestigious Boston Latin School, where he graduated with the highest GPA in school history.
“The most competitive experience I had was early in my life as I fought to be number one at Boston Latin School,” he said.
After receiving a scholarship to Harvard University, Sumner completed his degree in just two and a half years. In 1943, he was recruited by the Army to be a code breaker during World War II, becoming fluent in Japanese. After the war, he returned to Harvard to get a law degree and would ultimately join his father's movie theater company.
The Northeast Theater Corporation started with just two drive-ins and began to thrive under Redstone's leadership, changing its name to National Amusements. It would become his first successful business venture, but Redstone says it was never about the money.
“I think most really successful people, if they're going to succeed, they can't be motivated only by the desire for money,” he said. “They got to have that passion to be the best and to win.”
It was that same passion that helped save his life in 1979. While a guest at Boston’s Copley Plaza Hotel, a fire broke out in the early morning hours. Many of the 430 guests had to be evacuated down by ladder.
“I remember trying to get to a window, and I was burning, from my legs up,” he said. “ And I try to open one window, couldn't. Finally go out to another window, and I hung on with this arm.”
With his right hand permanently disfigured and severe burns over 45 percent of his body, Redstone spent months in the burn unit at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“They said, ‘Everything we know about burn surgery is on you,’” he said. “’Your toes are nailed to your foot,’ which they were at the time. ‘Every kind of graft, bone graft, skin graft, is on you. The reason you're alive is you.’ And the desire — to win and not give up, I think, plays a big role in saving the lives of any person, whatever they're inflicted with.”
By the late 1980's, Redstone had built a powerful chain of 400 movie theaters. He even created the modern day multiplex. But then he set his sights on a bigger prize: Viacom, a company that had a television syndication unit, and two fledgling cable networks, MTV and Nickelodeon. Redstone risked his entire fortune with a $3.4 billion dollar bid — beating back Viacom's management, which was trying to buy the company itself.
“If I listened to Wall Street, I'd still be operating three drive-ins,” he said. “ They said I paid too much. They said MTV was a fad, Nickelodeon wouldn't make it. Nickelodeon, MTV now, this fad, reaches a billion people around the world. And Nickelodeon is the number one channel in the United States. So I was right, fortunately. “
Never one to rest on his laurels, Redstone made another big play in 1993, acquiring Paramount — but not before an epic battle against media mogul Barry Diller forced Redstone into a bidding war for the prized movie studio.
“What happened with us is at a certain point, we just said, ‘We're not making the next bid,’” said Diller. “And he won. Now it's not that we ran out of money, because we didn't. We ran out of conviction for the deal. By the way, I think we were probably wrong.”
In 2000, at an age when most people are retired, the 77-year-old Redstone was at it again when he acquired CBS. The deal would bring together the CBS Television Network, more than a dozen cable channels, Infinity Broadcasting, Paramount pictures, Simon and Schuster and Outdoor advertising.
But only five years later, Redstone would decide to split the two companies. He still maintains control of both, but at 85, the question of who will take over for him remains unresolved. His daughter Shari runs the theater circuit, National Amusements, and as a board member of both CBS and Viacom, she was once expected to be her father's successor. But Redstone said that’s not going to happen.
“The reason she won't succeed me is not that she isn't qualified,” he said. “ But I have made it clear that good governance requires, these are two public companies, they're not private like national, that two companies, the boards should decide who succeeds me. I'm not worried about it because it's going to be another 20, 30 years.”
Redstone is currently negotiating to sell Shari the movie theater business, assuming she is willing to give up her stake in CBS and Viacom as part of the deal. The day-to-day operation of his empire is left to the companies two CEOs: Leslie Moonves at CBS and Phillippe Dauman at Viacom. But Redstone still reserves the right to make heavy-handed decisions, like firing mega-star Tom Cruise over "his behavior" – including comments on NBC’s TODAY Show than “psychiatry is a pseudo-science.”
“Not only that, he had an extraordinarily expensive deal at Paramount,” said Redstone. “Ten million bucks just to stay on the lot? So I did finally say goodbye to him. But I still like Tom. I still think he's a great actor. He had lunch with me. It's clear he wants to come back.”
His latest business conflict is with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg of the movie studio Dreamworks SKG, which Viacom bought in 2006. Both men have indicated they may leave the company at the end of this year. But once again, Redstone seems to already have what he wants.
“Part of the deal was that we got all of their library,” he said. “All of their work in progress belongs to us, not to DreamWorks. So Spielberg will be making pictures using that product, which belongs to us, I believe for years to come. We're all friends.
And if Redstone continues to get his way, he'll be around to enjoy every minute of it.
“I don't want to die. I love what I'm doing,” he said. “I love Viacom. I love CBS. And so I don't want to die. I have a will to live. The same will to win that I've always had. And — I'm gonna fight death as long as I can. I like it here. I don't want to go anywhere else.”
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