The Washington Post – Sale of a Family Business Newspaper

The recent announcement that the Washington Post newspaper was being sold to Jeff Bezos from Amazon.com, brought back memories of a speaker presentation that Alan Spoon, former president of The Washington Post gave at one of our Center’s meetings. Several years ago we had the opportunity to have Alan Spoon, meet with our Center members at the Northeastern University Center for Family Business, where he discussed the close working relationship he had with the Graham family. Some of the issues he discussed included; non-family executives, educating investors, creation of value and the benefits of longer term vision vs. short-term profits.

Following is a summary of Alan Spoon’s remarks when he was president of the Washington Post.

The Story of The Washington Post: Perspectives from the President

For ten years, Alan Spoon was President of The Washington Post, serving with the famed mother-son team of Katherine and Donald Graham. At this breakfast meeting, Center members learned how Alan managed his role as a non-family member leader of this exceedingly high profile family owned and managed enterprise. More…

Too Important to Fire

We brought in our first non-family senior executive to help professionalize and grow the business.  The senior manager performed his job well and was eager to take on more responsibility. Eager to keep him satisfied, and retain him, we continued to give him increased responsibility across other functional areas.

In a few years, we realized that he wasn’t as competent in the newer areas, as he was in his core responsibility for which he had been hired.  It’s easy to fall into the thinking that someone who comes from a larger scale business is an expert in all areas. This proved wrong for us and we found the newer areas under his responsibility were hurting the business.  We stopped adding responsibility and discussed ways to move him back to his core strength expertise area. This caused him to threaten leaving with his management staff, unless he continued to receive increased responsibility and compensation.

We decided to terminate the employee.  But it was too late. This senior manager had assumed so much increased control and responsibility that they had become too important to fire. More…