People who make deals for a living have always fascinated me. High stakes and chutzpah--that's the ticket. Yet beyond the brass, many successful dealmakers possess an enviable skill set--vision, confidence, perseverance, focus, even empathy. Such qualities are the backbone of lasting success in any field, and to the extent they can be learned, we should all crave input. In A Passion to Win (Simon & Schuster), by Sumner Redstone with Peter Knobler, we go to school alongside one of the best. Redstone, a Boston nobody, took over his father's fledgling movie-theater operation and built it into Viacom, a global entertainment powerhouse with brands including MTV, Nickelodeon, Blockbuster, CBS and Paramount. This is his remarkable story, from a childhood in the tenements to star lawyer and relatively late in life, business icon.
The authors devote most of their book to Redstone's business life, adding texture to his well-documented takeovers of Viacom in 1987, Blockbuster Entertainment and Paramount Communications in 1993, and CBS in 1999. Those deals are the heart of the book, and from them spring the business wisdom that Redstone relates.
Some of his observations seem obvious. "To understand the value of a business, you must be able to anticipate success...and your own participation in it," he writes in a passage about MTV. Yet there's nothing simple about doing that, and Redstone teaches by example. Early on, bankers wanted him to sell MTV. Redstone stood firmly opposed, and turned a largely unknown music-video channel into a phenomenally profitable global network for young adults.
Redstone offers this on the art of negotiation: "The idea that...you're going to predicate a deal on what the other person [first] paid for it will lead to no deal...What is the deal worth to them? That's the question you have to answer." Sound advice for anyone buying a home or car.
There's enough satisfying Redstone philosophy to keep you flipping pages, although the book wastes too much time dropping names from Bill Clinton to gangster Bugsy Siegel without dishing dirt or at least providing the juicy insider stuff Redstone surely has. He seems intent on not making enemies, professing friendship with onetime adversaries Barry Diller, a loser in the fight for Paramount, and Jerry Levin, whom he sued for cable access. (Levin is CEO of AOL Time Warner, which publishes TIME.)
A notable exception is Redstone's treatment of former Blockbuster boss Wayne Huizenga, who dissed Redstone in the press. The book outs some of Huizenga's negotiating ploys that "disgusted" Redstone. One was the "belly drop." On the verge of an agreement, Redstone asserts, Huizenga would make a late request that was so outrageous you'd get queasy. His hope was that the other side, already tasting the deal, would simply cave.
Redstone nicely illuminates some of his overlooked early accomplishments, including breaking a key Japanese code in World War II and his role in some important court cases. His amazing story includes a hotel fire that nearly took his life. At 78, Redstone still has a passion to win, and his book will make you think twice about trying to win with anything less.
Redstone is profiled in Dan's book Masters of the Universe (HarperBusiness). See Dan Tuesdays on CNNfn at 2:15 p.m. E.T.