During a 23-year tenure as president and CEO of Hearst Corp., Frank Bennack Jr. helped transform a company best known for its roots in publishing into a force in the TV business. Under Bennack's watch, Hearst added significant holdings in local broadcast and cable, including stakes in Lifetime, A&E and ESPN, which are hallmarks of his career.
“Part of Hearst's success has always been our diversification in print and electronic media,” Bennack says. “I am very proud to have played a part in that.”
That satisfaction runs so deep that one of Bennack's most prized possessions, he says, is a silver bowl identifying him as a founding executive of A&E, The History Channel and Lifetime.
Though he retired from the CEO post in 2002, Bennack continues to serve as Hearst's vice chairman of the board and chairman of the executive committee. As such, he's also a valued adviser to his successor, CEO Victor Ganzi, and other top Hearst executives on business dealings. Bennack says. “I speak my piece on what we need to do.”
It is fitting that the veteran executive continues to guide the company he played a central role in building. Hearst, a 119-year-old, private family-owned company, is a player in nearly every media category and much of its growth came during Bennack's CEO tenure from 1979 to 2002.
During those years, about 85% of the company's current businesses were started or acquired, according to Ganzi. That includes the merger to create Hearst-Argyle Television in 1997, which resulted in Hearst's 52% control. (On Oct. 12, Hearst gave up on a takeover effort to win 100% control of Hearst-Argyle, which it planned to take private. The bid could be revived.)
“Frank was always committed to the future,” Ganzi says. “There has always been a lot of vision there.” It's a long view that has led to this B&C Hall of Fame honor.
The company operates 29 TV stations reaching 18% of the country through Hearst-Argyle Television and owns chunks of several major cable networks, including A&E, History, Lifetime and ESPN. On the publishing side, Hearst owns 12 daily newspapers and 31 weeklies. Its magazine division produces more than 200 titles.
Bennack was particularly bullish on building the company's TV presence, which consisted of just three TV stations when he took over. In those days, Bennack recognized television as an industry with enormous growth potential. Local broadcast had good financial margins and cable was just percolating. “I felt that it was urgent that the company materially increase its electronic profile,” Bennack says.
Hearst went on an aggressive acquisition campaign, adding stations in markets such as Dayton, Ohio; Kansas City, Mo.; and Boston. It eventually assembled what is now the largest group of ABC affiliates. After flirting with buying cable systems and acquiring a few small operations in California, Hearst opted to stick to its area of expertise in programming, and the company forged joint ventures with ABC to create A&E and Lifetime.
In 1990, Bennack engineered the purchase of R.J. Reynolds' 20% stake in ESPN for about $160 million, once again partnering with ABC and, for the first time, broadcaster Cap Cities, which had acquired ABC. Bennack faced skeptics both inside and outside Hearst who regarded the investment as risky. Cable was still establishing its place in the media landscape, and ESPN had only just turned its first profit the year before. But while few predicted the network would be so wildly successful, Bennack's gamble paid off as Hearst's stake is now worth billions. “It is one of the best deals Frank ever did. That 20% has been a gold mine,” says former Cap Cities/ABC CEO Tom Murphy. “He has always been a great partner.”
Bennack also pushed for growth in publishing. Hearst launched magazines including Marie Claire and The O: Oprah Magazine and acquired 10 of its dailies, including papers in Houston and his hometown of San Antonio.
Bennack had gotten his start in business with Hearst at the San Antonio Light, where he worked in ad sales and eventually climbed to become publisher, a position he held for seven years. In 1975, he joined Hearst corporate as general manager of the newspapers, and rose to executive VP and COO. In 1979, Bennack was named CEO, a position he held until 2002.
He has roots in the broadcast industry, too. As a young man in San Antonio, he hosted local talent show Time for Teens on Channel 5, then Storer Broadcasting-owned KEYL. Bennack describes himself back then as a “poor man's Dick Clark.”
Colleagues say those experiences give Bennack unrivaled perspective on all of Hearst's businesses. “Frank understands the importance of localism and local news and being a force in the community,” says David Barrett, CEO of Hearst-Argyle Television Stations. “He understands how important it is for us all to be leaders in our marketplaces.”
Outside of Hearst, Bennack lends his time to organizations including the Museum of Television and Radio and New York's Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where he serves as chairman. He is also a vice chairman of New York Presbyterian Hospital. Bennack has five daughters from his 50-year marriage to the late Luella Bennack, and 11 grandchildren. In 2005, he married Dr. Mary Lake Polan, whom he met while he served on the board for Wyeth.
Going forward, Bennack says he wants Hearst to continue experimenting with new ventures, including the Internet—but cautiously. “We need to have a heavy presence in new platforms, but not at the expense of businesses we know how to make money with,” Bennack says. He admits it is a difficult balancing act: “Traditional media have never been under so much pressure. I try to give my successors as much support as I can. I think their job is more challenging than mine was.”