Henry S. Schleiff, President and General Manager, ID, Military Channel and HD Theater
Henry Schleiff's HOF Speech
Few people could tease Sumner Redstone that his jacket looked like a wet horse blanket and get away with it. But Henry Schleiff is just that hilarious.
Frank Biondi, the former Viacom CEO, recalls one rainy morning in the late 1980s when Redstone entered a staff meeting wearing a soaking wet plaid sports coat. Schleiff, whom Biondi had recently hired as chairman and CEO of Viacom's broadcast and entertainment groups, looked up and without even pausing said, "What's the poor horse going to do?"
"Even Sumner had to laugh," Biondi says. "It was just one of those Henry lines. He's really good with the quip."
Anyone who has met Schleiff--now president and GM of Investigation Discovery, Military Channel and HD Theater--will inevitably first mention his sense of humor when asked to describe him. But he matches that biting wit with solid operational and financial management skills, and joins the B&C Hall of Fame Class of 2010 thanks to a hard-earned reputation as one of the best turnaround executives in the cable network business.
Arguably his greatest success was re-launching Court TV, which when Schleiff came on as chairman and CEO in 1998 was on life support, doing a 0.1 or less in the ratings on any given night and in danger of being shut down by Time Warner. In his eight years at the helm, Schleiff dramatically refocused the programming, moving the channel from court coverage to more crime-centered primetime shows. As a result, the network went from 30 million to 85 million subscribers and its asset value grew from about $400 million to $1.5 billion by the time he left in 2006.
"He did everything we had hoped he would do," says Dick Parsons, former Time Warner CEO and a mentor to Schleiff. "More than revive it, he was able to turn it around and make it important and relevant and respected in the space."
In growing that network and others, Schleiff credits the importance of passion as the key to accomplishment. "What makes success versus failure is people who feel genuinely passionate, and wake up every morning excited about what they do," he says.
And for Schleiff, that passion has always been television in some form. Even at the beginning of his career, while working as a corporate associate at the Wall Street law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell, the New York City-born Schleiff secretly subscribed to Variety and wrote gags freelance for Saturday Night Live, though not too successfully, he admits. "They would use about one of every 1,200 lines I provided them."
But the SNL gig gave Schleiff his first taste of the entertainment industry, and exacerbated his interest in transitioning from the pure practice of law. So he parlayed his legal resume to a job as in-house counsel to the then relatively small company Viacom.
While cutting deals for Viacom, he made connections at HBO, and in 1980 joined the fledging pay TV network as SVP of business affairs and administration, a position he held for seven years and which he calls his "real introduction to the business."
It was there that he met Biondi, and when the HBO chief executive was tapped to head Viacom in 1987, he brought Schleiff along with him. After Schleiff left Viacom in 1992 for a relatively short stint as an independent producer, Biondi hired him back again, this time at Universal (then called Studios USA).
Of their extensive professional collaboration, Biondi says, "He's one of the few executives I've ever worked with who has been able through his career to systematically improve on his weaknesses and turn them into strengths," adding, "I'd hire him a fourth time if I had the chance."
Schleiff followed his later success at Court TV with a turn as president and CEO of Crown Media Holdings, where he guided Hallmark Channel to profitability and a top 10 position in the ratings within two years. But faced with a dismal market in which to sell the network, he left Hallmark in mid-2009 in search of a new challenge, a common theme in Schleiff's more than 30-year career.
"You get a lot of people who work for you who do good work," Biondi says. "But there are very few of them who actually continue to climb up the corporate ladder, increase responsibility, do bigger and bigger jobs, and become really great managers in their own right. Henry's one of them."
Admiring David Zaslav's turnaround of Discovery and seeing potential in the fledging Investigation Discovery network, which Schleiff saw as "a lot like young Court TV," he pitched Zaslav his plan to make I.D. the fourth leg of the Discovery Communications table, alongside the already successful Discovery Channel, TLC and Animal Planet.
"Before the conversation ended, from my perspective, we were done," says Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications. "I shook his hand and I said, ‘Let's do it.' Because I know Henry-when he says he's going to do something, he does it."
And in Zaslav's words, Schlieff has over-delivered on I.D. It's now the fastest-growing cable network in primetime, building its household audience by 56% from 2009 to 2010 YTD. His success with I.D. prompted Zaslav to give Schleiff the additional responsibility of running Military Channel and HD Theater in January 2010.
"The momentum comes from Henry-seven days a week, 24 hours a day, pushing this thing," Zaslav says. "He just has great ambition and that translates into real value--near-term economic value and asset value."
A self-proclaimed family man, Schleiff enjoys spending time outside of work with his wife, Peggy, and sons Harry, 22, and Sidney, 18. And it's personal relationships that he values most in the workplace, too, naming the bonds he has forged over the years as the greatest accomplishment of his career, rather than any quantitative success.
"If there is an achievement, it's that I've made an incredible number of friends along the way," Schleiff says. "I think the ability to sit down with any number of people I've worked with in the past, or may work with in the future, and have drinks and a couple of laughs, is about the best thing that you can say in this business."--Andrea Morabito