Fred Reynolds, president and CEO of the Viacom Television Stations Group, describes himself as a "world-class worrier." It's an interesting choice of words: One prominent Wall Streeter who has followed Reynolds' career calls him a "world-class chief financial officer."
Reynolds has spent most of his career in the CFO suite, famously so at Westinghouse, where his financial acumen prevented the once fabled industrial conglomerate from plunging into insolvency. It was close—about $25 million of additional debt separated Westinghouse from a Chapter 11 filing in the mid 1990s.
And during that time, it was Reynolds who persuaded then Westinghouse Chairman Michael Jordan to transform the company from a sputtering industrial giant into a big-time media company. At a time when half a dozen investment bankers were trying to persuade Jordan to sell off the Group W TV and radio group to pare down debt, Reynolds persuaded him to embrace media with its plentiful cash flow, high margins and relatively small capital-expenditure requirements.
Having settled on a strategy, Westinghouse acquired CBS in 1995, and CBS and Viacom merged four years later. Reynolds was instrumental in getting both deals done. He also led the negotiations to bring into the CBS fold Infinity Broadcasting (then headed by Mel Karmazin) in 1996 and King World in 1997.
Asked what he considers the toughest deal to get done, Reynolds replies without hesitation: CBS. The toughest negotiator: Larry Tisch, who then controlled the network. "It was so important to him to get out of the business at a good value, which he did," says Reynolds. "But it was a very arduous five- to six-year negotiation."
In 2001, seven years after joining Westinghouse, transforming that company into a pure media play and then merging CBS with Viacom, Reynolds decided to look for a new career phase. The way he saw it, there was nothing more he could do in the CFO post to top the previous seven years. "What could be as exciting as having no margin of error?" he asks.
But just as he was prepared to leave the company, settle in California and re-invent himself, his boss, Viacom COO Karmazin, provided the answer. "Mel said, since you bought most of these TV stations, why don't you run them. And I said I thought that was awesome."
Ten years ago, Reynolds wouldn't have dreamed he'd some day be running the largest TV-station group in the country. But, after three years at the helm, he talks about the business as though it were a lifelong passion. "What could be more fun and exciting than being in the broadcast business. We don't hurt people, they can't get cancer from watching us, and they can't get fat. They might get bored, but I hope not. We bring them entertainment and a lot of information. It's a great business."
All tallied, Reynolds figures he has done close to $100 billion worth of buying and selling companies over his career. Probably 80% of that or more is accounted for by the big media transactions of the past 10 years, including acquiring many of the current TV stations in the Viacom portfolio. But early on in his career, as CFO at various Pillsbury and Pepsi units, Reynolds did a lot wheeling and dealing as well, selling off and acquiring hundreds of various food-chain franchises, including Burger Kings, KFCs and Pizza Huts, literally all over the world.
Reynolds started his career in 1972 with tax consultant and auditor Touche Ross. By age 28, he was a principal in the firm. In 1980, he left Touche for Pillsbury's Burger King International subsidiary based in London.
A little more than a year later, though, Reynolds was lured back to the States by PepsiCo and served as the top financial executive at a number of the company's subsidiaries, notably PepsiCo Foods International, Frito-Lay, Kentucky Fried Chicken, PepsiCola International and Pizza Hut.