New book by Hearst’s former CEO, Frank Bennack, published by Simon & Schuster
There’s no shortage of books touting business advice, but the most successful of them, recognizing that we all enjoy a well-told story, come wrapped in memoir.
That’s the approach taken by Frank A. Bennack Jr. in his new book, “Leave Something on the Table + Other Surprising Lessons for Success in Business and in Life,” which was made available for presale June 18 by Simon & Schuster. Bennack spent 28 years at the helm of Hearst, leading it from a loose federation of newspaper and magazine properties with some scattered broadcast outlets into a hugely successful global media enterprise with diverse holdings primarily delivering content on digital platforms.
Bennack’s book weaves lessons of business and life through tales of his improbable rise, from a working-class childhood in Depression-era Texas to a suite in an iconic glass-and-steel Manhattan skyscraper. Along the way, we watch Bennack interact with presidents and business titans, learn from savvy mentors and forge deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Part of the story reveals the work ethic that you might expect of the only child of a postal carrier, who started work at age 8 because his mother had told him, “as soon as you’re able to work, get a job.”
What the book makes clear, though, is that Bennack’s trajectory came about as a result of more than perseverance. Bennack puts forward the argument that while one-on-one connections are crucial to success, it is personal integrity that is always key to making those connections matter.
“It isn’t what you know, and how hard you work, and how clever you are. It’s not even who you know,” Bennack writes in the book’s introduction. “It’s how other people know you. It’s who you are.”
Not that the book’s subject wasn’t recognized as a clever fellow from early on. Inspired by his father’s love of art, theater and music, Bennack was 17 when he got his own half-hour weekly TV show when a local station first took to the air in his hometown of San Antonio in 1949. At times over the decades, the rising business executive wondered what might have happened if he had turned to show business instead of taking a job selling classified advertising at the San Antonio Light.
The choice of the newspaper job left him little time for such reflection, though: By age 34, despite detours to a couple of other employers and two years in military service, Bennack had ascended to publisher of the newspaper; a scarce decade later, he became CEO of the company that owned The Light and such iconic magazines at Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Popular Mechanics.
Bennack’s book forthrightly describes the financial difficulties of newspaper ownership over the years - from the shuttering of afternoon newspapers as the decline of industrial jobs changed Americans’ reading habits to the challenges the digital revolution presents to ink-on-paper enterprises. But of interest to both casual readers and business professionals are Bennack’s stories of acquisitions by Hearst, notably of newspapers and TV stations and the hugely profitable ESPN franchise, and of the drama surrounding the decision to build the Hearst Tower in New York in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
There’s perhaps a specialized audience, too, for Bennack’s book: those who imagine themselves future CEOs. It’s unclear if it was the author’s intent to offer a blueprint for ethical corporate leadership, but that it does - from detailing the forging of relationships with other business leaders to the example of good citizenship represented by service on not-for-profit boards. Bennack eventually became board chair of New York Presbyterian Hospital and, in a role that his arts-loving father surely would have envied, of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Bennack finally explains the book’s title in its final passage, but by that time we understand its meaning from the reading: Nobody else has to lose for you to win. To leave something on the table is “not just good manners, it’s good business.”
For some readers, Bennack’s book may yield envy - not of the author, but of his employees. Not every enterprise, after all, is led by a CEO who affirms the value in knowing “that we make a profit by doing truly good work in meaningful ways, not because we have mastered financial engineering.” By the time he gave up Hearst’s top job in 2013, Bennack was able to point to tremendous financial success at the privately-held company, surely surpassing that at publicly-traded companies in Hearst’s cohort.
“But an enterprise is a living organism,” Bennack writes, since “the numbers only give us one picture of its health.” For the thousands of people who worked under him, as well as in his view of the activities throughout his long career, Bennack makes clear, it is personal interactions based on ethical principles that matter most.
Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union, a Hearst newspaper in Albany, N.Y.; firstname.lastname@example.org