Friday, July 12, 2013

On this beat, billionaires are quiet

At Allen & Co. conference, big topics and casual attire

Express Staff Writer

Howard Stringer, former president and CEO of Sony Corp., walks through Sun Valley Village with Kazuo Hirai, the current CEO of Sony, at the annual Allen & Co. conference. Photo by Willy Cook

What happens at Allen and Co. stays at Allen and Co., at least until big deals are made public or gossip leaks out. It leaves one to wonder. Who will play in the round-robin tennis tournament scheduled for today? King Abdullah of Jordan? Larry Page of Google? Will Bill and Melinda Gates play mixed doubles?
    Some 300 heavy-hitters of the technology, media and sports industries are in the Wood River Valley this week for investment bank Allen & Co.’s 31st annual Sun Valley Conference. It took billions of dollars worth of aircraft to get them here, yet many of the moguls walk around Sun Valley in sandals and T-shirts, no doubt reflecting on the roles they will play in the future of the entertainment and information industries.
    What the business titans and government leaders learn here, and agree upon or disagree upon, could help shape the world’s communication and imagination landscape for generations. Yet it all seems so casual. Maybe that is why it works.
    In 1999, a $186 billion merger of Time Warner Inc. and America Online was hatched here. A few years before that, Walt Disney Co. agreed to buy Capital Cities/ABC for $19.5 billion.
    Allen and Co. invitees have in recent years come increasingly from Silicon Valley, not just New York and Hollywood, at times causing tension. In 2007, Viacom movie mogul Sumner Redstone held court among journalists and passersby for hours in the lobby at the Sun Valley Inn, regaling us with his opinion of a $1 billion lawsuit he had filed against Google for copyright infringement. Allen and Co. also invited Google co-founder Sergey Brin that year to the conference, but it is uncertain if he took the opportunity to chat with Redstone on a hike, or on a river-rafting trip. With more than $100 million spent since then by Google in legal defense against the lawsuit, the matter is set for yet another appeal.
    Yet thanks to the magical appeal of Allen and Co., Google and Viacom executives are still coming to the so-called “Summer Camp for Billionaires.” They do big business, but are also exposed to some of the pressing issues facing their industries, and the world in general.
    On an overcast Thursday morning, “Cyber Insecurity” was the topic of discussion inside the Limelight Room at the Sun Valley Inn, moderated by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg then joined a panel with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to discuss “What we need for economic growth.”
    Outside of the conference center, the scene is colorful. On a nearby lawn, the children of guests play together, tottering in and out of white tents, rolling large, colored balls. They are tended by costumed sitters—one dressed like a football referee, another decked out like Cinderella. Teams of local residents, including doctors and school teachers, hustle about town on the Allen and Co. payroll. They are well paid and keep mum about their brushes with fame. It can’t be easy.
    A clutch of Associated Press and Bloomberg photographers languishing at a barricade suddenly spring to life in an effort to photograph Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto. The president is whisked into the Sun Valley Inn by bodyguards and a decorated military officer for an interview by a representative of the Inter-American Development Bank.
    “I got him,” says one photographer with a sigh, before rushing to a laptop to send his picture to an editor someplace afar. Within minutes, the picture will be available everywhere, including the cell phone in my pocket.
    Many attendees at Allen and Co. have played a role in making the world a smaller place, including executives from Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Yet face to face interaction still plays a major role at the conference. Young reporters from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times hail notable figures as they emerge from the Sun Valley Inn. They take up conversations with bigwigs that apparently began in the big city.
    And then it happens. Big stars start walking by. Andreas Halvorsen, billionaire hedge-fund manager and former Norwegian SEAL, walks briskly by alone, his back ramrod straight. What might he be on his way to do? He does not look in my direction. Twenty-First Century Fox news titan Rupert Murdoch’s son, Lachlan, with a tattooed leg and wearing surf shorts, says he will be back in a minute to chat, but isn’t.
    “I always love Sun Valley,” Michael Bloomberg says to me in reply to a hello, but he is unwilling to give an interview.
    Vanity Fair editor and film producer Graydon Carter’s shock of white hair becomes visible from a distance. He does stop to chat, obviously delighted to be in attendance.
    “This is my first time to Sun Valley and it is pretty heavenly,” he says. “This is the best-organized event I have ever seen. I am seeing a lot of old friends.”
    Carter said he and his wife were planning on fly-fishing and hiking while in town.
    “You live in a beautiful place,” he tells me, with a knowing look. And I begin to see the magic that lies behind the success of Allen and Co. Perhaps deals are made here because they are made against the backdrop of Mother Nature’s finest.    
    Thankfully, the skies are never cloudy for long around here. Sunshine is expected for this morning, when some very powerful and influential people will emerge from a discussion moderated by longtime NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw titled “Good for business, Good for your mother… Mother Earth.” Top executives from Coca-Cola, Walmart and Patagonia will be interviewed on the subject.
    Everyone should have something to appreciate, other than profits, as they spread out around the valley afterward for afternoons filled with hiking, fishing and horseback riding. 

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