Sunday, August 31, 2008

Extreme Experience: Septuagenarian CEOs

Extreme Experience: Septuagenarian CEOs

When Senator John McCain takes the stage at the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis on Sept. 4, he will become the oldest candidate ever to accept his party's nomination for a first-term President. McCain, who will be 72 when he formally accepts the nod, has sought to turn his advanced years into an attribute (he is wise) and a counterpoint to the message being championed by his 47-year-old rival, Senator Barack Obama (he is for a fresh start). This election, at least on one level, is a national referendum on change vs. experience.

A similar dynamic is at work in business. It often seems as though young people rule the world, especially since the dot-com boom (Hello, Google (GOOG) and Facebook guys). But you might be surprised at how many senior citizens—media moguls, casino kings, Chinese tycoons—are cutting deals, starting new businesses, and generally kicking boomer and Gen Y butt.

If 60 is the new 40, then 80 is the new 60. Mellowing with age simply doesn't compute for these folks. Every morning, Sumner Redstone, the 85-year-old chairman of Viacom (VIA) and CBS (CBS), rises at 5 in his Beverly Hills manse, swims, rides an exercise bike, runs on a treadmill, and peruses financial reports until the markets open. Rupert Murdoch, 77, goes a few rounds with a boxing coach before setting off to run his global media empire. Playboy Editor-in-Chief Hugh Hefner, 82, may get a workout from exercising the fabled prerogatives of his job.

We decided to take the measure of these people. We surveyed our global network of correspondents and came up with a list of folks who range in age from 75 to 100 and run their companies or wield real influence in business. We ranked them from oldest to youngest and called our list Twenty-Five Over Seventy-Five. (There were so many, we opted to list another 25 on

The first thing you'll notice about our list is that for the most part these people are founder-entrepreneurs. From Hong Kong's Li Ka-shing to Wall Street's Muriel "Mickie" Siebert to Belgium's Albert Frre, they answer to no boss. And even when they have shareholders watching their every move, many of these seniors control their companies through supervoting stock. Does extreme experience pay off? Not always. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that most of the seniors on our list who run public companies failed to beat their respective indexes over the past five years. There are exceptions. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) is up 59% over that period, vs. 40% for the S&P 500.

Septuagenarians running the show is not the norm in the corporate world. At most companies, 65 is the cutoff. At that point merit and years served are meaningless: It's time to take the gold watch, hit the golf course, and start collecting the pension. People who'd prefer to keep working feel robbed, of course. Veteran auto executive Robert A. Lutz recalls Chrysler letting him go 10 years ago because he had reached that milestone. "I'm finally getting pretty good at this and have learned many lessons the hard way," he recalls. "So they throw this asset away and send me home."

Management gurus have long argued that companies need to be more flexible in matters of retirement. Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld, who teaches management at Yale University, acknowledges executives should face "regular, brutal assessments," whatever their age. "But just as race isn't used as a proxy, age shouldn't be, either."

We know what you're thinking. Older people resist change. They are prone to "senior moments." They are always fighting the last war. Sometimes that's true. But they also have historical perspective, as well as impressive contacts built up over a lifetime.

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