How Lord Conrad Black Grew His Newspaper Empire

Robber Baron: Lord Black of Crossharbour by George Tombs

If you are a fan of tycoon biographies this book should be of interest to you. I found it particularly enjoyable to read for two personal reasons.

First, the best biographies, in my humble opinion, are the ones which take you inside the subject’s head and reveal what drives them to excel or at least clutch at the brass ring. The author here, George Tombs, is superb in this particular area. This is partly due to the fact he has known his subject personally for a number of years while working on an authorized biography. This book is the unauthorized version which came out after Black was found guilty in mid-2007 of stealing $6.5 million from his own public company, Hollinger International, an owner of newspapers around the globe. It’s safe to assume that the two men had a last moment falling out around the time of the trial.

Lord Conrad Black

Lord Conrad Black

Second, I have been following Conrad Black’s business career on and off since about 1980 when I began my study of business tycoons and their strategies at a precocious age.

There’s actually a third reason why I found this biography such an engrossing read.  I have this morbid fascination with greedy people. I’m talking about people who have an inflated sense of self-entitlement, people who believe themselves to be above the law, people who will snatch the $100 from your hand that you had intended to use to refill your child’s insulin script in order to buy themselves a Cuban cigar. I’m talking Gordon Gekko, Leona Helmsley greedy. This, unfortunately, is how Conrad Black comes across as well.

The book is so good that I read 225 pages in the first sitting. That’s probably a record for me as I hardly ever exceed 100 pages per evening.

Conrad Black is currently serving a 6 year sentence in the USA for getting caught with his fingers in a public company’s cookie jar. Despite this sad ending, he is worth studying for students of business strategy. His tycoon career began in 1969 at age 25, when he and two equally inexperienced friends purchased a small town newspaper in Quebec. Long story short, Black developed a cookie-cutter system for acquisitions and ended up acquiring over 500 newspapers in Canada, the USA, Britain, and Israel over the next 30 plus years. He was a master at unleashing the game changing “Golden Feedback Loop” as I have come to call it within an industry. Once unleashed there was no option of holding onto the status quo. It was shattered. You then had to play by his rules or go out of business.

Controversy followed Black throughout his entire career starting at an early age. At Upper Canada College, an exclusive boy’s school, (think Andover and Exeter), he was expelled for selling copies of an exam to fellow students.  However, his two biggest mistakes, according to Tombs, were:

1. A decision to list his Canadian public company on a USA stock exchange where his “proprietary style of management” was much more likely to draw undesirable attention and sanctions.

2. His decision to give up his Canadian citizenship in 2001 in order to accept a British peerage offered by Tony Blair and become “Lord Black of Crossharbour”. (Canadians have not been allowed to hold such titles since 1919.)

The first decision eventually led to accusations of Black running the new US public company as a “corporate kleptocracy.” This then led to a lengthy trial where a jury found him guilty and he was sentenced to 6 years in prison.

The second decision foiled his last minute attempts to regain his Canadian citizenship so that if found guilty, he could serve his sentence in a Canadian prison where he would most likely have had a substantial portion of it reduced for good behavior.

Considering his lifelong M.O. of using public company funds and assets as if they existed solely for his personal benefit, the 6 year prison sentence handed to him at age 63 can be viewed as the equivalent of a Hollywood “Life Time Achievement Award,” according to one wag.

One final point here about Black. He never made it anywhere close to billionaire status, but I include him here because he most certainly possesses the imperial air of one.

The only slow chapter in the book is one on the subject of a Black biography, Duplessi. It took some effort to work through it as it had too much unnecessary detail on a side character.

All in all, this is one of the best biographies in my extensive collection. Get more information on Robber Baron: Lord Black of Crossharbour.


Update July 2010: Conrad has been set free from prison on bail and is unlikely to have to finish the remainder of his sentence. This is a consequence of a Supreme Court ruling in another case. I’m actually glad to see him out. His transgressions pale in comparison to what we have seen on Wall Street over the last few years.

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