Next Generation Leadership: Deflecting Credit for Charge and Growth
To achieve dramatic change in a family business, leadership style may be the opposite of dramatic. Jim Kennedy, grandson of company founder James Cox, provides a great example of how personal leadership can support fundamental strategic and organizational change.
In 1987, at the age of 39, Kennedy became CEO of his family’s $1.7 billion (annual sales) media business. Since 1898, the company has had four CEOs: His grandfather, uncle, step-father and himself. Prior to taking the top job, Kennedy rose through the ranks to become executive vice president and general manager of his family’s flagship Atlanta newspapers. Initially, he hewed to the status quo. Soon, however, Cox Enterprises was on the defensive, trying to protect its core businesses from much larger, publicly-traded competitors.
Cox had owned Manheim Auto Auctions since 1968, but in 1990, GE Capital and Ford Motor Credit teamed up to create GECARS and went after the automotive auction market. Next, the New York Times Company invaded Atlanta, buying a suburban newspaper with plans to compete with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. Kennedy made sure that Manheim remained number one in its market and GE and Ford soon capitulated, selling to Cox in 1991. In response to the New York Times Co., Cox launched a new suburban daily, added reporters and sales staff. The New York Times quickly retreated.
Since fending off the competition, Cox has gone on the offensive. This year, revenues will exceed $8 billion, 470% growth during Kennedy’s tenure. Some of that growth was generated from within, and some through acquisition of newspapers and radio and TV stations, Cox’s traditional businesses. But Cox has also become a media pacesetter, investing heavily in internet, cutting-edge cable services, and many other businesses.
Two Cox subsidiaries have gone public – Cox Communications (cable) and Cox Radio – with the family retaining majority ownership of each. Access to Wall Street capital has provided funds for new investments, and publicly-traded stock makes it easier to attract top talent. Another Cox company, AutoTrader.com, may go public next year.
Through all of this achievement, Kennedy has kept a low profile. While he was recently recognized as one of Atlanta’s best speakers, Kennedy is low-key, self-effacing, casual, and deflecting of any credit. Forbes’ Dyan Machan described him as “the most unmogul-like mogul we’ve ever met.”
The principal owners of Cox Enterprises are Kennedy’s mother and aunt, two of the richest women in the world. Eventually, ownership will pass to Kennedy, his sister, and three cousins. “As a leader, he’s perfect,” his aunt told Forbes. “He’s got the job as long as he likes,” his mother added.
Kennedy keeps his forces focused on audacious growth, constant change, and building value. He seems completely uninterested in claiming any credit for himself. As such, he offers a great example to next generation leaders of family businesses of any size.