GE'S HARD DRIVER AT NBC Bob Wright negotiated some sharp career turns at General Electric. But life in television's fast lane requires new skills, including an understanding of show business.
By Alex Taylor III REPORTER ASSOCIATE Andrew Kupfer

(FORTUNE Magazine) – TALK ABOUT a short honeymoon. Within days after General Electric sent him to run NBC, Robert C. Wright found himself criticized for: looking older than he is (43), wearing a shoe with a hole in its sole at a public function (he didn't), lacking charisma (arguable), and not being his predecessor, Grant Tinker (unarguable). David Letterman joked on his late-night NBC comedy show that the onetime head of GE's small-appliances division would ''push for a miniseries about the development of the toaster oven.'' Wright is trying to grin and bear it -- something he has rarely had to do - before. During an eclectic career at GE, he held jobs in fields as disparate as law, manufacturing, sales, and finance. Wright performed so well there that some security analysts say he is the leading candidate to become GE's chairman when Jack Welch, 50, relinquishes the title. Welch, who put Wright in charge at NBC, thinks his man is ''perfect'' for that job. But little in Wright's experience has prepared him for running a show business juggernaut in the media capital of the world. His biggest problem is beyond his control: He had the misfortune to succeed the enormously popular Tinker. ''The best act to follow is a bad act,'' says Les Brown, publisher of Channels, a magazine that covers the television industry. ''Wright follows a great act.'' But Wright has also created problems for himself. He circulated some controversial memos that turned up in the pages of the New York Times. And he laid off 150 people just as NBC finished on top of the prime-time ratings for the first time in 31 years and operating profits reached a high of $400 million (up from $48 million five years earlier). Says Wright in defense: ''GE and Bob Wright will have failed if we wait until NBC stumbles and then try to fix it.'' Even now NBC must worry about the problems facing CBS and ABC: stagnant advertising, fewer viewers, and growing competition. Wright's mission is to keep a lid on costs while he figures out ways to put a booster under revenues. In GE-speak, he wants to ''grow the business.'' With his thinning blond hair and engaging smile, Wright looks like the enterprising kid down the block who makes straight A's, is an Eagle Scout, and holds down two after-school jobs. But that doesn't mean everyone loves him. An acquaintance says Wright reminds him of ''the kid who skipped a grade in school and always has to remind you of it.'' There is a restlessness to the man that has propelled him through enough jobs to fill several resumes. Since joining GE out of law school in 1969 he has left twice: first to clerk for a federal judge, then to run a cable broadcasting company in Atlanta. Each time he returned to a bigger position. Talk to a dozen of Wright's colleagues and you get the same description of him: highly intelligent, quick on his feet, and adept at handling people. Wright manages by looking at the big picture and leaving details to others. He wants bright, aggressive people working for him and recruits diligently to find them. That strategy enables him to map out long-term plans, then rely on subordinates to get from here to there. People at GE see in Wright many of the attributes of Welch, his famously tough boss. ''Jack is the most involved chief executive in America,'' says John M. Trani, head of GE's medical systems group. ''He's in up to his armpits. Bob is the same way. This is not rocking-chair management. Bob is a big-play guy. In fact, he is a prototypical Jack Welch manager.'' Wright and Welch first crossed paths at GE in 1973, and they have been close ever since. ''They genuinely like each other,'' says GE executive vice president Paul W. Van Orden. ''Jack has a way of dominating a relationship, but Bob is strong enough to handle it. Jack speaks quickly and doesn't always complete sentences, and Bob is quick enough to figure out what he's saying and tough enough to argue with him.'' The two men are similar in other ways. They even have a facial resemblance. Like Welch, Wright is an only child, a Roman Catholic, and a striver who worked his way up. He was raised on Long Island, where his mother taught school and his father was variously an engineer, a contractor, and a stockbroker. After graduating from an all-boys Catholic high school, Wright went to the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he majored in psychology and history. In law school at the University of Virginia, Wright took business courses along with his law classes. He also married Suzanne Werner, the daughter of a New York City policeman, and started his family. AFTER GRADUATING from law school and serving as an infantry lieutenant in the Army Reserve, Wright joined GE as a staff lawyer. Even then he had his eye on bigger things. A friend recalls Wright saying that law would give him a leg up on a GE career. But Wright had a hard time waiting for GE to recognize his abilities. After only 18 months he left to clerk for a federal judge in New Jersey. Though he took a 50% pay cut, Wright says the experience was too good to pass up. When the clerkship ended he joined a Newark law firm. He lasted six months in the stodgy trusts and estates department before joining another Jersey firm. Two years later Wright turned down a partnership to return to GE. He felt that he had learned all the law he needed. By 1976 he was running a GE plastics operation in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Within a few months Wright became head of sales for GE's entire plastics business. He hiked revenues from $325 million in 1977 to $500 million in 1979. That same year GE struck a deal to acquire the cable television business of Cox Communications. Before the merger was completed, GE sent Wright to Atlanta as president of Cox Cable. Although the deal fell through, Wright stayed on at Cox. He ran the company during cable television's expansion years, negotiating franchises in four large cities, arranging joint ventures with program distributors, and investing in a now defunct pioneering system for at-home banking and shopping. During his tenure Cox's payroll grew from 900 to 5,000. In 1983, Welch had another job for Wright, who by that time had lost out to a longtime Cox employee to become head of the parent company. Wright says he left because cable's boom years were ending and he didn't want to manage a static business. He returned to GE as head of the housewares and audio divisions. Wright developed his dealmaking skills by arranging the sale of GE's toaster ovens, irons, and other small appliances to Black & Decker for $300 million. Then in 1986 he negotiated the purchase of an 80% interest in the investment banking house of Kidder Peabody for GE Financial Services. The deal took 11 days, start to finish. An associate remembers Wright carrying on three simultaneous telephone conversations during one negotiating session, marshaling facts and figures in the unfamiliar business from memory. Late one night, just before the agreement was ready to sign, a puckish Wright told Ralph DeNunzio, Kidder's chief executive, that he wanted to review a few more points. The weary DeNunzio protested until Wright told him it was all a joke and whipped out two bottles of champagne. GE probably doesn't feel like celebrating now. Through no fault of Wright's, Kidder Peabody has become deeply involved in Wall Street's insider trading scandal (see News/Trends). More than a few GE executives would have sidestepped Welch's offer to run NBC. Far better to manage, say, GE's aircraft group, which has more people (40,000 to NBC's 8,000) and less visibility. ''My job has a lot of drawbacks that would discourage the average businessman,'' concedes Wright. ''Cost and profitability are not necessarily related. You can't guarantee ways to get market share and you can't guarantee ways to keep it. The business is governed by intangibles: viewer tastes, competition, affiliate relations. There is a lack of clarity about where you're going.'' IT WAS the risk that appealed to Wright, and he plunged right in. Tinker $ had left behind a study identifying layers of fat that could be cut in hard times. Wright says Tinker did not act on it because he ''probably didn't want to leave on that note, and frankly, why should he?'' Wright did act, and took the heat for laying off 150 people and pointing 150 more toward early retirement. Tinker says the study was unfinished when he left. Wright also made a series of provocative proposals to his managers. In one he asked division heads to see if they could cut their budgets by 5%. In another he chastised administrators for overly cautious ''belt and suspenders'' management. A third suggested that NBC start a political action committee funded with employee contributions. Wright routinely circulated confidential memos at GE. But at NBC, disgruntled employees leaked all three proposals to the newspapers. Because journalists regard themselves as objective observers of the political scene, they were particularly offended at being asked to contribute money to a political action committee. Wright was accused of undermining NBC's credibility and eroding morale. He became the butt of taunts from television critics and further jokes from Letterman; a Wright character turned up on the Letterman show encouraging viewers to burn more light bulbs. Wright jokingly says that he will expect royalty payments if the gibes keep up. Even temperate members of NBC's family seem taken aback by Wright's gaffes. Says Tom Brokaw, anchorman of the NBC Nightly News: ''The transition from Tinker to Wright has been abrupt for a lot of people.'' Tinker, back in California where he runs his own production company, observes that ''if you gave Wright truth serum, you'd probably find a couple of memos he wished he hadn't written. We all make mistakes like that.'' Wright appears chastened by the public bloodying. He put the PAC proposal on hold and actually increased slightly the news divison's 1987 budget. And he stopped writing memos on sensitive subjects. He says he does not understand what the uproar was about. Some of it is the inevitable friction created by GE's purchase of a high-profile institution. But NBC veterans also regard Wright as an outsider, a green-eyeshade accountant who came not from show business or news but from a notoriously bottom-line-oriented corporation. He did not contribute to NBC's success but now he wants people to toe the line. Says Brown of Channels magazine: ''He didn't give those guys a moment to rejoice. They never got to enjoy the spoils.'' Wright is not really an outsider. At Cox he spent his time negotiating cable franchises and adding subscribers. Those skills have served him better in dealing with NBC's affiliates than with the network stars. He hiked payments to affiliates for carrying NBC programs, which should increase the number of stations broadcasting network shows. But during his first five months he visited only one NBC news bureau, and he concedes that he should spend more time in Burbank, home of NBC's programming operation. Wright still has not met Bill Cosby, creator and star of America's most popular TV show, which generates about $75 million in annual revenue for NBC. The explanation Wright offers seems somewhat tortured. ''It is more important to have NBC support Bill in his projects than for me to say hello to him or have lunch with him,'' he says. ''I don't sense from everything I've read about Bill that backslapping is his biggest corporate issue.'' NBC's new president reviews few scripts or pilots of new shows. He admits to having no favorite programs. When he watches television he switches rapidly from channel to channel. To find more time for viewing, he had a videocassette recorder installed in the stretch Cadillac limousine he uses for the 90-minute commute to and from work. Wright, his wife, and their children live on a waterfront estate on Connecticut's Gold Coast in Fairfield County. Though he often stays overnight at an NBC apartment in a Manhattan hotel, he tries to get home for his 14- year-old son Christopher's soccer games or his 18-year-old daughter Katie's tennis matches. He also has another daughter, 9-year-old Maggie. If Wright sometimes seems uncomfortable working in the fishbowl that is NBC, his children take it in stride. Having your father as president of NBC means getting tickets to the David Letterman show and invitations to the World Series (accepted) and Super Bowl (declined). Dad prefers to spend his free time at the wheel of a sports car. Wright owns two English roadsters, an Austin-Healey 3000 and a Triumph TR 8. While he does not race his cars, he likes to drive them fast, and he has taken a spin around such tracks as Connecticut's Lime Rock and Georgia's Road Atlanta. Wright has moved more slowly to change NBC's programming. In one of his few decisions, he supported a suggestion by Entertainment President Brandon Tartikoff that NBC add a situation comedy to its Saturday morning lineup of cartoons. The show will cost $3 million more than the cartoon it replaces. But all three networks have been losing audience in that time slot, and Wright thought Tartikoff would be presiding over the ''dissolution of his empire'' unless he made a change. Wright also tried to lure Tinker back to NBC as an independent producer with an offer to buy a piece of Tinker's new company. Instead Tinker wound up signing a program deal with CBS. Wright says Tinker wanted to sever all ties with NBC so that he could be a truly independent producer. Moreover, NBC did not have enough openings in its schedule to offer Tinker the multiseries deal he wanted. ''You do business where there is business to be done, '' says Tinker. DESPITE WRIGHT'S troubles at NBC, Wall Street likes his style. ''He's trying to bring the real world into focus at NBC,'' says Nicholas Heymann of Drexel Burnham Lambert. Wright himself is looking beyond NBC. His long-term goal is the chairmanship of GE, so the only person he really must impress is Welch. Asked how Wright is doing, Welch barks ''terrific.'' It will take longer for Wright to bring around his NBC colleagues. Veterans note that since the network was founded in 1926, every boss save two -- Tinker and Robert Sarnoff, son of the company's founder -- departed involuntarily. Says NBC News President Lawrence K. Grossman: ''The trick for Bob will be to meld his sophistication and experience into showmanship and programming -- the things the network does for a living.'' So far there is still more GE than TV in the man. Over and over, Wright has proved himself a quick learner. Now he has to prove it again.