CONTACT: Kathleen O'Toole, News Service (650) 725-1939;
Plan for 'retirement' career, Seagram's chairman advises students
Edgar Bronfman Sr., a man who devotes part of his retirement to collecting restitution for Holocaust victims, stopped by the Stanford campus Dec. 7 to urge students to begin thinking now about 30 years of retirement ahead.
With personal life spans increasing at the same time that career life spans are shrinking, the former chief executive of the Seagram Co. said, American executives and professionals need to plan for separate retirement careers or for financing a very long period of skiing, fishing and swimming.
Bronfman, 69, is still chairman of the Montreal-based global company that he took over when his father died in 1971, but he turned over the day-to-day operations to son Edgar Jr. in 1994. As chief executive, the junior Bronfman expanded into the entertainment business by buying MCA Inc. and renaming it Universal Studios. More recently, he bid for PolyGram, the leading music distribution company. The senior Bronfman said his corporate job now involves mostly "carrying the flag for the company, like the vice president going to funerals."
Bronfman's own father refused to retire, a mistake his son vowed not to repeat. "Consumer markets are by definition a young person's game," he said, because most people don't change their buying habits much after the age of 45 or so. When America's drinking habits changed in the '50s, he said, "I told my father it was silly to be advertising to his friends, even if they weren't dead."
Bronfman Sr. also said he refuses to second-guess his son, the way his father did him. The junior Bronfman has been criticized in the press recently for losses in the movie division that apparently prompted him to fire some of Universal's top executives. Except for the movie division, his father said, the entertainment portion of the family business is doing well. "The stock is a little depressed, but I think it's going to double in the next few years." He said he agreed with his son's decision to buy PolyGram. "Music is one of America's greatest exports."
Bronfman came mostly to talk about retirement options, however. He lives summers in Sun Valley, where he met Norman Nie, the president and co-founder of SPSS, a statistics-oriented software company, and a professor of political science who recently came to Stanford from the University of Chicago. Nie is organizing a new research institute to study social changes brought about by information technology, and Bronfman has agreed to chair its advisory board. Bronfman told his audience of about 80 students, who were taking a break from final exams, that he expects them to face some tough economic times. "There's a great deal of over-capacity in the world," he said, which leads to pressure to consolidate companies to achieve more economies on a global scale. That will "put more people out on the street early. That's one of the sadnesses of our system."
Those who plan toward possible retirement in their 50s, he said, are likely to be happier in their retirement years. In addition to those who use retirement for leisure activities, he said, he knows of former executives who volunteer to help small businesses in developing countries and others who have started their own small business in retirement. "The trick" that he is still trying to master, he said, is to "stay busy but a little less busy" than before retirement.
Students in the audience expressed strong interest in his activities on behalf of Holocaust victims. Bronfman is president of the World Jewish Congress, which recently negotiated a settlement with Swiss banks to pay $1.25 billion into a fund for Holocaust survivors in restitution for money taken from Jews by the Nazis and deposited in Swiss banks during World War II. He is also president of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which has been slated to distribute the funds, and just last week President Clinton named Bronfman to chair a U.S. advisory commission on Holocaust restitution.
"We're going to get money from every company that stole money from the Jews," Bronfman promised. Those companies and the people involved with them today should not feel tainted by the involvement of others in the past in the Holocaust, he said, but they have an obligation to return what was stolen, including unpaid labor. He drew a distinction between those entities that used "forced" labor and those that used "slave" labor during the war. Forced laborers, mostly non-Jewish, were given enough to eat, he said, whereas slave laborers, mostly Jewish, were fed about 1,000 calories a day, an insufficient amount to keep them alive more than about six months.
Bronfman was asked how his Jewish identity has affected his life. He said it has played no role in his business life but became a focus of his personal life as an adult when he "accidentally" witnessed Jews in Russia violate a ban on worship at a Moscow synagogue. As a teenager, he said, he had rebelled against synagogue. Later on, he said, he discovered the Talmud was not as "arcane" as he had previously thought, but rather a "system of common law" for achieving justice that made him proud of his Jewish background.
Sponsors of Bronfman's talk were the newly organized Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, the Career Management Center of the Graduate School of Business and a student group, B'nai Biz.
-By Kathleen O'Toole-