Incredible. Stupendous. Awe-inspiring. And that's just feeling you get looking at the schedule for the two days. In none of the114 events I've covered in the last 3 years, I've never seen such a serious assemblage of CEOs. I got giddy putting on my name badge.
Hosted at the Grand Hyatt at Grand Central Station in New York City by Goldman Sachs media and telecom analyst research team, this event is absolutely the stage from which the leading companies set the tone for 2005 for the rest of their industry. With this backdrop in mind, Goldman put together a schedule so packed with CEOs, they might as well have closed off the bathrooms, since no one used them. (Even more striking for me was the sheer lack of networking among analysts. Few demonstrated any interest in camaraderie, despite the marathon conference; no one I asked had even brought business cards(!), not expecting to have any actual time to use them. It was obvious that the best of the best [antisocial] analysts were in attendance.)
After having sampled events from almost all the major research firms, I can definitely say that Goldman's is plain-vanilla, military-style, no-frills (Merrill still retains the crown). But what they lack in amenities, they more than make up for in quality of content. Perusing the newspapers during and for a week after, this conference and announcements made during the two days were cited a minimum of 10 times in the business pages. In my 10 pages of handwritten notes (a new personal record for these things), I even noted how amazing it was that so many great derrières of corporate America had used the same plush purple chair on stage.
(Note to male readers: Counting the number of CEOs with pinstripes compared to those without, I can say without a doubt that the top brass still considers pinstripes to be the appropriate attire for anything of any importance. Cuff-links aren't important, but a good suit still is.)
Set up to present the titans of media and telecom in day one and two respectively, I found it interesting that media titans are far more appealing to hear than telecom for two reasons: they've got more billions in their personal bank accounts (many are the founders of their firms, while telecoms were founded at least two generations ago); and two, they're more flashy, with their staple of celebrities and exciting TV shows, while telecom is some of the drollest conversation about technical and regulatory issues you'd ever want to hear.
It's great to see that all the CEOs had a firm command of their industry and firms, however, it was also obvious that they weren't on top of all the details, as they shouldn't be expected to. (Vonage CEO Jeff Citron was an exception). It reminds me of a quote I heard recently (and haven't been able to substantiate after two weeks of looking) from Henry Ford when asked by a judge why he wasn't familiar with all the details about his empire, the largest corporation in the world at the time of this inquiry: " if I knew all the details, Judge, I wouldn't be able to lead the largest corporation in the world." It has never traditionally been the responsibility of the CEO to actually know every detail of the company he manages. Founders do, and even they stop after their company reaches a certain size. CEOs are managers. They come into a firm with a deep understanding of the industry, management functions, hiring plans, and financials, and proceed with a risk-taking strategy to make it all work together for growth or value. Getting the right people to present to him (or her) all the numbers is job #1. Analysts that get paid to spend their entire career scrutinizing every nook and cranny of a company fault CEOs for not doing the same. But what can a researcher ever know about spending a billion dollars, firing a thousand workers, or winning over the hearts and minds of customers? Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling shouldn't be held accountable for everything that occurred at Enron, and today, I understand that better.
At the very least, this conference gave me a better appreciation for the task I have undertaken for you, my readers - I don't just analyze a firm and industry because you pay me to do it; I analyze them because it helps me run a better company for you. The insights I personally deliver aren't based on comparisons of financial metrics, but on the real-world experience of applying my insights. This, I believe, is more valuable than any analyst report you've ever purchased.
Due to the unusually revealing nature of this conference (Goldman analysts seemed to have attained the clout to ask CEOs the weighty questions few others would dare ask), there will be two separate reports that follow on media and telecom.
Overall, this conference merits 5 pluses, an unusual honor for this event, since I typically reserve it for events with equally great networking opportunities.
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