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New Centurion : MTV Creator Goes Boldly Into Century 21

August 27, 1995|DEBORA VRANA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

IRVINE — It may have been a sign of things to come, or maybe it was just a fashion statement.

But recently, Robert W. Pittman, Century 21's new chief executive, firmly but politely declined to don the company's trademark gold coat during his first visit to the firm's gleaming Irvine headquarters.

"I like this jacket I have on," said Pittman, dressed more for a power lunch in Beverly Hills than a walk through a hallway festooned with photos of gold-jacketed real estate agents.

An entertainment whiz who shook up cable television by creating MTV, Pittman intends to push the real estate brokerage firm, with 6,000 offices worldwide, boldly into the 21st Century.

Through MTV, VH-1, Nick at Nite and the other Pittman creations, television got a big dose of youth culture and energy. Now, real estate may be poised for a similar revitalization when Pittman, 41, takes over Century 21 on Nov. 1.

"They are going to create a whirlwind," said Sanford R. Goodkin, a real estate consultant in La Jolla. "We are going to see more high-tech products, more visuals offered to the consumer. With what this new CEO promises--it's sensational."

Pittman wants to change the way Americans buy homes. He plans to create one-stop shops where customers can purchase a home and within minutes get a mortgage, and he wants to build on an already strong brand name by adding luster to the company's straight-out-of-the-1970s gold-and-brown logo and image.

One of his first steps will be to move the company founded 24 years ago by two Orange County realtors to New Jersey, where Century 21's new owners are headquartered.

"I pride myself on the fact that whatever company I run, we move faster and quicker and are the envy of others," Pittman said in an interview last week.

"We want Century 21 to be very entrepreneurial, flexible and with active dissent. As [former Time Warner Chairman] Steve Ross always used to say, 'In this company, you'll be fired for not making mistakes.' "

Still, with little experience in real estate, some wonder how Pittman will fare in his new arena, especially with some areas of the country, particularly California, still in the real estate doldrums.

Others who say he is more a showman than a producer wonder whether the traditional world of real estate can hold his attention.

Kenneth Agid, a real estate consultant in Irvine, said Pittman could bring the luster back to Century 21 if he can bridge the gap between real estate and entertainment.

"If he tries to make it Disneyland there will be a problem," Agid said. "There are some important basics of real estate and there's a reason that certain things are done certain ways. But if he can bring that imagination and new way of looking at things he could turn Century 21 into a leader again."

Still, Elizabeth Ellison, co-owner of Century 21 Casa Grande in Santa Ana, questioned how much Pittman knows about the daily travails of brokers trying to survive in a sluggish housing market.

"I think he should come out here and work for a day as a broker then see the problems we have," she said. "But he's a multimillionaire, right? He probably won't want to."

If anything, a look at his track record shows that the high-profile Pittman, who recently posed for Vanity Fair magazine, never shies away from a good challenge.

The Mississippi native and son of a Methodist minister began his career at 15 as a part-time disc jockey.

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At 23, Pittman was named a program director at New York's WNBC-TV. He then turned the radio station into the top-ranked station in the country. In his late 20s, Pittman was battling to get his "crazy idea" for a 24-hour music channel approved by Ross, soon to become a close mentor, at Warner Bros. He succeeded, and MTV became the first profitable basic cable station in the country.

But Pittman is not without his failures. Such ideas as Radio Lisa, a 24-hour heavy-metal radio network, never really caught on. He ran Quantum Media, a firm that produced such TV shows as "The Morton Downey Jr. Show," but it closed down in 1989, its assets bought by Time Warner.

At Time Warner, Pittman became executive of the Six Flags Theme Parks Inc. division. There he oversaw development of a new water park called Hurricane Harbor in Valencia near Magic Mountain, and created new entertainment-driven attractions like the Batman ride.

Earlier this year, Pittman announced he would leave Six Flags following Time Warner's sale of a 51% interest in the theme park to an investor group. Pittman, who was expected to remain with the business and was instrumental in the sale, left when the two parties could not agree on the size of his stake in the new venture, analysts said.

"Something went wrong with the deal--maybe it was just an agreement to disagree," said David S. Leibowitz, a managing director with Burnham Securities in New York. "But Pittman did a very fine job at Six Flags and deserves all the credit for building it up."

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