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COMPANY TOWN | THE BIZ

Male-Dominated Retreat Opens Up to Women . . . Slowly

June 19, 1998|CLAUDIA ELLER and SALLIE HOFMEISTER

Herbert J. Allen Jr.'s male-dominated annual power powwow in Sun Valley, Idaho, is breaking with tradition. Not only are there more female executives on the corporate guest list this year than usual--a whopping six out of 104 or so--there will be a first-ever panel discussion led by and about women and business.

"Aren't they politically correct," one longtime male guest remarked sarcastically, suggesting the newfound attention to women likely was in response to unrelenting criticism by the press about their absence in past years. "I don't think it's a politically correct organization," he said.

Another regular said, "It's been suggested that they include more women, and I think they now realize that women make a difference in terms of how these companies are run."

However, a source close to Allen said the inclusion of more female executives was not a conscious decision to promote women, but rather a convenient way for the investment banker to promote clients.

Allen's famed, though secretive, annual confab, which runs July 7 to 12, is the 16th edition and has become a sort of high-powered male-bonding session for some of the world's most influential investors, chief executives and media moguls including the likes of Warren Buffett, Paul Allen, Rupert Murdoch, Sumner Redstone, John Malone, Gerald Levin, Michael Eisner, David Geffen, Barry Diller, Edgar Bronfman Jr., Bill Gates, Andy Grove, Herbert Siegel and Philip Knight.

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It's a place where titans like Eisner and Buffett can bump into each other in a parking lot and give birth to such macho deals as Disney's $19-billion acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC.

Allen--Wall Street's mighty investment banker to the (media) stars--encourages his guests to bring their wives and kids along to the mountain retreat, billed as a family getaway with planned activities ranging from ice skating and kickball to fly-fishing and a rodeo.

While the family is at play, the moguls huddle to talk about changes in the industry.

But the number of top female executives on hand representing corporations in any given year has been few and far between--as they are in the industry in general. Last year, Mattel Inc. President and CEO Jill Barad became the first female CEO ever invited to make a company presentation.

This year, Barad is one of four women at the conference speaking on a panel titled "Women and Business," along with Washington Post Chairwoman Katherine Graham, former Disney/ABC Cable Networks President Geraldine Laybourne, and fashion designer Diane Von Furstenberg. ABC's Prime Time Live co-host Diane Sawyer will moderate. (Pleasant T. Rowland, who just sold her doll company to Mattel in a $700-million deal engineered by Allen & Co., is the other female executive guest, though she will not be on the panel).

Graham, Laybourne and Von Furstenberg also have been executive guests at the conference before. Von Furstenberg runs in media circles as a close friend of Barry Diller. And it helps to be an Allen & Co. client. The investment bank is actively raising money for Laybourne, who recently started her own production company with her former lawyer--Lisa Hall, who left her practice--to serve the quickly converging Internet and television worlds.

The "Women and Business" panel is presumably also meant to freshen up the conference's program, which some guests think has gotten stale over the years.

Another new and seemingly politically correct addition is a panel called "Race in the Workplace: Past Practices/Future Challenges," which Tom Brokaw, another Allen friend, will moderate. Panelists include Time Warner President Richard Parsons, Black Entertainment Television founder Robert Johnson, Eastman Kodak's George Fisher, Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham, and Leslie Jones, a student at the Roberto C. Goizueta Business School at Emory University in Atlanta.

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Company presentations, a staple of the yearly event, will be made by the heads of such outfits as America Online, NBC, Comcast, Microsoft and Disney. The effects of the Internet on the entertainment business and the convergence of the computer and television are likely to be hot topics.

Comcast was the first cable company to ally with the high-tech industry, with a $1-billion investment by Microsoft that has run up cable stocks over the last year by signaling new faith in the industry's capacity to deliver a host of new services to consumers, including high-speed connections that will make the Internet easier to use.

A series of Internet investments has occupied the headlines this month--and will undoubtedly be the talk of Sun Valley. As a hedge against declining network television viewership, NBC is investing in CNet and Snap, its fledgling Internet search and directory service.

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