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Laurence Tisch, 80; Billionaire Had Rocky Time at CBS Helm

November 16, 2003|From Associated Press

NEW YORK — Laurence A. Tisch, who took control of CBS in the face of a hostile takeover but whose tenure was marked by accusations that he had tarnished the network's reputation, died Saturday in Manhattan. He was 80.

Tisch, a self-made billionaire who had also been co-chairman of Loews Corp., was suffering from cancer, said Candace Leeds, a Loews spokeswoman.

From 1986 to 1995, Tisch served as chief executive and chairman of the board at CBS, a period when the nightly newscast of the "Tiffany Network" fell to third place and CBS lost National Football League broadcasts to the upstart Fox Network.

CBS was the target of several hostile takeover attempts in 1986, and Tisch was praised at the time for stepping in to seize control by spending $800 million for a 24.9% stake in the company. He was supported by CBS founder William S. Paley, who said at the time, "I respect and admire him."

Initially, Tisch said his chairmanship would last only until he found a good broadcast executive to run the network. But he stayed on, his nine-year tenure marked by cost-cutting and criticism that CBS had lost its way.

He cut the news division sharply, laying off 230 employees, closing three news bureaus and slashing $30 million from its budget.

Despite those rocky times, Tisch was remembered fondly Saturday by executive producer Don Hewitt of "60 Minutes." "During his years as chairman of CBS, I don't think anything gave Larry more pride than the fact that '60 Minutes' was the flagship broadcast of his network," Hewitt said.

Westinghouse Electric bought CBS in 1995, and Viacom bought the network in 1999.

At Loews, Tisch oversaw a financial corporation with assets of more than $70 billion, including a hotel chain, a tobacco company, an insurance firm and an offshore drilling company. His son James took over from his father as president and chief executive in 1999.

Tisch was born in Brooklyn on March 5, 1923. He graduated from college when he was just 18, and five years later made his first investment, purchasing a 300-room winter resort in Lakewood, N.J.

Two years later, his brother, Bob, joined him in the business, launching a lifelong partnership.

Bob, who served as postmaster general in the Reagan administration, was the gregarious frontman, dealing with the day-to-day chores, while Tisch -- known to friends as Larry -- tended to handle the finances. Once, at an employee function at Loews headquarters, Tisch was introduced this way: "For those of you who have never been to the 17th floor, this is your chairman."

As the resort took off, the Tisch brothers bought hotels in Atlantic City and the Catskills. Their expanding hotel empire generated millions of dollars, and the brothers began investing in Loews Theaters.

In 1961, Tisch gained control of Loews and became its co-chairman with his brother. They soon diversified the business, acquiring tobacco firm Lorillard and Bulova Watch Co. Through shrewd acquisitions, Tisch built Loews' revenue from $100 million in 1970 to more than $3 billion a decade later.

In 2002, the corporation had revenue of more than $17 billion and assets of more than $70 billion.

Tisch was also known for his philanthropy, with major donations to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York University, the NYU Medical Center and the Wildlife Conservation Society. His $4.5-million gift to the latter created the Tisch Children's Zoo in Central Park.

"Larry Tisch made an enormous contribution to this city and he will be sorely missed," New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in a statement. "He represented what is best about New York, and his generosity will leave a legacy that we will all try to build on."

The Tisch brothers also donated $10 million to NYU. Laurence Tisch served as chairman of the university's board of trustees from 1978 to 1998. He was also former president of the United Jewish Appeal of New York.

He is survived by his wife, Wilma; sons Andrew, Daniel, James and Thomas; and his brother. There was no word on funeral arrangements.

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