What tops rubbing elbows with rock legends, watching the Grammys from the audience, and snagging tickets to the most exclusive concerts in town? Getting paid for it. In terms of coolness, nothing surpasses a job in the record industry. Serious music enthusiasts can transform a basic desk job into an outlet for their passion and they amass a kicking CD collection.
Michael Fleisher, CFO of Warner Music Group, concurs. "I absolutely love my job," Michael says. With the music monolith since 2004, he describes the industry as one filled with dedicated employees who absolutely love music. The 1987 Wharton grad adds that it's an exciting time to be in the industry as it redefines itself in the digital age.
So how can you get to the top of the record heap? You don't need Mariah Carey's pipes or Paris Hilton's connections. Michael recommends hard work, good goals, and doing what you love.
At what age did you become
interested in business?
My grandfather owned a men's clothing store, and I started working there when I was 7 or 8 years old, so I knew early on that this is what I wanted to do. I always thought that I would run the family business, but my grandfather sold the business with two messages for me: Message number one was that he wanted me to do something bigger and better. Message number two was that he wanted to spend every penny he made before he died.
So why did you pick Wharton?
I knew that business was what I wanted to do, and the notion of an undergraduate business degree and the potential of never having to go back to get my MBA was very enticing. And Wharton was and still is the preeminent place. If you want to get an undergraduate business degree, and you know that it is going to be enough to carry you for the rest of your career, Wharton is the place to do it.
What did you like best about Wharton?
The real answer to that is cheese steaks! The best evenings
were when you were able to do both Pat's and Geno's. Seriously,
for me the best part of Wharton was the combination of the practical
with the theoretical. I concentrated in Management, and I studied
Entrepreneurial Management. I had all these great classes in Finance
and Accounting and all these other disciplines, but I wanted the pragmatic.
I wanted to see professors who had done it before. I got a tremendous
amount out of people who were very pragmatic.
Did you know what you wanted
to do when you graduated?
No. I didn't know exactly what I wanted to do. I was pretty sure that I wanted to be an operator. If you think back to the spring of 1987, most people went into investment banking, but that turned out to be a bad decision because of the market crash in late '87. I chose to go into consulting because I had spent so many years in my family business telling them how they should run it. Everybody told me I'd be good at telling other people how to run businesses. Certainly the path to where I am today was not a straight line.
So how did you get to where you are today?
I went to Bain & Company and did consulting work for several years. After a few years, I went to Bain Capital, doing venture capital and buy-out investing. One of the first companies we invested in was a company called Gartner Group-they did technology and market research. About three years later, I joined Gartner to do business development work and M&A activity. I spent 11 years at Gartner and eventually became the CFO and then Chairman and CEO. I ran Gartner as a public company for about five years until August '04.
Then I decided it was time for a break after 11 years in the same place. The guys at Bain Capital, where I'd been before, introduced me to Edgar Bronfman here at Warner Music who was looking for a CFO. I was really intrigued by the opportunity to learn a whole new industry after a decade in the technology industry. To me, one of the best times to enter an industry is when everyone else thinks there's a problem with it. The music industry is like that. In the last few years, everybody's looked at it like, this technology thing is going to wipe out the music industry.
Has anything surprised you about it?
One is that, even though it has a very creative process to it, it's no different from any other business. The other thing, especially in the CFO role, was how many people in this industry have been in it their whole lives. Regardless of what job they do, they're passionate about music. We have accountants here who have spent 20 years in the music industry as an accountant because they are passionate about the music business. I think that is unique, that people have this personal passion that leads them to want to stay in a particular industry.
Do you have a background in music?
I don't. At all. I have a passion for music, but I don't think I have a passion for music that is different than the average person. What I will say is: now that I am here, I have a great passion for our artists and our music.
I'm sure you have a great CD collection.
I have a growing, great music collection, though most of it's digital. Most of it is on my digital device and CDs.
Do you have an iPod?
I do have an iPod.
The big one?
Yeah, I have the big one.
So what music are you
uploading these days?
I have a broad cross-section of music that I love around here. Some of my favorites? We have a new artist. His name is James Blunt. James is probably my favorite of our new artists. I tend to be a traditional rock and roll guy.so Jet, Simple Plan, Green Day's our big hit over the last year, so I have that. You know there is some stuff for me on the urban side that I like a lot. The new Missy Elliot I think is pretty great. Those are probably the things I am listening to right now. Oh, there's a brand new CD we released last week by Death Cab for Cutie that's phenomenal.
They were pretty underground for a while.
They were an underground, indie band. This is their first major label release. It’s a great record.
Besides the music hook-up,
what’s it like working in the
business as compared to Gartner?
The music business has a lot higher public exposure. When you are in a more consumer-oriented business, everything we do ends up on the front page of the newspaper. I think that’s probably the greatest real difference in what I do everyday. Everything is out there front and center. Everybody cares. And you have artists who are incredibly talented, but are also out there living in the world, and their personal lives have an impact on how your business operates. And so that is different, that I can read about some artist and what they’re doing and that can affect our company.
Do you find people know who you are more?
Yes and no. Now instead of going to big tech conferences, I get to go to great concerts and shows and interesting parties, so that part of it has been a huge plus. I have two boys who are just about to turn six and eight, so I got to take them to their first concert at Madison Square Garden. That was really fun.
Who was it?
I took them to see Jet, who was actually performing as an opening act. It was great because I needed to take them to something that would end reasonably early. It was way past their bedtime, but it was very cool to go to a show.
I’m sure they think your job is really cool.
Yeah, they haven’t quite figured it out yet. They’ll get there. You know, they’re still at that age where they haven’t quite figured out what I do. They definitely think this job is more interesting than my last.
Is there more pressure
on you since it’s so visible?
You’re definitely under a higher-powered microscope because it’s the music business and you’re dealing with personalities. But you’re also under that microscope because people are trying to understand the opportunity for the music in the digital world. So I think people watch that very closely.
Do you run into rock
stars? Who was the best?
I think the best for me—and it really shows my
age—was meeting Jimmy Page. I got to stand next to Jimmy Page while
he played on the podium at the New York Stock Exchange. He was right
there next to me, and that was pretty cool. The other person I got to
meet that was pretty cool was a guy named Ahmet Ertegun who was the founder
of Atlantic Records. Ahmet
was the person who discovered Ray Charles and helped him early in his
career, as well as so many other incredible artists. He’s in his
80s and he comes to work here every day. He’s a living legend. One
of my first experiences with Ahmet was flying to Los Angeles on the
weekend of the Grammys. We arrived in Los Angeles at 8:00 at night, 11:00
east coast time. And I’m pretty exhausted, you know, calling it
a night. I dropped Ahmet off at his hotel and he said, oh, I’m
going out. And he’s in his 80s. I thought: this is somebody
I should emulate in my life.
Do you think it’s youth or experience
that helps you in the music world?
I think it’s probably both. I think that the trick to being successful when you’re young is having respect for the people who have experience around you. And that’s been tremendous for my career. When I first became the CEO at Gartner, I was 34 years old. To run a public company at 34 was a fantastic experience, but it never would have happened if I didn’t have a tremendous amount of respect for the people who were mentors in my life—whether it’s my grandfather, my father, or a guy named Manny Fernandez who ran Gartner for many years.
You’ve got to have respect for those folks, and you’ve got to be able to admit what you don’t know. I think too many people, when they are young, think they’re supposed to know everything and tend to be a little brash because of that. If you can get the most experienced people to help you be successful, that’s always a winning strategy.
What’s your advice for business students interested in the music business?
First and foremost, you have to have passion about music. You have to have passion about what you do. It’s not enough to say, I’m an accountant or I’m a marketing person. It’s more like, here are my experiences and here are my capabilities and I want to apply them in a place where I have great passion. It’s marrying those two things.
The other thing is, a lot of younger people see the end goal and want to get there quickly. It’s really about doing a good job and putting in the time to do the hard work. When you’re not actually trying to get to that end is when you get there.
Paying your dues?
It’s paying your dues, but not in a drudgery way. Find stuff you enjoy doing. So many people have an end game in mind but don’t think about, “what do I love doing every day?” Every single person that I have ever interviewed for a job, the most important question that I ask is what do you love to do every day. Because at the end of the day, if they don’t love doing the job, they aren’t going to be happy and they aren’t going to do it well.