Thomas “Tom” Murphy (Capital Cities/ABC), HBS 1949, joined a small television station in upstate New York after graduating from HBS. Over several decades, and as a result of many brilliantly crafted deals, he gradually built the telecommunications empire Capital Cities. In 1985, Tom engineered the purchase of ABC with the backing of his long-time friend Warren Buffett, and the company became Cap Cities/ABC. Ten years later, Tom sold Cap Cities/ABC to Disney for about $19 billion. He described his experiences in an interview from his Manhattan office at ABC in December 2000. Interviewer: Amy Blitz, HBS Director of Media Development for Entrepreneurial Management.
Tom Murphy: The Early Years
I would say that the most fortunate thing that happened to me, outside of being born an American, was that my father and mother were just magnificent. They were very happily married. They were vitally interested in their children and in giving us the best possible education. They were great role models for my sister, my brother, and me. I think that to have great role models at a very young age is a very fortunate thing. It doesn’t happen to everybody. I would say that the single most important thing in my life is the wonderful family I came from.
My father was the youngest child in a big Irish family. He was the only one who went to college and later, after he got out of the First World War, he became a lawyer. He went to Fordham Law School at night. As a lawyer he developed quite a business, and during the last fifteen years of his life he was a Supreme Court judge in New York State. Unfortunately, he died when he was sixty-four. My father was very successful and I was very proud of him.
I have an older brother who’s a very successful lawyer, and a younger sister. She’s seventy years old now, but she’s still younger than I am. She has been a mother of four children and has had quite a successful career doing a great deal of work for cancer causes. The three of us were always trying to get the best possible education for ourselves. My father was insistent about it—almost a nut about it. He wanted us to work hard and play hard. My brother ended up going to Dartmouth and then to law school.
I ended up going to Princeton and then into the Navy. The Navy sent me to Cornell, where I graduated as an engineer. Then the G.I. Bill got me through Harvard Business School. Most of my education in college was done through the United States Service, either through the Navy or through the G.I. Bill.
Tom Murphy: The HBS Experience
Harvard Business School did two very important things for me. The first was that it gave me self-confidence. Before you get to HBS, you’re a young fellow, looking at business and seeing all these big things happening in complicated companies. You’re asking yourself, “How am I ever going to get involved in anything like that,” or “How can I find out whether I’m any good or not?” But with the case method you find out very quickly that the answer is simply good judgment. After you have the facts, you can make sensible decisions.
I found out, quite to my own surprise, that I was really pretty good at business. One of the interesting things I’ve learned in my life is that one of the most uncommon things in life is common sense. It’s very hard to notice whether people have great common sense. I attribute mine to my family. So the two years at Harvard Business School, plus my time in the service, gave me self-confidence. I was able to say, “Gee, business isn’t so tough. I can figure this out.”
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