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How Rupert Murdoch's Departure May Impact 21st Century Fox

By Eric Volkman – Jun 15, 2015 at 7:00PM

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The media mogul has apparently begun the succession process at the larger of the two companies he leads.

The King, it seems, is relinquishing his crown. The world's most (in)famous media mogul, Rupert Murdoch, is about to step down as CEO of the larger of his two publicly traded companies, 21st Century Fox (FOX), according to credible media reports. The job will pass to one of his two sons, James.

Murdoch senior built Fox's former parent, News Corp (NWSA -0.60%), nearly from scratch, and as such, both companies are considered personifications of its chief. With his retreat, then, Fox will invariably change. Here's a little speculation as to what shape it could take with James at the helm.

Like father, like...
It's important to note that this isn't a radical change in the management of 21st Century Fox (which, by the way, was hived off from News Corp in 2013). The elder Murdoch will remain as the company's chairman -- albeit as co-chairman with other son Lachlan, say those media reports.

Rupert's not a man who easily or naturally cedes control. I think no matter the formal succession, initially he'll still very much be in charge. But this transitional phase shouldn't last very long -- he's 84 years old, and although he remains spry for the moment, his sons are better positioned to envision and execute long-term strategy for the company.

Presumptive CEO James is currently co-chief operating officer. Like many second-generation executives in family businesses, he's held a raft of positions on the mother ship. Most controversially he was in charge of pre-split News Corp's British newspapers when the company's low-rent News of the World became embroiled in a phone hacking scandal that ultimately led to its closing in 2011.

Although his somewhat klutzy handling of the situation tarnished his reputation, he's since bounced back and is generally known as a capable executive these days.

A kinder and gentler Murdoch?
In my opinion, a Fox guided by James will be a more careful, considerate enterprise.

At heart, Rupert is a risk-taking, maverick entrepreneur. At least a few of his notable acquisitions seem to have been driven by impulses other than good business sense; the 2007 $5.2 billion purchase of Dow Jones, for example was written down by $2.8 billion in 2009. The $580 million buy of well-faded social media pioneer MySpace fizzled within several years, with News Corp ultimately selling it for around $35 million.

James has done plenty of time in various News Corp/Fox units, and despite the advantages of nepotism, has had to work within the system to get things done. And lately, he's been in front of shareholders as one of the executives fielding questions in quarterly earnings conference calls with analysts.

All of this presages more consideration of shareholders and a diplomatic approach, as opposed to Rupert's often imperious style of management.

More critically, James seems to have a knack and affinity for matters digital. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal:

In the past few years, [James] has taken a special interest in digital strategy, people close to the company say. He has helped to guide Fox's investments in online video and advertising, and is a key player in discussions about whether and how to target "cord cutters" who have dropped their pay TV connections.

That's exactly where Fox -- which draws most of its revenue from TV operations -- needs to go. Traditional TV advertising is on the wane, and the companies that succeed in the segment will be the ones that successfully exploit their opportunities in the digital space.

Waiting in the wings
It already seems as if James has had a big effect on Fox's operations behind the scenes. Last year, true to Rupert's bulldozing style, the company made an audacious $80 billion bid for rival media titan Time Warner (TWX). After the offer was spurned, Fox decided against launching a hostile takeover attempt, dropping it entirely.

This wasn't Rupert-like at all; historically, he hasn't given up until he's worn down his prey's resistance. But this time was different, and according to several sources, the difference was James -- he was the one who pushed for withdrawal.

If true, he's already a big and influential figure at Fox. That bodes well for the future, as does his experience and history. James won't be Rupert, and it's still conjecture whether the company will do well under his leadership. But given what we know about him so far, and his generally positive reputation, I'd say the chances are pretty good.

Eric Volkman has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends and owns shares of Apple. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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