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Man in the mirror

6 July 2009 By Edward Hadas

Business isn’t really about people. In a well-run company, no one is indispensible. Capital Fund Management has no intention of giving up just because Jean-Pierre Aguilar, the chief executive and co-founder of the French hedge fund firm, died in a glider crash on Saturday. Michael Jackson is demonstrating that show business is different. It is about people, sort of.

The King of Pop was a talented prodigy who turned himself into a cash-generating superstar. But by the end of his life, he was struggling to keep the legend profitable. He consistently violated the most basic rule of commerce: to keep expenses below revenues.

While death eliminates the active contributions of regular businessmen, it could well turn Jackson’s art into a more conventional commercial success story. His personal troubles can be cropped out of the historical picture, leaving behind a persona which can serve as a cash-spewing cultural icon. He would not be alone. Elvis and the Beatles share the status.

Jackson as myth is already in business. Sales of his recordings have increased dramatically and his memorial service on Tuesday looks like a TV hit in the making. Conveniently, he seems to have left behind a vast store of material, so his music can continue to be new long after he has left the stage.

His empire has more assets and revenues than most start-ups, but it faces some of the same challenges. There are issues of management, strategy and legal clarity.

The biggest obstacle is probably Jackson himself. An erratic personality, he has left huge debts and many claimants to fight over what he left behind. It’s even possible that the disputes will be bitter and destructive enough to derail the business train.

Companies often try to keep alive the spirits of their departed inspirational leaders. It will be quite different for Jackson, whose public persona degenerated during four decades in the public eye. The sooner the memory of his eccentricities and controversies can be eliminated or sanitised, the faster a new image of Michael Jackson can develop. Then, perversely, business will really take off.

 

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