Sumner Redstone Part 1: Driven and Intense from Childhood

Reading about John Malone’s journey with TCI and Sheila and Robert “Bob” Johnson’s BET journey led me to Sumner Redstone. Redstone’s Viacom purchased BET for $2.3 billion in stock in 2000. Malone received $850 million; Johnson, $1.4 billion. I wanted to understand the man behind this transaction, so I began reading his autobiography, A Passion to Win.

What immediately stood out to me were Redstone’s years before his business career and his intensity. Redstone’s father was a street-smart entrepreneur, and his mother was a homemaker who made education a priority and instilled the importance of diligence and concentration in her children. He said that his mother “was a constant driving force in my life, and though I often resented her presence, I could never challenge her.”

Redstone attended Boston Latin School, one of the most rigorous schools in Boston and the oldest existing school in the U.S. Redstone said that the “school demanded an obsessive, driving commitment to excellence from everyone. A passion to win.” He wrote that the “competition [at his school] was cruel, it seemed inhuman . . . . And it taught [students] to pursue excellence for the rest of [their] lives.” There Redstone “was first exposed to the idea that thinking, educated and disciplined people have the power within themselves to create a new and better world.”

Sumner did nothing but study. “Throughout high school I don’t remember eating,” he said. He graduated with the highest grade-point average in the school’s three-hundred-year history and was awarded a full scholarship to Harvard University.

As an undergraduate, Redstone was disappointed by Harvard. "There was no feeling of daily individual competition, no sense of intensity, no battle of intellects." He said, “I was disappointed; the rigor I expected from the educational world was nowhere present.” He promptly finished all the required coursework in a little over two years. During World War II, he joined the army, where he worked to break codes transmitted by the Japanese military.

Based in DC, he worked the graveyard shift for the army and attended Georgetown Law School during the day. His first year, he ranked first in his class. After he left the army, he was accepted to Harvard Law for his second year.

He took a coveted clerkship for a judge in San Francisco for a year and then worked as an attorney for the Department of Justice. There, he handled and argued “tax cases involving hundreds of millions of dollars.” He won seventeen straight cases. After five years, he joined a private practice.

At his firm, he did antitrust and tax work and eventually argued an important tax case before the Supreme Court. He won the case, cementing his reputation as a top tax attorney.

In 1954, he was six or seven years out of law school, about 30 years old, and making $100,000 a year, or roughly $1.1 million in 2024 dollars. He came to realize that “[w]hen you’re practicing law, it’s just a business. It’s not a crusade for humanity, it’s a business.” This realization led to his decision to quit and go into business for himself.

Redstone’s early years shaped who he became. He was an intense, driven person who enjoyed a battle. These characteristics fueled the building of a media empire.

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