Tom Murphy: The Unconventional Media Maestro

1 minutes reading time
Published 7 Nov 2023
Reviewed by: Peter Westberg
Updated 26 Apr 2024

When it comes to media moguls who’ve left a lasting mark on the industry, Tom Murphy is a name that frequently stands out. Celebrated as one of the eight unconventional CEOs in William Thorndike’s book "The Outsiders," Murphy’s reputation is cemented among the greats. As the Chairman and CEO of Capital Cities/ABC, Inc., his leadership was all about execution and delivering shareholder value. For investors looking to understand the strategies behind successful conglomerates, Murphy’s tenure at Capital Cities/ABC offers valuable insights.

“Tom Murphy has taught me more about running a business than any other person. We have been friends and mental partners for more than 50 years. My only regret is that I didn’t meet him earlier.” - Warren Buffett

The Buffett-Murphy-Burke relationship

As the quote above highlights, Buffett has always been vocal about his admiration for Murphy. It’s a relationship deeply rooted in mutual respect, shared business principles, and a friendship spanning over half a century.

Both leaders share similar views on acquisitions, operational strategies, and the benefits of decentralized decision making. Their alignment in business philosophy eventually paved the way for Murphy to join the Berkshire board, something his Capital Cities/ABC partner Dan Burke also ended up doing. When the time came for Murphy and Burke to step back from active duties, we got introduced to two other gentlemen with the same surnames. It was Tom Murphy Jr. and Steve Burke who fittingly came in and filled their fathers shoes.

However, one should not mistake these board positions as mere nepotistic promotions. Having read most of the writings on Buffett, I find it unlikely that he would allow such crucial roles to be determined by only their deep-rooted family ties. Both Murphy Jr. and Steve have undoubtedly been under Buffett’s watchful eye, ensuring they’re not just resting on their familial laurels but are genuinely competent in their roles.

Let’s try to understand what made Murphy special.

A Brief Background

Tom Murphy, alongside his partner Dan Burke, led the transformation of Capital Cities from a small television broadcasting company into a media powerhouse that would eventually acquire ABC in 1986. This $3.5 billion deal, executed with finesse and precision, remains one of the largest media acquisitions in history.

Capital Cities was at the time substantially smaller than ABC––a typical David-and-Goliath scenario––and primarily recognized as a regional broadcasting company with its TV and radio stations. ABC on the other hand, was one of the “Big Three” national television networks alongside CBS and NBC.

Key Strategies that Drove Success

  1. Precision in Acquisition: Murphy didn't just buy companies; he strategically acquired assets that offered both value and synergy. His acquisitions, like that of ABC, were meticulous, ensuring that they could be integrated into Capital Cities’ existing structure.

  2. Operational Efficiency: One of Murphy’s standout traits was his obsession with operational efficiency. Rather than getting bogged down by excessive bureaucracy, Murphy streamlined processes. This focus ensured that revenues weren’t just increasing, but also that free cash flow was consistently on the rise.

  3. Fiscal Responsibility: Murphy was known for his prudent financial management. Even as Capital Cities expanded, it maintained one of the lowest debt ratios in the industry. For investors, this signaled a company that was aggressive in its growth ambitions but grounded in financial reality.

  4. Decentralized Decision-making: Instead of a top-down approach, Murphy believed in empowering local managers. By giving them autonomy, he ensured quick, on-the-ground decisions that were tailored to regional audience preferences. This strategy fostered innovation and rapid adaptation to local market shifts.

  5. Centralized Financial Control: While operational decisions were given freedom, Murphy was astute in ensuring that major financial decisions remained centralized. By keeping a tight rein on capital allocation, he made sure that resources were directed towards the most promising avenues, ensuring maximum shareholder returns.

  6. Value Creation Over Flash: In an industry often swayed by glitz and glamor, Murphy was notoriously low-profile. For him, the priority was always clear: value creation. Whether it was in operational decisions, acquisitions, or strategic partnerships, the underlying goal was always to enhance shareholder value.

Revisiting the ABC Acquisition: A Case Study

The acquisition of ABC by Capital Cities stands out as a masterclass in what makes a strategic purchase. As stated above, Capital Cities at the time of the acquisition was significantly smaller than ABC. Yet, the acquisition was not just successful but transformative for both entities.

Let’s take a look at how Murphy and Burke achieved this:

Strategic Financing

Any acquisition, especially one of this scale, poses significant financial challenges. For a smaller company like Capital Cities, acquiring a behemoth like ABC could have easily led to an over-leveraged balance sheet, endangering the very financial health of the entity.

Murphy’s brilliance lay in his financial orchestration. Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, he meticulously structured the acquisition using a canny mix of cash, stock, and debt. This was not just about funding the deal but ensuring that the financial structure post-acquisition remained robust.

His strategy insulated the merged entity from potential financial shocks, ensuring liquidity and fostering investor confidence. Fun fact is that Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway was one of the key backers of the deal by investing $517 million and acquiring an 18% stake in Capital Cities/ABC, giving the merger much-needed credibility.


Post the acquisition, there was a swift integration of operations. Redundancies were eliminated, operations streamlined, and the best practices from both entities were adopted.

Mergers often lead to operational overlaps, where functions or roles become duplicated across the new entity. Murphy was keenly aware of this. He quickly identified these redundancies and addressed them head-on. By doing so, he not only reduced potential costs but ensured that resources––both human and capital––were utilized where they added the most value.

An illustrative example is in the content syndication space. While ABC had a vast library of content, Capital Cities had deep relationships with regional broadcasters. Post-acquisition, Murphy leveraged these relationships to syndicate ABC’s content more effectively across regional channels.

Cultural Synergy

Mergers and acquisitions, while often approached from a financial and operational standpoint, have a critical human element. At the heart of any company is its people, and when two different corporate cultures come together, the fusion can either be harmonious or clash terribly. The integration of Capital Cities and ABC, two distinct entities in size and ethos, required a nuanced approach to cultural synergy.

Capital Cities, given its regional focus, had a more close-knit, familial corporate culture. Employees often had longer tenures and felt a strong connection to their local stations. ABC, being one of the “Big Three,” operated on a grander scale, with a corporate culture befitting a national behemoth.

To begin with, Murphy invested time in understanding these inherent cultural nuances. For instance, he recognized that ABC’s news division, revered for its journalistic integrity and professionalism, had a particular pride in its craft. Conversely, Capital Cities’ sales teams, being more regional, had a hands-on, relationship-driven approach with local advertisers.

Rather than imposing a top-down culture, Murphy initiated dialogues. Town halls, cross-functional meetings, and feedback sessions were organized, and when changes were made, they weren’t simply directives sent from the top. Teams from both companies were involved in decision-making, ensuring that changes felt inclusive and were understood by all.


Tom Murphy's time at Capital Cities/ABC stands out as a shining example of effective leadership and business acumen. He showed that understanding the details, from finances to culture, can drive significant growth and success. Murphy’s story is a reminder that real leadership is about creating value and understanding people. In today's fast-changing business world, the principles Murphy championed remain vital for any leader or investor.

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