Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Two Inexperienced Executives, Mark Willes And Dan Frost

The obituaries in the L.A. Times and New York Times on Otis Chandler were good as far as they went this morning, and it was the right thing to give the late David Shaw bylined credit along with Mitchell Landsberg in the LAT.

But obituaries are necessarily somewhat one dimensional. They are better at positives than negatives, and both obituaries this morning did not quite do justice to two ideologically rigid and inexperienced executives who were responsible for undoing some of Chandler's accomplishments at the L.A. Times.

I'm speaking of Mark Willes, who became the last CEO of Times-Mirror, and Chandler's one-time brother-in-law, Dan Frost, the humorless lawyer who worked assiduously to diminish Chandler's influence over the paper before Willes came aboard.

Both Willes and Frost were inexperienced in the newspaper business and it showed.

Willes arrived from General Mills, saying the thing to do was to tear down the wall between editorial and advertising at the Times. This was a disastrous policy and ultimately led to the Staples scandal, that led, in turn to easy sale of the paper to the Tribune Co. of Chicago.

Willes got a big severance. In fact, I was told this morning by a man in a position to know that he got $95 million, about 50% more than rumored at the time, and he even took the soft drinks out of his office refrigerator.

In fact, Willes should have paid Times-Mirror upon leaving for having foisted the even more inexperienced Kathryn Downing on the paper as publisher.

The Times-Mirror stock price had dropped by the time Willes was ousted, and I was also told this morning that the Chandler board would have fired him had the sale to the Tribune not gone through.

All this should be part of the record. Willes was not an evil man, just an ignorant one, but his tenure at the paper was a calamity.

And so was Frost's role. He simply worked to undo some of the progressive direction Chandler had given the Times, and he had the support in this of other Chandler family members who had never been sympathetic to Otis Chandler.

Also, Frost did not have the goals that Chandler had to make the paper the best in the country. It started a long, slow decline as his role grew.

As the LAT obituary commendably made clear this morning, Chandler had many interests in life beside the paper, and he may have faded away even without Frost and the family pressures. But it might not have unfolded the same way.

With the importance of Los Angeles and California, the Times may one day make a comeback under new ownership. There is a line in the obituary today alluding to that possibility, and we can hope and pray for it.

Otis Chandler was in many respects a man of vision. Bob Rawitch's story today about the formation of the now sadly defunct San Fernando Valley office is a demonstration of it. Also enjoyable was Bill Dwyre's story of taking Chandler to the fights.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't find Bob Rawitch's story online. Can you post the URL? Thanks.

2/28/2006 1:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ken -- can you post an email address for private messages to you?

2/28/2006 11:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill Dwyre was a drawback to the LA Times. His out and out bias for Notre Dame and against USC, including his refusal to go to the Coliseum was inappropriate for the leading newspaper in a large city.

The fact is that the Times never supported any of our local teams; is it any wonder the Rams, then the Raiders left?

Dwyre will not be missed by local fans.

3/03/2006 6:44 PM  
Anonymous Ken Willes said...

Back in 1999 (or 2000), I learned about Mark in a way that seemed quite random. I was at Barnes and Noble and just started flipping through the Fortune magazine. I came to the article that talked about Mark's success at General Mills and I was immediately shocked by two things that were not related to the article itself:

1. He has my last name (Willes)
2. He looks just like my dad.

My dad used to be the CEO for a hospital down in Riverside California. While he was the administrator there, he had to face big decisions and challenges . . . Of course good administrators try to make the right decisions all the time, but sometimes a wrong decision is made and that one wrong decision can lead to irrevocable consequences.

I have always wanted to contact Mark, but I've just been too busy to start digging around. Do you know, by chance, how I can contact him? Or where he is now? I am so curious to find out where he is from.

1/10/2007 6:11 AM  
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