The Once & Future Kings

St. Pete Times chiefs have unchecked power over their company; they say they respect the risks

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Similarly, security could breed complacency. Barnes recalls a time when the company was so "sloppy" and sure of itself that it blundered into several ill-advised and expensive failures — a chain of statewide business magazines, for example. "If we're not careful," said Tash, "we can find ourselves thinking we're above the dynamics facing the rest of the world. One of the positive things the Bass affair did was to shake the company's sense that we were immune to the laws of physics."

The biggest risk may be personal.

"In this company," Tash acknowledged, "I think it would very difficult to protect against a CEO who was careless or desultory in exercising his responsibilities. That's why it's so important to choose well." In accordance with Poynter's will, each CEO appoints his own successor; Poynter left control to Patterson, who gave it to Barnes, who gave it to Tash, who, assuming he serves until retirement age, will be the last Times chairman to remember Poynter personally.

"I'm not persuaded," Tash continued, "that public companies are models of oversight and that those checks and balances have been so effective." He mentioned the Tyco, Enron and Adelphia scandals. "The assertion of accountability is much stronger than the evidence for it in those companies."

Tash prefers to rely on a quality that New York Times executive editor Bill Keller attributed to Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the fourth-generation leader of the family that controls the publicly owned New York Times. "Somewhere deep in Arthur's soul," said Tash, paraphrasing from memory, "he believes he will burn in hell if he screws this up. I think that's at least as effective a check on a CEO's authority and responsibility as a board of directors that may or may not have the interest, acuity and time ...."

In practice, no CEO's power is absolute. Barnes describes vigorous discussions among his board of directors during various strategic decisions. Ultimately, every judgment was his, but that didn't end the process. "One of the things I found is that giving an order never works," Barnes said. "You have to learn to work through these decisions as you go along."

Barnes, who held the top job for 15 years, did allow that it took a few staff changes to find the senior executives he was comfortable working through.

Tash's accession was by no means a surprise. He became the heir apparent in 1992, when he was named executive editor of the paper. Barnes had asked several candidates to write an essay about what they considered the newspaper's chief challenges and how they would meet them. But he also considered other factors: "What had they taken on, and how did it come out? When you looked, you could see that Paul had already taken on a bunch of my tough stuff."Barnes also considered such intangibles as the candidates' ability to maintain relationships. "You want to have a feeling, is this person sound? You don't want somebody who's going to go weird on you and call you from St. Anthony's."

Paul is certainly not the sort of person to "go weird." Disciplined, thoughtful, articulate and decisive, he admits that his "sharp tongue" can be intimidating to some, so he tries to watch what he says. Beneath his carefully crafted exterior and Midwestern emotional reserve, however, there lies a sense of responsibility and idealism that is too little valued in American business.

Four years ago, Tash became editor and president, which put him in charge of the business side of the company as well. As a result, there was nary a blip when Barnes retired and Tash took over last month. At an informal luncheon with reporters, someone asked Tash if he planned to "shake things up." No, Tash replied. If he did, then the shaking would have already occurred. "My fingerprints are already all over what we've been doing."

The big question now: Whom will Tash name as the next potentate?

"I don't know who it will be 15 years from now," he said, "although obviously, because it is the most important single decision that anyone makes in this job, it is in the back of my mind."

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