Jeff Bewkes doesn’t hide his amusement when asked whether Time Warner is a takeover target. Sitting at a large circular table in a conference room on the 11th floor of the Time Warner Center, the chairman/CEO ticks off the reasons why the company is well-positioned to keep thriving in its current configuration. He’s brought along a yellow legal pad with handwritten notes to ensure he doesn’t overlook any salient points.
Bewkes, 64, really doesn’t need any reminders. He’s the one who wrote the script for the new-model Time Warner. During his tenure as chief executive, it has been winnowed from the sprawl following the AOL merger 15 years ago to a three-pronged content company focused on TV, movies, and digital across HBO, Turner, and Warner Bros. Now, at a time of immense industry upheaval, Bewkes favors a strategy of holding steady with Time Warner’s formidable assets as they stand today. As talk swirls about potential merger options — Apple? CBS? — Bewkes steadfastly insists he likes the hand he’s playing.
“After all the failures of Time Warner 10 years ago and 20 years ago [HBO, Turner, and Warner Bros.] finally have the experience and shared interest to help each other succeed,” Bewkes says. “We have the brands, we have the money, we have the distribution platform support, and we have the program supply. We have better access to movies and TV shows than any other company probably other than Disney. We can use our scale together, or not, and that balance is one of the biggest advantages of our company.”
But within entertainment circles, the conventional wisdom about Time Warner is different. There is strong sentiment that it is long past time for Bewkes to make a move to expand the company’s horizons. Disney and its decade-long buying spree of blue-chip brands (Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm) is the standard by which all entertainment content companies are judged.
At Time Warner, the recent emphasis on cost containment, stock buy-backs, delivering its promised double-digit earnings growth, and raising the dividend has signaled to some a lack of ambition. “They have been too timid,” says a former Time Warner investor. “It’s like [Jeff] has given up trying to build the company.”
Time Warner was, of course, deeply scarred by the economic devastation of its union with AOL in 2001. Bewkes gets credit even from his critics for helping the company recover from that mess. A year later he started his climb up the corporate ladder from HBO chief to chairman of Time Warner’s entertainment and networks group, and then to chief operating officer. He took the CEO reins from Richard Parsons in January 2008.
The company’s financial track record under Bewkes speaks for itself. Shareholder earnings grew at a compound rate of 17.3% from 2010 to 2015. In that same time frame, Time Warner returned some $29.1 billion to shareholders in the form of stock buy-backs and dividends.