Chief Executive of FOXTEL
Home Town: Sydney
When The Power Index spoke with Kim Williams last week, he gave us absolutely no hint that Rupert Murdoch was about to crown him CEO of News Ltd and screw up our Digital Media Power List.
He assured us he loved Foxtel and his job there, saying, "It's been, and continues to be, a real pleasure."
But we've learnt to forgive in this business, and we're sure Kim's got the skills to make the new paywall work at Murdoch's Australian newspapers—if anybody can. As Williams himself has said, and everyone keeps faithfully repeating, he's a dab hand at making people pay for things they previously got for free.
And he used that skill to turn Foxtel's pay TV operation into the most valuable media property in the country, as Kerry Stokes and James Packer know well.
Williams spent ten years running Foxtel and another six in charge of Fox Studios and his supreme achievement was to keep it relevant and make it turn a profit after more than a decade of losses. So how did he do it?
One part of the answer is that Williams has a deep respect for the audience, and understands that Foxtel is a "guest in the home".
"I am on a daily basis reminded that our customers pay for our product and they'll only continue to do so if they feel satisfied with the quality of the programming, the authenticity and relevance," he says.
Another part is that he's a bloody good negotiator, or can at least oversee the team that gets it done. Sport is the key to pay TV success and Williams got himself a cracker of a deal earlier this year when the AFL awarded broadcasting rights for its 2012-2016 games to both the Seven Network and Foxtel.
But another part of the answer is Williams himself. One digital media expert and leader in the field describes him as a "force of nature"; one who can rub people up the wrong way, but has "been successful at pretty much everything he does ... He'll make his own way, no matter what he puts himself into."
Like any good media boss, he's obsessed by the metrics. His daily "report card" (as he describes it to The Power Index) arrives at 7:30 am and gives him a complete picture of how the business is tracking. He studies it religiously. "And long may we continue to do so," he says. "It's fundamental to running a business that's focused on the customer. You must monitor all these things."
Williams has an unusual background for someone in the corporate power elite. A working class boy from Western Sydney, he went to a state comprehensive school called Marsden High, where, he says, "Most of the boys were herded towards metal work and the girls to home economics". Only one in six pupils stayed on to do their HSC. But Williams was smart and motivated enough to win a Commonwealth scholarship to Sydney University. Surely to his parents' horror—or was it different in those days?—he opted to study music and play the clarinet.
Back then, Kim was certainly in no hurry to climb the corporate ladder. His first job in 1971 was organising concerts. Three years later, he graduated to lecturing in music at the Sydney Conservatorium, and thence to planning programmes for Musica Viva, where his talents eventually landed him the managing director's job. From there he went to run the Australian Film Commission, TV production house, Southern Star, and finally the ABC's failed experiment in satellite-TV before being lured away to Fox Studios.
A little prickly but stunningly articulate, Williams is much less guarded than many corporate leaders and is always good for a colourful quote. Get him started on a topic and the man with the shiny head and trademark black-rimmed glasses won't stop. He's straight up too, and doesn't hesitate with a response.
For example, on the ABC, which is not much liked by his soon-to-be colleagues at News Ltd, he says: "I do think it is at times unusually grandiloquent in the way it commits itself to slavish and constant self-praise."
On the commercial TV networks, he volunteers that they do not support consumer choice: "We [Foxtel] are not a replica of five men in Sydney making decisions about what you're allowed to watch."
"I'm not backward in coming forward," he tells The Power Index. "I'm not a great believer in toiling the soil before getting stuck into a problem."
Williams is also super confident: he always expects to get his way. When pressed on what he will do if the ACCC rejects Foxtel's bid to merge with Austar, Williams told us, "I haven't contemplated not being successful."