Tuesday, February 27, 2024

‘The twisted egos and mediocre minds are spot on’: boardroom survivors on how true Succession is

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Welcome to the boardroom, but beware the flying F-bombs. As the fourth (and tragically final) season approaches, we ask five business insiders how true to life the super-rich saga is.

Mike Soutar is a former newspaper and magazine CEO. He’s now a media entrepreneur, investor and interviewer on The Apprentice.

I’ve met all the Murdochs and got on with them all, but part of me suspects it’s like Succession behind closed doors. All families have jealousies and in-fighting. The Roys are just a catastrophically enormous version. It’s closely modelled on the Murdoch family structure, down to the heir apparent son and the smarter daughter who steps outside to build her own career. Although as far as I know, none of them have drowned any waiters.

I recognise Logan’s inner circle. When I was on the board of a large publishing company, loyal retainers were always around the CEO. They’d risen up alongside the boss and resented newcomers. Similarly, Logan’s lieutenants have the same contempt for his children that Logan has. Hopeless hangers-on like Tom and Greg can survive in family firms. There are obligations to employ relatives, even if they’re underqualified. The sweary corporate culture is authentic, too. These things filter down from the top. Logan’s the best swearer and he sets the example.

Waystar Royco is a publicly traded company yet Logan runs it exactly how he always did. The board are there for window-dressing. You see that in real boardrooms. The boss will heavily imply: “Here’s what to vote for, don’t fight me on this.” When the Roys woo investors, that rings true. The last thing you want is a shareholder rebellion. When major investors turn against you, it’s a huge problem. They want change. And by change, they mean blood.

King of the castle … Logan Roy (Brian Cox). Photograph: HBO

The super-rich insider: ‘That coldness – it’s the real colour of money’

Sarah Thomas is a former private tutor to Russian billionaires. She recently fictionalised her experiences in her debut novel Queen K (Serpent’s Tail, £14.99).

Marcia Roy (Hiam Abbass) is a character I recognise. When Logan comes indoors, she smooths his hair. She arranges his birthday lunch, quietly letting him know it’s a surprise. She’s a buffer between him and the everyday, but there’s something very sexual about her. It captures the role wives play in that world.

Another thing that strikes me is Succession’s visual texture. The White Lotus is colourful but Succession is much colder. It’s the real colour of money. The billionaires I’ve met live in a stark, minimalist world. Identikit interior design firms do up their houses in chrome and glass. Succession is all black helicopters against the silver Manhattan skyline. It’s where money is actually made, rather than where it’s spent.

Succession captures the super-rich’s fussiness about food. They’re used to eating in Michelin-starred restaurants or having private chefs. When Tom tries to imagine what prison food will be like, he goes to a diner. Normal food is slop to him. Children of the super-rich are cosseted and indulged. They’re sent to the best schools. Every second of their time is scheduled. It means they lack initiative and mental fortitude, so are unlikely to repeat their parents’ success.

Logan calls civilians “NRP” (not real people). That’s how the show deals with domestic staff, too. They’re blurry, indistinct figures, setting tables or pouring out water. You’re invisible and don’t really register as human. Dark-suited heavies hover around, ready to quietly make someone sign an NDA. Staff of ultra high-net worth individuals have to be on 24-hour call. It’s not a job you clock off from. It’s hard to have your own life.

The richer people are, the more peripatetic. I went on a yacht that was always fully staffed. Trays of drinks or fresh, folded grey towels would magically appear. In the Tuscany episodes, there’s little sense of the Roys being in Italy. They’re still on their phones, plotting and scheming. I once got a helicopter from Monaco to an Alpine ski resort. The views were gasp-inducing, but the billionaires didn’t look up from their screens the entire two hours.

The tech tycoon: ‘It nails the fawning sycophancy’

Bruce Daisley is the former European vice president of Twitter. He’s now a bestselling author and podcaster.

Billionaires have become the Greek gods of our time. They fill our news and seem to set the weather for us. But you only have to look at Matt Hancock’s WhatsApps to see the Machiavellian manoeuvres behind the scenes. I suspect Succession is far more accurate than the people it’s modelled on would ever admit.

The characters are spot on. In US business, people adopt personas. I worked with Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey, who tries to combine Steve Jobs with the Dalai Lama. On a leaders’ retreat, he didn’t wear shoes and made us meditate. In the show, tech mogul Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) recalls the Spotify boss Daniel Ek. For a time, being Scandinavian lent you credibility.

Elon Musk has gone into Twitter surrounded by a coterie of sycophants. I heard a story where he said something utterly mediocre in a meeting, then went round the room asking everyone if he should tweet it. They all fawningly said: ‘Yes, Elon, it’s so funny.’ It’s like the court of a medieval king. Succession nails that.

The lavish parties Succession shows definitely happen. Twitter would host select gatherings in Vegas. Google’s leadership team threw well-curated parties in international locations. The Roys trying to woo investors like Stewy (Arian Moayed) and Josh (Adrien Brody) rings true too. Activist investors have strong-armed some of the biggest Silicon Valley firms. It led to Dorsey’s downfall from Twitter. The characters are grubby and deeply unlikable but ego, money and status do twist the human brain. Witness what’s happened to Musk. He’s gone from this Tony Stark figure to a cross between Mr Bean and Alf Garnett.

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Sibling revelry … Kendall, Shiv and Roman.
Sibling revelry … Kendall, Shiv and Roman. Photograph: Home Box Office/HBO

The industry insider: ‘If it’s chilly, they hop on a private jet to go somewhere warmer’

Helen Brocklebank is the chief executive of Walpole, the official trade organisation for British luxury brands.

Succession gets the subtle signifiers spot on. High-end Americans are about stealth wealth. Nothing looks expensive but it really is. When we go to upscale events in New York, Brits wear suits but the locals are in zip-up tops and baseball caps. From a distance, you might mistake them for any old bod on the street but get closer and you smell the money.

They’ve all got a good perma-tan – just enough to know they’ve got access to the south of France at all times. You realise the jumper isn’t Uniqlo but Italian luxury label Loro Piana made from vicuña, the rarest cashmere in the world. Their shoes are spotless because they never have to pound pavements. It’s one taxi or town car to another. They use private jets and helicopters the way you or I would take the bus. It’s the haves and the have-yachts. The super-rich are never cold. If it looks chilly, just hop in your PJ [private jet] and go somewhere with better weather. They flit between identikit properties and never need pack because it’s all there waiting. At that level, life is incredibly smooth and effortless. That’s why the Roys have so much time to argue with each other.

Marcia Roy is the successful late-stage wife. The cliché of ageing billionaires’ with young babes is not what I see. A man with that kind of empire needs a wife with a rich hinterland. Somebody calm, intellectual, sotto voce. It was damningly dumb when Tom bought Logan a Patek Philippe for his birthday. You can’t buy these people a thing. An expensive watch is small change to them.

The last supper … the winner takes it all – as we head into the season of Succession.
The last supper … Succession. Photograph: HBO

The self-made CEO: ‘Nobody wants to beat the boss at spearfishing’

James Murphy is co-founder and CEO of creative agency New Commercial Arts. He was previously co-founder of Adam & Eve/DDB, the UK’s largest ad agency.

Some organisations do have a fear-driven culture like Waystar Royco. I’ve never seen anything like Boar on the Floor but one famous British tycoon organised long weekends away for the CEOs of his companies. It was a febrile, fearful experience. They were constantly pitted against each other – not just over the success from their fiefdoms but who’d win at sports or hold forth at dinner. Leaders host tennis tournaments or spearfishing at their tropical retreats. It gets very competitive, although obviously there’s one person nobody wants to beat.

Logan being so foul-mouthed seems right. I had a colleague who presented a campaign to a newspaper proprietor (not Murdoch, I’ll say that much). When my colleague started talking, he stubbed his cigar out and yelled: “Get to the fucking meat and potatoes!” Tycoons get to the point fast. It’s so abrupt it can feel brutal. People operating at that level have real political sway, too. We had a meeting in Washington DC with the boss of a very big company. When he heard we had a few hours to kill before our flight, he said: “Want to have a look around the White House?” He got us straight in.

The second generation super-rich can get trapped between two states. Some are determined to forge their own path. Others are more drifty. They’re sitting on vast wealth, with access to a lifestyle of luxury. Do they pursue a business career or pursue pleasure? Life should be brilliant but people are extremely good at self-sabotage. Succession is very astute about that.

Succession returns on 26 March on HBO in the US and on 27 March on Sky Atlantic and Now in the UK.

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