and strength. “Before I go into a really serious meeting,” she explains, “I actually come to the wall.”
Winfrey has a unique way of approaching business opportunities. “I don’t care about money,” she casually offers as she sips tea to soothe her throat. “It throws people off all the time in business meetings. They start shuffling papers,” she muses.
Several years ago she met with executives from a large cosmetics company proposing a line for women of color. The deal would have included 80,000 employees nationwide and shelf space in every major department store. In the middle of the talks, she asked: “Why would I do that? Why would I have a cosmetics company?” The response from corporate execs focused on revenue potential and her personal enrichment. She then asked: “And what would be the other reason?” After futilely working to “create a cosmetic line with a purpose,” Winfrey turned down the offer.
She admits to learning some hard lessons as a result of her nontraditional approach to business. Starting with just five employees, she got along for years without management controls or development programs to grow talent as she grew the business. “For too long, I operated this business like a family. After a while you can’t see everybody; you can’t talk to everybody,” she says. “And now you have people managing people who were never managers before.”
She didn’t realize how much the company’s rapid growth taxed her staff. It was more than a half decade before Harpo hired associate producers. During that time, the nationally syndicated superstar was still making lunch runs because the rest of her staff was tied up with booking and producing tasks. For years, Winfrey’s team prided themselves on being a lean operation. In the process, she discovered this strong work ethic also contributed to mass burnout.
In 1994 she re-enlisted her former WLS-TV boss, Bennett, who’d left Harpo in 1990 to manage a television station in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She asked him to return to the fold and help her put operating systems in place. “I’m just now getting to the point of understanding how strategic planning, creating an infrastructure, and having a vision can be very helpful,” she concedes. “And as I move forward in creating other companies, I’m operating more as a businesswoman.”
As Winfrey tightened her ship, she learned another vital lesson: she’s still her best counsel. At the beginning of the decade, veteran TV executive Geraldine Laybourne decided to start Oxygen, an independent cable network for women. To make the venture work, she courted Winfrey as an investor. Winfrey recalls: “I went along with the Oxygen plan because my lawyer at the time and lots of other people around me said, ‘How are you going to let there be a woman’s network and not be a part of it?’”
The network struggled with programming and branding, and Winfrey eventually reduced Harpo’s programming commitment. “It was an ego decision and not a spirit decision, which is how I make all my decisions,” she says.