For the past 15 years, Oprah Winfrey repeatedly told her team that production of her daily talk show was only the beginning. “This is the foundation of greater things to come,” she would tell her managers as she developed a dizzying array of partnerships and spin-offs — a venture with Hearst Magazines to produce her own, self-titled publication; new syndicated television shows with life coach Phil McGraw and leading chef Rachael Ray; made-for-TV movies; a reality TV show, The Big Give, for the ABC television network; theatrical film releases such as Beloved and The Great Debaters; the Broadway musical The Color Purple; a retail outlet; and a lucrative $55 million XM Satellite Radio Inc. deal. In the midst of these accomplishments, her team could only reluctantly imagine more greatness.
But early on, Winfrey had an even grander vision: to create a television network. “And I think it should be called OWN,” she recalls saying to Stedman Graham, her longtime partner. “It just works out. Those initials: O-W-N.” She wrote in her journal that this new network would provide useful, meaningful programming. The entry was dated May 24, 1992.
In 2007, when her development group asked if she would meet with David Zaslav, Winfrey admits she didn’t even know who he was, but she admired his work. The recently installed president and CEO of Discovery Communications, a series of cable networks, had been responsible for the Planet Earth series that fascinated her. The admiration was mutual. Zaslav, who in his new role had already helped improve Discovery’s stock by more than 50%, was a fan of Oprah’s media message — “Live your Best Life” — and proposed a 24-hour opportunity to encourage viewers to think differently about health, relationships, and other aspects of their lives. “I got up from the meeting and said, ‘David, come with me. I want to show you something,’” she remembers. Winfrey then revealed the prophetic page she had ripped from her journal. Oddly enough, she found it in a desk drawer she was clearing just a few days before the meeting. “Absolute divine order,” she said.
As the 54-year-old dynamo prepares to unveil the Oprah Winfrey Network in 2009 — in which she will hold a 50% stake — she asserts that divine inspiration, not strategic planning, is the catalyst for her company’s success. Her formula, which also includes a solid business team and sound financial controls, has taken Harpo Inc. (Oprah spelled backward) from a five-person production company to a 430-employee multimedia conglomerate that grossed $345 million in 2007 (No. 14 on the BE INDUSTRIAL/SERVICE 100 list). She is one of a handful of black billionaires across the globe, with a net worth estimated at $2.5 billion. Winfrey says: “I haven’t planned one thing—ever. I have just been led by a strong instinct, and I have made choices based on what was right for me at the time.”
She also owns every piece of her franchise: the content, name, brand, and studio, placing her in command of her