Sunday, October 15, 2006
Kennedy & Khrushchev. Gilbert & Sullivan. Martin & Lewis. Ampersands are slippery things, particularly when they attempt to conjoin diametric opposites. The $250 million investment in Forbes by Elevation Partners created just such an ampersand from hell. I mean, conjugating Steve Forbes & Bono guarantees a whiff of brimstone.
Named after U2's song "Elevation," Sand Hill Road's Elevation Partners -- formed to bankroll ideas in the technologically evolving field of entertainment media distribution -- includes as director that most celebrated of socially conscious troubadours, Bono. It seems odd, to say the least, that the euphonious voice of the world's downtrodden has crawled into the corporate peapod with Steve Forbes, vanity presidential candidate and professional advocate of hanging tightly onto all that is yours.
Yet, there it is: Bono, the 46-year-old "prince of tithes," and Malcolm Stevenson Forbes Jr., the 59-year-old Forbes chief executive officer and high-priest of flat taxation, now mates in what one Elevation partner called a "brand-defining moment."
Which brand gets seared onto whose hide is anybody's guess. Can Bono, the manic, world-class busybody find true happiness as Steve Forbes' silent partner? Or, will it be Bono as the deus ex machina elevating Forbes, kicking and screaming, into the dazzling lights of the 18th century?
Prideful high-Princetonian that he is, Steve Forbes must have agonized over opening the family business to a lad from Dublin's tough Ballymun. Compounding the angst was the disposal of the family's gaudier baubles, including the "Capitalist Tool" Boeing 727, Victorian art collection, and Laucala, the Fijian island where Malcolm is interred, albeit without his Faberge eggs. In 2004, nine of those icons of excess sold for $100 million.
For the Forbeses, the "aughts" have been a dreary decade. The advertising sizzle of the '90s flattened into the high-tech fizzle of 2001. Add to this the $80 million Steve Forbes spent on his 1996 and 2000 presidential campaigns that resulted in stratospheric dollar-to-delegate ratios. Defending his ambition, Forbes Jr. suggested that his political trial balloons were similar to the montgolfière favored by Forbes Sr., wafted, as both were, on currents of hot-air tycoonery as seen in Forbes magazine. In any case, publishing took a backseat to politics. As did ASAP, the magazine's golden-goose technology supplement. In an act of seeming panic better avoided by professional dispensers of financial advice, Forbes bumped off ASAP in 2002 with the 10th anniversary issue literally proofed and primed at the printers.
Between the Forbes and U2 crews, it is the latter who seem the 21st century prototypes of, should we say, financial elevation. Forbes itself estimates that Bono and mates are the sixth-wealthiest Irish business entity, worth close to $1 billion. At the same time, others (the family is tight-lipped about its finances) suggest that Steve Forbes is worth less than half that.
Thus, as he prepares for a powwow, you might say, Bono à Bono, he should first cinch his purse, the better to avoid having it picked by a rock star whose social conscience is exceeded by one of the rock-solidest business minds in the rock business. U2, with 120 million albums sold and $1 billion in concert sales, is one of the few groups to control its catalog, and thus, its financial destiny. This degree of savvy argues for Steve Forbes to ixnay the investor relation twaddle.
Forget the limo ride to the Princeton Club for the avuncular chat about capital accumulation. Cancel the intimate weekend at Baleroy, the Forbeses' Norman chateau. Bono owns a cliffside villa in far-tonier Eze, and understands more about tax avoidance than ever schemed of in the pages of Forbes.
Witness U2's embrace of the Irish Republic's artists tax immunity. So enormous were the sums U2 sequestered, Dublin revenuers capped the exemption at 170,000 pounds, or $317,577. Not to be overtaxed - or outfoxed -- the band retaliated by offshoring a packet. Don't weep for Ireland, though. U2 kept enough green in the Emerald Isle to remain Erie's favorite robber barons.
To gain some sense of Bono's throw-weight, Steve Forbes could consult former Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill. In 2002, O'Neill accompanied U2's singer on a "60 Minutes"-featured African journey. Ed Bradley waxed weepy as Bono labored to win U.S. support for the cancellation of Third World debt. This is a subject likely to give Steve Forbes hives. So along with a couple Benadryl, he might consider a pre-emptive charitable strike, presenting Bono with a very large check made out to "Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa." Hint to Steve: If Third World debt-cancellation is simply too painful to contemplate, take a deep breath and think of what U2 can do for you.
Face it, Forbes magazine could use a makeover. You can retread "The World's Richest" or even the "Top Topless Beaches" only so often. Which makes it time for something new, or perhaps even "something U2." Why not, for example, commission a series about "The Hundred Best Business Opportunities in Sub-Saharan Africa" or "CEO Sabbaticals with Médecin Sans Frontière." Bringing Bono on board could open up rich possibilities; an interview with Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards about his favorite mutual funds, a photo spread featuring rapper P. Diddy's collection of platinum-plated handguns.
Malcolm Forbes Sr. was a man who liked to trot out the kids to play bagpipes for guests onboard the family yacht, Highlander. If this Elevation thing works out, what sweeter revenge could Steve Forbes have than to be up on stage with U2, resplendent in his Princeton tie and green and blue Forbes kilt, piping away on "Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."