The Monday Interview

February 5, 2012 4:16 pm

A lawyer finds his perfect match

Greg Blatt

Greg Blatt is talking fast and loud. So loud that, after a while, your ears begin to hurt. It is as if he’s at a sports match and is shouting to be heard above the roar of the crowd.

But as the chief executive of IAC – the company behind search engine Ask.com, entertainment site CollegeHumor and Match.com, the world’s biggest online dating site – enthuses about his business, his big voice ricochets around his glass-walled office with a view of the Statue of Liberty. “It’s been a great year,” he booms.

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Mr Blatt is excited because it has indeed been a good first year on the job. Full-year results, released last week, showed annual revenues up 26 per cent to $2.1bn, with profits up 75 per cent to $174m. IAC shares have also outperformed the market and peers since he took over the day-to-day running of the business from media mogul Barry Diller in December 2010.

Mr Blatt is also shouting because, well, that’s the kind of guy he is. “It’s been this incredible combination of execution and innovation,” he says in his amplified voice. (“That wasn’t loud for him,” an assistant later explains.)

When he wants to make a point, he stretches out his arms as if he has just scored a goal in a football match. On his desk, next to unopened bottles of bourbon and a flask engraved with “Match.com”, is a picture of him with friends at the 2002 Super Bowl, which his home town New England Patriots won. “I’m just a guy,” he says. “I go to the beach in the summer and ski in winter. I don’t have any ant farms. I don’t collect stamps.”

He is unmarried – and has even cancelled his subscription to Match.com. “I’m a single guy,” he says. “I have a bunch of friends in the city. I date ladies from time to time.”

Solidly built with a boyish face, the 43-year-old seems barely able to contain himself, rocking back and forth in a high-backed leather chair. Combined with his casual look – Diesel jeans and a blue Oxford shirt with three buttons open – he would seem more at home at a buzzy Silicon Valley start-up that a big New York company.

But perhaps he is at the perfect company for him, as IAC is a rather unusual media business. With minimal exposure in television, music or film, and hardly any in print – it recently purchased Newsweek magazine – it is essentially a holding company for about 60 websites.

This “guy” has also had two high-profile, conventional media mentors. Mr Blatt’s first in-house legal job was as general counsel for Martha Stewart, helping the lifestyle guru to take her company public in 1999.

Before one critical meeting, Ms Stewart took Mr Blatt out for hors d’oeuvres to talk over the deal. “We’re sitting there and I suddenly realise the olive in my mouth had a pit,” he recalls. “I didn’t know what the proper etiquette was. I considered swallowing it. She said, ‘Greg, you know what you do with the pit?’ Then she put her fingers in her mouth and put it on the table. She has a good sense of humour.”

The CV

Born: 1968, Boston

Education: Bachelor of Arts, Colgate University; Juris Doctor, Columbia Law School

Career: 1995 Associate, Wachtell, Lipton, Rosen & Katz

1997 Grubman Indursky & Schindler, PC, working on media deals

1999 Joins Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia as general counsel. Helps to take the company public

2003 Joins IAC as general counsel

2009 Named chief executive of Match.com, IAC’s online dating site

2010 Succeeds Barry Diller, IAC founder, as chief executive

Interests: Hanging out with friends; the New England Patriots

In 2003, he took the same role at IAC. He describes it as “a uniqueish company”. In the 1990s, Mr Diller built it after running Fox and Paramount Pictures, picking up assets as diverse as travel website Expedia, the Home Shopping Network and Ticketmaster. He understood that businesses with online exposure would make good investments, and he was right.

Mr Blatt joined “after all the aggregation, and before the disaggregation”. In the early 2000s, Mr Diller realised that while focusing on online-savvy companies may have been a good investing principle, it was not necessarily a good operating one. Even though both had online components, there are not many synergies between a television network and a ticketing agency. “Everybody is on the internet,” Mr Blatt says. “When people talk about ‘internet companies’, I don’t know that that means anything anymore.”

So Mr Blatt helped Mr Diller spin off the companies that didn’t fit, starting with Expedia in 2005, and continuing with Home Shopping Network, Ticketmaster and others in 2008. “We disaggregated to a group of businesses that have far more commonality among them,” he says.

After six years as general counsel, Mr Blatt was tapped to run Match.com, and in 2010 he took over as chief executive. Mr Blatt describes the company “as a federal system”, with the individual businesses acting as the equivalent of state governments. “We try to give the businesses as much autonomy as we can and get involved only where we can add value.”

To explain his own role as chief executive within that, perhaps unsurprisingly Mr Blatt reverts to a sports analogy. “It really is a team sport,” he says. “And I’m a player too. I’m not the coach, I’m not the owner. Maybe I’m the captain.”

Today, what binds Dictionary.com, BlackPeopleMeet.com and IAC’s other sites, he says, is that “none of them have physical presences and they all focus on lifetime value of customers ... I can leave one room talking to one chief executive, and go to another one and speak the same language.”

As for the rest of the web, he sees Google a “frenemy”. “They’re a competitor in search, they’re a supplier in listings, they’re a source of customer acquisition for some businesses,” Mr Blatt says.

Likewise, he does not see Facebook as a direct competitor. Yet the skyrocketing valuations of internet start-ups, led by that company’s pending IPO, has made it harder for IAC to find acquisition targets to fuel its growth. “It’s frothy out there, despite all the economic woes,” he says.

This has made it even tougher for IAC to find ways to spend its prodigious cash pile of $870m, a recently-issued dividend notwithstanding.

Mr Blatt’s management style is clearly informed by those of his mentors. If Ms Stewart taught him to relax before big moments, Mr Diller taught him to seize them. “Barry’s had a long career of these long headline moments,” Mr Blatt says. “He rises to them.”

Just before our interview, walking through the lobby of IAC’s luxurious, Frank Gehry-designed building, I encountered Mr Diller himself, now chairman.

Dressed in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, he was examining swatches of new carpeting and panels of exotic hardwood flooring with a facilities manager.

“He was clearly startled to see a reporter in his inner sanctum, and looked puzzled. “Why are you here?” he asked tersely.

A minder explained that it was to interview Mr Blatt, and I was quickly shuffled away.

What does Mr Diller do apart from picking out new carpeting? “We each have our roles,” says Mr Blatt, noting that the founder focuses on capital allocation while he keeps an eye of each of the businesses.

Comfortable as he is with this new role, however, even Mr Blatt admits to being surprised at finding himself as Mr Diller’s successor.

“I went to law school because I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he says, throwing his hands up in the air. “If someone had asked me if I would be working in the internet after law school I would have said: ‘What’s the internet?’”

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