The Bank of Dad
He had about $10,000 in savings, and being just out of college, he could make that last a long time.
"And so for the next two months my Dad would call me up every single morning at 6 a.m. and let the phone ring until I picked the thing up.
" 'Yeah, Dad.'
" 'What's it like to be your age and retired?' "
Robert Allbritton chortles at the memory. "Just to torture me about the whole thing!" he says with affection for the old man.
He joined another family business -- television. Allbritton Communications owns WJLA -- named with Joe's initials -- and NewsChannel 8 in Washington, plus stations in six smaller markets. For two years, Robert spent months at each station doing every job from engineering to soliciting ads to operating cameras.
His father put him in charge at 25. "I spent a full year walking into every meeting apologizing for my age," Allbritton says. Former employees say he was more engaged in operations than his father. He was especially adept at the technical side. He devised a way to add a station in Birmingham by acquiring the television towers of smaller stations outside the city and blanketing the area with a merged signal. He tried to take the long view in an overnight ratings-obsessed business, investing $20 million in high-tech facilities in Rosslyn.
"He was disarming to people, he was very low-key," says John Hillis, former president of NewsChannel 8.
"He was very personable," says Gary Wordlaw, former news director of WJLA. "This was a guy who was heir to a billion-dollar fortune or whatever they have, but he was just one of the guys in the station."
But his leadership chafed on some employees. Former WJLA anchor Paul Berry has a bittersweet memory of Robert visiting the station as a boy and asking for candy from the jar in the anchor's office. In 1999, a grown-up Allbritton sat in the office with corporate lieutenant Fred Ryan, offering Berry a contract renewal that Berry considered inadequate to the point of insulting. Rather than sign, he left WJLA after 28 years.
"I never believed Robert had the heart to do that kind of thing," says Berry. "They looked at people as just parts of an assembly line. They're interchangeable."
Without discussing particular personnel moves, Allbritton says, "Every employee of mine is important and I try to treat them all fairly and with respect. That said, decisions on personnel have to be made based on what is best for the business."
He says the first outlines of his contribution to the Allbritton legacy -- the imprint of the son -- can be detected in the improved and enlarged operations of Allbritton Communications. "It's this nice little company that keeps on chugging, that keeps on performing, that keeps on doing the right thing in the community," Allbritton says.
Joe Allbritton, during his son's years at the stations, would sometimes ask if he wanted to join the bank.
"He'd keep on coming over here and saying, you know, 'Why don't you be the senior vice president for widgets at Riggs?' " Robert Allbritton says. "And I'd keep on asking myself, 'Out of loyalty, I want to help you, but why do I want to give up running the show over here, where I'm king of my own castle, to come over and work for you?' "
But by early 2001, Robert says he was ready for a new challenge. Already a director of the bank, he attended a Riggs management retreat and sensed executives were ready for a new generation, a new style. And for the first time, over lunch in the bank dining room, Joe Allbritton said he was ready to step aside.
Was his son interested in being not merely senior vice president for widgets, but the boss?
Robert Allbritton, then 32, became chairman and chief executive officer. His father became vice chairman. Last month, his parents relinquished their positions as directors. If it seems like the fulfillment of a succession plan hatched when the son was in the cradle, it isn't, according to father and son.
"My parents said all along, 'You don't have to go into the family businesses,' " Robert says.
Joe Allbritton, 79, declined to be interviewed, but supplied written answers to questions.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company