The Bank of Dad
"To follow in my footsteps was his decision," he says. "I was very pleased at that. He had the opportunity, but not the obligation."
But how do you follow an act like Joe Allbritton?
"Don't think about following an act," says Robert. "If you think about the size of the shoes that you're filling, you're going to drive yourself crazy. So don't do that. At the end of the day, people are going to judge you based upon your own actions anyway. If they're sitting there saying, 'Oh, yeah, that's X person's son,' that's because enough time hasn't gone by.
"Or you haven't done enough with your own life."
Coming to Washington
Joe Allbritton was a self-made millionaire by the time he was 33.
He had been born in the company hospital of a timber outfit in D'Lo, Miss., where his father ran the company store. The family migrated to Houston. College was interrupted by the Navy, then came law school and a shingle with his name outside a small office.
"The first month I made money," Joe Allbritton recalled later. "The second month I relaxed a little and lost money. I haven't relaxed since."
He began buying and selling land, took the proceeds and invested in banks, insurance, a chain of mortuaries.
"Joe was always looking three furlongs down the road," says Jack Valenti, an old Houston friend who became head of the Motion Picture Association and a director of Riggs. "Joe was always seeing clearly in this veiled thing we call the future."
He had a courtly Southern manner and would spin byzantine tales with friends into the night.
"He could charm the rattles off the back end of a rattlesnake," says Gibson Gayle, a friend and Houston lawyer.
A bachelor until his early forties, he married Barbara Balfanz, 13 years his junior, daughter of a Houston pharmacist. Their son was born in 1969.
"His greatest pride is in his son," says Tom Johnson, a close friend and former chairman of CNN. "From the day of Robert's birth he has worked to convey his wisdom and judgment and training."
"I grew up where any time my dad was talking business, as far back as I can remember, he would say, 'Come on in, listen to this, you might pick up something,' " Robert says. "So all these old business stories, I kind of felt I was a witness to them from the very earliest age."
Soon came a dramatic fork in the family's forward march. Mr. Allbritton went to Washington.
His decision to buy the Washington Star in 1974 was mysterious. Why at midlife suddenly plunge into an unfamiliar social and political scene clear across the country, and spend $35 million for a business with which he had no experience?
Allbritton says his reasons were simple: "The opportunity to buy the Star came to me around the time I was selling my interest in First International Bancshares, the largest bank holding company in Texas. I was ready for a change and our analysis indicated we could continue a family newspaper with a great tradition by bringing new energy to it."
But many couldn't help noticing that he unloaded the paper four years later to Time Inc. (which closed it after three more years), but held on to the television stations that came with it. Now, counting a few additions in smaller markets, the stations' estimated value of $1.2 billion seems like a stunning return. It has enhanced the legend of Allbritton, the business seer. Was the Star merely an ink-stained appendage to a golden television goose?
"You have to remember that at that stage, television stations were not terribly profitable," Allbritton says. "I reasoned at the time that profitability in television was going to rise -- and it developed that way."
Those who know him say the romance of being a newspaper publisher in the nation's capital was a potent lure. It also gave him entree to Washington's nexus of power and high society.
Owned for more than a century by the Noyes, Kauffmann and Adams families, the paper was losing $1 million a month. Star employees were thrilled at the prospect of new energy and deep pockets. At one point, when Allbritton's purchase negotiations appeared to falter, the late Mary McGrory, a celebrated Star columnist, sent him a note:
© 2004 The Washington Post Company