Tom Murphy, longtime Chairman and CEO of Capital Cities/ABC who oversaw its merger with Disney, dies at 96

ABC and the Disney Company commemorate former Capital Cities/ABC Chairman and CEO Tom Murphy.

Murphy died Wednesday at his home in Rye, Westchester County. He was 96.

One of the most respected and admired businessmen of his time, Murphy was also named a Disney Legend in 2007 for his contributions to the company. In addition to leading Capital Cities to success, Murphy was a responsible corporate citizen with a constant emphasis on public service.

“Tom Murphy was unrivaled in our industry, not only for his business achievements, but also for his impeccable ethics, unwavering kindness and boundless generosity,” said Robert A. Iger, former CEO of The Walt Disney Company. “He was a principled man who set and demanded high standards, always lived up to them and never compromised in the service of business ethics… To me he was more than a mentor. He was a father figure who trusted me, instilled confidence, encouraged innovation, was approachable, and was as able to regret failure as he was to celebrate success. I will never stop appreciating his friendship and kindness.”

Murphy began his broadcasting career in 1954, leaving his job as a brand manager at Lever Brothers in New York City to run a nearly bankrupt television and radio station in Albany, New York. It may have been a strange decision for this Harvard MBA graduate, but it was the beginning of his creation of a new company, Capital Cities Communications, Inc., which over decades has grown into a well-known, highly successful media company with television, radio, , publishing and cable properties.

In 1985, Murphy surprised colleagues and observers alike by announcing his company’s merger with ABC, Inc., a much larger organization. It was a $3.5 billion deal — the largest non-oil merger completed up to that point. One writer described what happened as “a minnow that swallowed the whale.”

Murphy and Chief Operating Officer Dan Burke established a corporate culture that emphasized decentralized management and tight cost controls. They firmly believed that managers must contribute to their communities and that ethical behavior is of paramount importance. The two met their managers annually, and the meetings always ended with Murphy reading out the company’s creed.

“Decentralization is the cornerstone of our management philosophy,” it said. “Our goal is to hire the best people we can find and give them the responsibility and authority they need to do their jobs. Decisions are made at the local level, in line with basic corporate governance responsibilities… We expect a lot from our managers… They are allowed to make mistakes, but only honest mistakes. At Capital Cities/ABC there is no second chance if you discredit yourself and your company through any unethical or dishonest act or activity.”

Ten years after the ABC acquisition, Murphy again surprised the business world by announcing Capital Cities/ABC’s merger with The Walt Disney Company. It was a $19 billion transaction.

The company’s growth has been remarkable. People who became shareholders when Capital Cities went public in 1957 made $2,000 for every dollar invested. For the original shareholders, who aligned themselves with Murphy and his team in Albany, the profit was $10,000 to one.

Murphy served on Disney’s board of directors for seven years, from 1997 to 2004, and recently retired from the board of Berkshire Hathaway, which he joined in 2003.

“Tom Murphy has taught me more about running a business than anyone else,” said Warren E. Buffett. “We’ve been friends and mental partners for more than 50 years… Tom Murphy has brought out the best in everyone whose life he has touched. Tom led by example and it was very effective whether you were a pauper or a prince. He didn’t differentiate between the two.”

Murphy was also active in philanthropy, remaining on some community boards for decades. From 1998 to 2005 he served as Save the Children’s Board Chairman and was a member of the Board of Trustees for six years. Murphy served as trustee of the NYU Langone Medical Center board of directors from 1972 until his death and as board chairman for seven years. He joined the board of directors of the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club in 1963, serving as president and later as chairman during his years there.

His first jobs were as an industrial oil salesman for the Texas Company (now Texaco Inc.) and as an account manager for Kenyon & Eckhardt. He has also been appointed to three boards, those of IBM, Johnson & Johnson and Texaco.

Murphy was born on May 31, 1925 in Brooklyn, New York. His father, Charles Murphy, was an attorney and later a judge on the New York State Supreme Court; his mother was a housewife. He received a Bachelor of Science degree in mechanical engineering from Cornell University in 1945 and an MBA from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Business Administration in 1949, where he was a Baker Scholar. He was a World War II veteran, having served in the US Navy from 1943-1946.

His wife Suzanne Crosby Murphy died in 2009. He is survived by four children and their spouses: Emilie Murphy and Byron Nimocks of Rye, New York; Thomas S. Murphy Jr. and Karen Murphy of Greenwich, Connecticut; Kathleen Murphy and John Seiner of Boulder, Colorado; Mary Conlin and John Conlin of Los Angeles, California; and nine grandchildren.

The family is asking that a memorial be made on Murphy’s behalf at the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club in New York City or at Save the Children.

Copyright © 2022 WABC-TV. All rights reserved. Tom Murphy, longtime Chairman and CEO of Capital Cities/ABC who oversaw its merger with Disney, dies at 96

Dais Johnston

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