Pamela Thomas-Graham has always been a woman of bold ambition. After collecting multiple degrees from Harvard University and becoming the first black woman to make partner at McKinsey & Co., Thomas-Graham tapped a connection on the General Electric Co. (GE ) board to meet with Chairman Jack Welch in 1999. Wowed by the articulate young consultant who wrote mystery novels on the side, Welch called NBC chief Bob Wright, who offered Thomas-Graham a shot to head the fledgling Web site for CNBC.
Thus began a tumultuous stint that saw Thomas-Graham rise in 2001 to become chief executive of CNBC -- as well as a media star who graced magazine covers and won awards -- during a period when ratings plunged more than 60%. While the business news network stayed profitable, insiders say that was largely due to locked-in cable fees and an elite if shrinking audience that kept ad dollars flowing. Thomas-Graham's main task was to invigorate the lineup, especially in prime time. Her offerings -- starring such celebrities as John McEnroe, Tina Brown, and Dennis Miller -- ultimately failed. Several highly placed insiders contacted by BusinessWeek felt that she didn't spend enough time at headquarters and seemed more focused on her image than on the health of the network at a time when it desperately needed more strategic vision from the top. Others, including Thomas-Graham herself, argue that she managed to make money and increase profit margins amid the dot-com bust and an atmosphere of corporate scandal that soured the taste for business news. Still, when she stopped handling daily operations to become the network's chairman in February, insiders assumed she would soon move on.
But few would have predicted her landing as a group president at Liz Claiborne Inc. (LIZ ) Thomas-Graham, 42, welcomes the challenge. "This business is twice the size of CNBC and lets me work with a portfolio of brands rather than a single brand," she says. "I'm a Harvard MBA. Having a bigger P&L [profit and loss statement] and more complexity appeals to me." But the high-profile media executive is plunging into the world of everyday fashion at a time when the department store universe is shrinking and a basic boomer-oriented clothing line like Liz Claiborne must fight harder to stand out. Although it is profitable, veteran strategic consultant Harry Bernard argues that it is "not the fair-haired brand that it once was. I truly don't know who wears Liz Claiborne anymore." Bloomingdale's hasn't carried the line for years. One retailer asserts that "it's not worth a premium over [in-store] brands."
Certainly, hiring Thomas-Graham, who will step into her new role on Oct. 10, has already brought the brand some buzz. As a prominent woman in business, her career is closely tracked. She has been "woman of the year" in publications as diverse as Ms. Magazine and Glamour. She is married to Lawrence Otis Graham, a lawyer and controversial author who, among other things, documented his nose job in a book. In addition to nurturing a corporate career and three children, Thomas-Graham rises at 4 each morning at their estate in Chappaqua, N.Y., to work on the fourth novel in her critically acclaimed mystery series, which features a gutsy female African American Harvard economics professor named Nikki Chase.
Many people who know her admit they feel uncomfortable saying anything negative about Thomas-Graham's record. She is an accomplished black woman working in a largely white, male, corporate world. She has impressive academic credentials and had what it took to make partner at McKinsey. Some former CNBC colleagues such as Morning Call co-host Ted David rave about her. Says David: "She is elegant, kind, generous, and fiercely bright."
Yet many peers fault her management skills, including her ability to build and lead teams -- both at CNBC and previously at McKinsey. At CNBC, a number of executives contacted by BusinessWeek speak of a leader more interested in speaking appearances and networking than delving into the minutiae of operations. Thomas-Graham disagrees strongly. She says that, as a high-profile black businesswoman, she's often called on to speak and says it's an important responsibility. Still, a former McKinsey client thought she wasn't rigorous in her analysis. And some colleagues said she wasn't a team player. "You want to see her succeed," says a female consultant, "but I would never want to work with her again."
Thomas-Graham argues that she was a "non-hierarchical manager" at CNBC who had an open-door policy with employees and who successfully created ways to keep a wealthy audience. She adds that she was passionately involved in operations. Moreover, she stresses that she made money and streamlined the business. Says Wright: "She was CEO during a rough patch."
While CNBC's wealthy demographics and cable subscription fees help keep profits in excess of $250 million a year, there is little to boast about in the way of ratings, which are another crucial measure of success. Nielsen Media Research reports that the network has lost about 60% of its daytime audience since 2001 -- and roughly 70% in prime time. That's during a period when CNN's financial network folded and News Corp.'s (NWS ) Fox has emerged to have the top five business shows on cable TV. "It's a network that hasn't found itself," says industry consultant and CNN co-founder Reese Schonfeld. For her part, Thomas-Graham points to several accomplishments: creating reporter beats, focusing on investigative journalism, launching documentaries, and pushing diversity -- not to mention putting the popular, hyperactive investment maven Jim Cramer on air.
Even fans, though, are hard-pressed to applaud such program choices as tennis star John McEnroe's short-lived night-time talk show, which had the burden of having to woo guests to CNBC's headquarters in Englewood Cliffs, N.J. Thomas-Graham championed Topic [A] with Tina Brown, only to see it also fall flat in prime time. Brown says that Thomas-Graham "had very little support from above and was kind of hamstrung by that." Nevertheless, Thomas-Graham sums up her time at CNBC as a terrific experience. She says becoming chairman earlier this year let her play to strategic strengths when she helped the network buy out Dow Jones & Co.'s (DJ ) stake in its international TV partnership.
Those strengths will be much needed in her new job of handling Liz Claiborne's $1.3 billion flagship brand, along with such women's clothing names as Sigrid Olsen, J.H. Collectibles, and Emma James. Having a feel for the products and the ability to forge strong relationships with retailers also will be key. Thomas-Graham isn't worried, saying she worked with at least six apparel brands at McKinsey and that "one of the things consultants learn is how to get up to speed in a new company."
Thomas-Graham's new boss, Executive Vice-President Trudy Sullivan, seems surprised by the media attention surrounding her new hire, noting that the $4.6 billion company has four other group presidents. In her view, Thomas-Graham brings fresh eyes to the business. She's "thoughtful, strategic, and a great person to dialogue with," says Sullivan.
Thomas-Graham's fans expect her to prove her naysayers wrong. Says former New Yorker editor Brown: "Pam is a very civilizing force in a company, and in the right structure, her management skills will come to the fore."
By Diane Brady in New York