Sidney Harman, Who Made High-Fidelity Fortune, Dies at 92

Sidney Harman, 92
Sidney Harman, shown with his wife, former Representative Jane Harman, left, a Democrat from California. Harman died on April 12, 2011, at age 92. Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/Bloomberg

Sidney Harman, whose Harman Kardon brand became synonymous with high-quality audio equipment and who became a top philanthropist in the U.S. capital and, late in life, the owner of Newsweek magazine, has died. He was 92.

He died last night in Washington of complications from acute myeloid leukemia, the website The Daily Beast reported today. Harman was executive chairman of The Newsweek Daily Beast Co., formed when the website merged with Newsweek. His wife, Jane Harman, resigned Feb. 28 from Congress to become director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington. A Democrat, she represented coastal communities of Los Angeles in the House of Representatives.

With Bernard Kardon, a colleague at a company that made public-address systems, Harman founded Harman Kardon in 1953 to make high-fidelity machines for people to enjoy music at home.

Their innovation was to combine multiple parts -- the amplifier, tuner and speakers -- into one visually appealing machine, the receiver.

“Because the separate components were combined on a single chassis, the risks of electrical interference and hum would be significantly reduced,” Harman recalled in his 2003 memoir.

He said college campuses in particular “were the breeding grounds for a generation who loved the music and felt that the best way to listen to it was in the dorm with our equipment. Harman Kardon was the symbol of hip, the mark of the cognoscenti.”

First Stereo Receiver

After Harman bought out Kardon’s share, the company in 1958 introduced the first stereo receiver. Harman later acquired JBL and Infinity, among other audio equipment makers, and his firm became a leader in high-end audio for automobiles. He created Harman International Industries Inc. as the parent company.

Harman sold Harman International in 1977 to become under secretary of Commerce under President Jimmy Carter. At the end of Carter’s presidency in 1980 he bought back Harman International from Beatrice Foods. The Harman Kardon unit was no longer part of the company, having been sold by Beatrice. It took until 1985 for Harman to succeed in reacquiring Harman Kardon, which he guided into the era of digital audio and video.

Harman transferred the title of chief executive to Bernie Girod in 1992, remaining as chairman. He changed his title to executive chairman in 2001, then became chairman emeritus.

Almost Acquired

In April 2007, Harman International agreed to be acquired by Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co. and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. for about $8 billion. The deal fell through five months later, with KKR and Goldman Sachs saying Harman International had experienced a decline in performance. In a settlement, KKR and Goldman Sachs agreed to buy $400 million of bonds from Harman International.

Last August, Harman agreed to buy Newsweek from Washington Post Co. for $1, winning a three-month bidding process for the money-losing publication. Donald E. Graham, chief executive officer of Washington Post, said Harman was chosen because he “feels as strongly as we do about the importance of quality journalism.”

In November, Harman and Barry Diller, owner of The Daily Beast, agreed to a merger, with Daily Beast founder Tina Brown serving as editor of both publications. “In an admittedly challenging time,” Harman said then, “this merger provides the ideal combination of established journalism authority and bright, bristling website savvy.”

Capital Philanthropist

A fan of classical and jazz music, Harman became one of Washington’s most sought-out philanthropists, especially in the arts and education. He gave $19.5 million on behalf of his family toward the creation of an expanded home for the city’s Shakespeare Theater Company. The Harman Center for the Arts opened in 2007.

Harman was born on Aug. 5, 1918, in Montreal, where his father worked for a hearing-aid company. He grew up in New York City after his father moved there for a similar job.

He majored in physics at New York’s City College, graduating in 1939. Working at the David Bogen Co., maker of public-address sound systems, he quickly became friends with Kardon, his boss.

According to Harman, the two men struggled to persuade the company’s owner to let them adapt the equipment for home-audio uses, finally deciding to start their own business. Harman bought out Kardon in 1956.

An interest in labor relations inspired Harman in the early 1970s to work with the United Auto Workers union on an experimental system at a Tennessee factory that made rear-view mirrors for one of his companies, Harman Automotive Inc.

Bolivar Experiment

The so-called Bolivar Experiment, named for the city where the factory was located, gave workers the power to make improvements in procedures and to go home when their production quotas were filled, a system called “earned idle time.”

In the end, that shortened-workday perk created tensions among employees and between workers and managers, according to a 1998 article in the New York Times. Harman sold the factory in 1976, and subsequent owners let the experiment expire.

It was while working for the Carter administration that Harman met Jane Lakes, a lawyer working as deputy secretary of Carter’s cabinet, who would become his wife. She was first elected to Congress in 1992.

In 1998, Harman bankrolled much of his wife’s $16 million bid for the Democratic nomination to be California governor. She lost the nomination to Gray Davis, who went on to become governor. In 2000, she ran successfully to regain her House seat.

Harman had four children with his first wife before they divorced in 1970. He married Jane, who had two children from a first marriage of her own, in 1980. They had two children together.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE