Daniel Burke, who in 1968 as an executive of Capital Cities helped acquire Fairchild Publications, parent of Women’s Wear Daily, died Wednesday at 82 at his home in Rye, N.Y. The cause was complications of Type 1 diabetes.
Burke and Thomas Murphy, chairman of Capital Cities, formed a duo many management theorists and analysts believe was one of the best executive teams in business history. Their style was low-key and low ego, with no frills and no fuss. Burke and Murphy gave the managers of CapCities’ various business units immense autonomy to run their divisions so long as they hit the financial targets set by corporate headquarters. It was a strategy that created one of the best-run and most-admired media companies in the world and saw CapCities’ share price soar from the single digits to well over $700 a share before it split in 1994.
Burke was the inside-man to Murphy’s public face. In 1986, the two men stunned the media and corporate worlds by acquiring ABC for $3.5 billion in the largest nonpetroleum merger in corporate history. Burke became president and chief operating officer of the combined firm, Capital Cities/ABC, retiring from that position in 1994.
An indication of the management style of the two men is that when CapCities bought ABC, it had a corporate headquarters of less than 20 people — and no public relations department.
The ABC deal was backed by Warren Buffett, a longtime supporter of Murphy’s and Burke’s, who in 1996 pressed for an outright sale of CapCities to The Walt Disney Co. for $19 billion instead of merging with the entertainment conglomerate, which many insiders preferred.
“He was the best,” Murphy told WWD about Burke. “He was wonderful, smart, creative and perceptive, with great integrity. Among other things, he was the architect of fixing ABC from the inside. I was outside. He was terrific. We wouldn’t have done as well as we did without him. He kept costs under control. He was a fun guy. We [knew each other] for 33 years. His older brother was a classmate of mine at Harvard Business School. I met him when he got back from Korea. He was a great partner.”
Robert Iger, president and chief executive officer of The Walt Disney Co., who ran ABC under Murphy and Burke, described Burke as someone who “stood for integrity and directness in business, and encouraged a balance in work and family life and involvement in one’s community.”
Burke was born in Albany on Feb. 4, 1929, the third of four children of James and Mary Barnett Burke, a Wellesley graduate. Burke graduated from the University of Vermont in 1950, served in the Korean War in 1951 and 1952 as a first lieutenant and leader of a mortar platoon, and got an M.B.A. from Harvard in 1955. He then went to work for the Jell-O division of General Foods. In 1961, Murphy hired Burke to run an Albany TV station, WTEN-TV, which was a property of the fledgling Capital Cities Broadcasting. In 1962, Burke became a vice president of the company, and in 1964, he went to Detroit to run two of the company’s new acquisitions, WJR AM-FM radio stations. While there, he helped acquire the Pontiac Press, the firm’s first daily newspaper.
The purchase of Fairchild Publications doubled the size of the company, and in 1969, Burke moved to New York to become president of Capital Cities’ new publishing division. At each stop in his career, Burke was instrumental in implementing the cost-cutting that integrating the latest acquisitions required.
After he retired, Burke developed and ran a minor-league baseball team, the Portland Sea Dogs. “We wouldn’t be there without his vision and drive in bringing baseball to Maine,” said Geoff Iacuessa, general manager of the Sea Dogs.
Burke is survived by Harriet “Bunny” Burke, his wife of 54 years; his sons Stephen, ceo of NBC Universal, a division of Comcast; Bill, and Frank; a daughter, Sally McNamara; his brother, James, a former ceo of Johnson & Johnson; a sister, Phyllis B. Davis, and 14 grandchildren.
There will be a visitation service at the Graham Funeral Home in Rye on Sunday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. The funeral will take place at St. Martha Church, Kennebunk, Maine, on Tuesday. Donations in Burke’s name can be made to the Maine Medical Center; The Partnership for a Drug Free America, and the Naomie Berrie Diabetes Center at Columbia University Medical Center.