Al Gore's $100 Million Makeover

Not long ago, he was the butt of jokes--lockbox, earth tones, a postelection beard. Then he dusted off an old slide show and jumped with both feet into the private sector. The untold story of how an epic loser engineered what may be the greatest brand makeover of our time.

A l Gore is a funny guy. And, for his $175,000 speaking fee, he tells this story: after leaving the White House and heading back to Tennessee sans motorcade--"in a rented Ford Taurus," he sniffs--he and Tipper stop to get a bite to eat at a Shoney's, "which, as you may know, is a low-cost family restaurant." The people in the restaurant "made a huge fuss...over Tipper." Then, a man spies Gore and stage-whispers, "Didn't he used to be the Vice President? He's fallen so low." Peals of delight from the audience. Gore smiles back. It's a nice moment.

But wait, there's more. Later, he goes on, he attempts the same story in Nigeria. Punch line, laughter, applause--no problem. The next day, an official at the airport yells out to him, "Call Washington!" Hmmm. "What could be wrong in Washington?" he muses, scratching his chin. "That's when I remembered it could be a lot of things." The crowd goes wild.

Come to find out, Gore explains, a reporter in Nigeria had lost a bit of the story in translation. "Vice President Al Gore announced yesterday that he and his wife, Tipper, have opened a low-cost family restaurant called Shoney's and will be running it themselves," Gore intones. By the time he landed in the United States, the story had hit the wires, and he was--again--the butt of jokes on Leno and Letterman. Three days later, he received a handwritten note from Bill Clinton, congratulating him on the Shoney's deal. "We like to celebrate each other's successes in life," Gore deadpans to uproarious laughter.

Funny guy, indeed. In one well-delivered anecdote, Gore manages to make fun of himself, the election, his relationship with his former boss, the Bush administration, and the media--and still come out on top. Gone is the robo-candidate who provided fodder for conservative bile and late-night merrymaking. (For a good time, google "SNL" and "lockbox.") After the 2000 election, Gore might have slunk away to a loser's life: a memoir here, a visiting professorship there, the occasional keynote speech or celebrity golf tournament. Instead, in what may be the greatest brand makeover in history, Gore is being hailed as a visionary who was right about everything from global warming to Iraq. At 59, he's an Academy Award winner, a bestselling author, a front-runner for the Nobel Prize, and a concert promoter who turned out to be a bigger rock star at this year's Grammys than the rock stars themselves.

What no one is talking about is that he has also become a stunningly successful businessman--and that has fueled his comeback. Since his nonelection, Gore has become a millionaire many times over, bringing him, in financial terms, shoulder to shoulder with the C-suite denizens he used to hit up for campaign cash. In addition to the steady flow of six-figure speaking gigs, he has become an insider at two of the hottest companies on the planet: at Google, where he signed on as an adviser in 2001, pre-IPO (and received stock options now reportedly worth north of $30 million), and at Apple, where he joined the board in 2003 (and got stock options now valued at about $6 million). He enjoyed a big payday as vice chairman of an investment firm in L.A., and, more recently, started a cable-television company and an asset-management firm, both of which are becoming quiet forces in their fields.

Financial disclosure documents released before the 2000 election put the Gore family's net worth at $1 million to $2 million. After years of public service--and four kids needing high-priced educations--Al and Tipper used to fret occasionally about money. Not anymore. They have a new multimillion-dollar home in a tony section of Nashville and a family home in Virginia, and have recently bought a multimillion-dollar condo at the St. Regis condo/hotel in San Francisco. Available data indicate a net worth well in excess of $100 million.

It's good to be the president, even metaphorically, of Al Gore Inc. And that helps explain why he's wary of reentering the political fray. Here, then, is the untold tale of Gore's unlikely rebirth.

Gore greets me at the door of his suite at the Regency Hotel in New York in late May: "I haven't seen you since Orlando!" He is in the city to promote his new book, The Assault on Reason. I'd first been introduced to him several weeks earlier at the Tribeca Film Festival, and we chatted again briefly in Orlando, Florida, at a tech-geek conference of Adobe software enthusiasts (who were treated to his global-warming speech, including the Shoney's bit). But this is our first official interview, and he begins with his game face on. Ever polite, he has been fielding questions about politics nonstop--including at a taping of the PBS show Charlie Rose the night before. He visibly relaxes, though, when we start talking about global business. "I have really enjoyed the business world much more than I expected," Gore says, settling back in his chair. He speaks animatedly about incentive structures and how information flow creates opportunities.

One problem he had in politics, he says, was identifying an issue too early--"'predawn' is the term I use"--to be able to act on it. But "in the business world, particularly at a time when things are moving so swiftly, if you can see it early, you can make a business opportunity out of it." He pauses. "For whatever reason, the business world rewards a long-term perspective more than the political world does."

By his own account, his makeover has been less the result of a conscious strategy than of a few smart initiatives that happened to ripen in sync--from Google's towering growth to the recent profitability of his media startup, Current TV. "I've remarked to Tipper how amazing it is that both Current and Generation [Investment Management] have reached the next stage of their development at almost exactly the same time." What defines the ventures he has taken part in, he says, is "a revolutionary and transformational concept" in industries that badly need change. But did he expect such enormous financial success? He pauses. "It's all been a pleasant surprise. And a lot of fun."

That's not how things looked in the first years after that trip back to Nashville. In the spring of 2001, Gore returned from a vacation in the Mediterranean with an unfortunate beard, and the late-night jokesters had a field day. His first business move--signing on as an adviser to Google--proved prescient, but Google wasn't yet a powerhouse. Almost no one took note. (On his first day at Google, Gore recalls with a laugh, "Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] and the entire executive team had false beards on.")

His most public effort was dusting off a slide show on global warming he had put together in 1989. It was full of depressing data about melting ice caps and killer hurricanes--not a likely vehicle to spark a resurrection. As recently as May 2004, he took some serious ribbing for presenting a version of it at an event timed to coincide with the goofy global-warming film The Day After Tomorrow. A few months later, when television producer turned environmental activist Laurie David invited her A-list pals to see the slide show, she had a hard time getting them to attend. "People were still mad about the election," she recalls. "And nobody cared about global warming."

What has changed since then is, in part, political: John Kerry fared worse than Gore at the polls, and President George W. Bush has seen his approval ratings tumble. Hurricane Katrina played a role, too, stirring fears of climate change. But Gore's business efforts have also come together in a crescendo that cannot be ignored. In fact, to understand the personal drive and vision behind Gore's revival--and the philosophy that continues to take his business, if not his political, brand forward--the place to begin is with his two entrepreneurial efforts, Current TV and Generation.

Joel Hyatt is comfortably ensconced in his loft-style San Francisco office at Current TV, Al Gore's now-profitable cable network. Hyatt, the CEO, is a longtime friend of Gore's who made his millions by founding Hyatt Legal Plans, a provider of low-cost legal services that was acquired by MetLife in 1997. He has taught entrepreneurship at Stanford's business school and chaired the Democratic finance committee during the 2000 election. He doesn't talk easily about his front-row view of Gore's disputed loss, and when he does, his voice shakes with emotion. "It's hard to move on from something like that," he says.

But he did. After the election, Hyatt began talking with Gore about the sorry state of television and the role that the broadcast media play in the public sphere. "The line between news and entertainment is blurred," as Gore now puts it. "Much of TV is mind deadening. It's a one-way conduit of knowledge." The two men discussed what Hyatt calls "an utter lack of innovation in the media industry"--a barely disguised oligopoly, as they saw it, controlling both content and competition. "We decided that we wanted to build a new kind of media company to democratize--small d--television first and the media industry generally," Hyatt says. They would give viewers from 18 to 34 the means to create and control what went on the air--a user-generated model now familiar thanks to the likes of YouTube and MySpace, but a shot in the dark for TV back in 2002.

Undaunted, Gore and Hyatt went looking to buy a cable-TV network. The effort quickly became a disaster. Meetings were taken, favors were called in, but nobody wanted them. "We were told repeatedly, 'You're not going to start a cable-television company,'" Hyatt recalls. "'There's no room in the industry for you. Period.'" The only possibility they could find was a yawner of a Canadian news network, called Newsworld International, or NWI, owned by the French company Vivendi. Yet even here, Gore and Hyatt were initially rebuffed. Gore had to tap then French president Jacques Chirac to arrange a meeting with Vivendi executives. Negotiations dragged on for months. "There were probably at least seven or eight times when [the deal] was dead and all but buried," Gore recalls. Finally, after nearly a year of nail biting and a cameo appearance by Barry Diller, who owned a part of the entities--Gore lobbied him in person--Gore and Hyatt snagged NWI in May 2004 for $70 million. (Their investment partners included former Goldman Sachs senior director Philip Murphy, who is now the Democratic finance committee chair; Richard Blum, husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein; Sun Microsystems cofounder Bill Joy; and Bob Pittman, former chief operating officer of AOL Time Warner.)

They had the network, renamed Current TV, but they still didn't know precisely what it would air. At a meeting around Hyatt's kitchen table in the summer of 2004, the nascent management team kicked around ideas--and kicked them to the curb. One option was to give 200 talented unknowns all around the world video equipment, train them, and set them loose to tell stories. Hyatt and Gore's response: Not good enough. Gore was looking for something "transformational," recalls Current exec Joanna Drake Earl, a veteran of Paul Allen's Moxi media startup. "Transformational?" Earl remembers with a laugh. "I mean...that's hard to manage to."

As Current's August 1, 2005, launch date approached--the old Canadian news programming would end July 31--tensions ran high. "At one point," says president of programming David Neuman, who had produced sitcoms on NBC and Fox, "I got down on my hands and knees and begged for more time." Finally, the team agreed on a formula. They would hire a crew of "vanguard journalists," but work toward the goal of creating a network largely shaped by its viewers, via a Web site that functioned like a production community.

Current TV, Gore's cable channel, turned a profit in only two years.

Today, less than two years in, at least 30% of the network's content is viewer generated, called VC2. Amateur filmmakers, some in their teens, upload three- to eight-minute documentary-style nonfiction segments, called "pods," to the Current Web site. Online modules help aspiring filmmakers navigate everything from framing a shot to negotiating music rights. The online community comments on the videos and votes to "green-light" pods that they want to see on air. Makers of the pods that are aired get $500; Current gets a library of content to use in perpetuity--with no production costs.

The result is surprisingly engaging and unlike anything else on TV. The pods shuffle through everything from cutting-edge bands and dogsled races, to African villagers struggling with HIV/AIDs and dispatches from soldiers serving in Iraq.

Current has also worked with advertisers to create viewer-generated commercials, or VCAMs. To date, some 32 VCAMs have hit the air. "Once we heard the concept, we got on board early on," says Brett Dennis, director of media marketing for T-Mobile, which also runs traditional spots on the network. "It provided us with a groundbreaking way to reach customers, and to encourage them to engage with our brand." Plus, it's delightfully cheap: $1,000 for every commercial that gets on the air. (If the ad is distributed on other networks, the fee can go up to $50,000.) T-Mobile has already selected three VCAMs, and hopes to do more; other VCAM advertisers include Pop Secret, Sony, and L'Oréal. Says Dennis: "It's the best example we've seen of the convergence of a traditional network model and the user-generated Internet model."

Gore is clearly happy with Current TV's progress and optimistic about its future. "The more people who are watching, and the more people who are contributing, the higher and higher the quality goes of the pods from which we select." He adds, "One of the happy problems we've had is explaining Current TV to investors and distributors. Nobody would believe how low our production costs were, or how good the business model was." Current TV is now in 38 million U.S. homes via DirecTV, Comcast, Dish Network, AT&T U-Verse, and Time Warner Cable. Its expansion this year to the UK and Ireland on BSkyB and Virgin Media will put it in another 8.2 million homes.

"We have a belief that explicit recognition of environmental, social, governance, economic, and ethical factors affect business," says Blood.

Current TV is making money, about a 10% margin on cash flow, after less than two years, according to analyst estimates; new cable networks typically take four to six years to go into the black. "Partly it's because they inherited some distribution on DirecTV when they acquired NWI," says Derek Baine, a senior analyst with Kagan Research. He estimates that Current's license fee is about 12 cents per month per subscriber, roughly what an established player like Lifetime gets, and projects that advertising, now 24% of revenue, will pass the industry average of 43% by 2010. "I think their model has made other networks sit up and pay attention."

While Gore was struggling to launch his cable network in late 2003, he was also moving on another front: starting an investment firm based on a new definition of sustainability. Metropolitan West Financial, an L.A.-based asset-management outfit where he'd been vice chairman for two years, had just been sold to Wachovia. (Gore's former Senate chief of staff, Peter Knight, was a Met West managing director and had recruited him.) Gore had his hefty payout from the deal, plus a desire "to incorporate sustainability values into the financial-services work that I was doing." Goldman's Murphy introduced him to David Blood, then CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management. "They were both talking to me about similar things," Murphy recalls, "deep conversations about emerging markets, sustainability issues, and new ways of making investments. They were both asking, 'Can this make money? Can this be a business?'"

"I was interested in creating a business around investing, which I love, and philanthropy," Blood says. He and Gore met many times, both in London, where Blood is based, and in the United States, to talk about values and skills. "It's not exactly like choosing a spouse," Blood says of selecting a business partner. But it's close. "You have to know that you can work together, have the difficult conversations. You need 100% trust and confidence." They worked together on a statement of values for their company, which they named Generation Investment Management. When they launched in August 2004, they made no move to attract outside investors--which, despite the catcalls from Gore detractors, was entirely by design, says Blood. "We spent a year playing with our own money," he says--a pool of about $100 million from himself, Gore, Knight (whom Gore brought in from Met West), and three other founding partners. "We didn't want to raise money first and then come up with an idea," Blood says. "What we really needed to do was invent a new language."

Rather than rely on short-term earnings projections, they thought long-term investment potential--and good management--could be better gauged by looking at factors such as whether a company was preparing for a carbon-neutral future. Environmental stewardship, though, is just part of how Generation defines sustainability. "We think about how businesses attract and retain employees, governance, branding; how they operate in the community; and how all of that drives their business strategy," Blood explains. "We have a belief that explicit recognition of environmental, social, governance, economic, and ethical factors affect business." Generation's research team, led by Colin le Duc, has both environmental economists and traditional buy-side equity analysts, who have learned to ask a wider range of questions of the companies they cover. The firm plans to build a long-term portfolio of only 30 to 50 companies. Blood claims that returns so far have exceeded expectations, although he won't divulge specifics. (See "An Inconvenient Portfolio" for some of the firm's holdings.)

The firm now has nearly $1 billion under management, from 15 institutions, plus a few individuals. And it has turned down some investors. Says Blood: "Anybody who is expecting a monthly report on how their stocks are doing isn't for us."

A few million people saw An Inconvenient Truth," says Kevin Wall. "I plan to deliver 2 billion eyeballs." Wall is the producer of this summer's Live Earth concerts--nine simultaneous events across seven continents on July 7, on the model of Live 8, to raise awareness for global warming and money for the Alliance for Climate Protection, a nonpartisan advocacy group of which Gore is chairman. "The artists are not being paid, I'm not being paid," Wall notes.

His biggest unpaid superstar is Gore himself. On the night of the Grammys this year, Gore went from dressing room to dressing room backstage, recruiting performers. He was in the midst of lobbying the Red Hot Chili Peppers when he was called to the stage to present the award for best rock album--to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. When the group came out to accept the award, they told Gore they'd do the concert.

Live Earth was inspired, Wall says, by An Inconvenient Truth. After he saw the film at its premiere, he talked to NBC Universal chief Jeff Zucker about broadcasting the concerts across the NBC properties and lined up the BBC and MSN as partners, then reached out to Gore. "I told Al, 'I don't need anything from you, I just want to hand you the mike.'"

That Gore now finds himself the celebrity draw is ironic, given that his star "performance" revolves around a slideshow. When Laurie David and the documentary team she'd assembled--director Davis Guggenheim, producer Lawrence Bender (of the Kill Bill movies), producer Scott Burns (famous for the "Got Milk?" ads), and coproducer Lesley Chilcott--went to San Francisco to lobby Gore about making a movie, he was reluctant. His global-warming spiel was just a lecture, he said. How would it work as a film?

He relented, though--in part because he was so passionate about the slide show. Working first with flip charts and a slide carousel, and now with Apple's Keynote software, Gore found he could talk to people in his own voice, without the handlers, image consultants, and intermediaries that turned him into a sound-bitten, earth-toned version of himself in 2000. Gore was happy to continue traveling the country with his slides, but David had a more aggressive agenda: "Let's get it out there!"

The production schedule for An Inconvenient Truth was so compressed that Gore joked it was like making "Kill Al, Vol. Three," a friendly jibe at Bender. Filming began in July 2005; the premiere was at Sundance the following January. In between, Katrina hit. "I was scheduled to give the slide show in New Orleans that day," Gore says. "The audience was the state insurance commissioners who wanted to learn more about hurricanes and global warming."

The movie was released theatrically in New York and Los Angeles in May 2006, in wide release in June. And by March 2007, Gore was thanking the Academy. Part of the proceeds from the film go to the Alliance for Climate Protection. The film has made more than $50 million worldwide; 50,000 DVDs have been given away to schools and nonprofits, and 850,000 copies of the book have been sold.

Back in New York, I ask Gore to explain what he meant when he said he wanted Current TV to be transformational. He answers with a 10-minute history lesson on the computer. "It's a geeky analogy, but you're from Fast Company, so you'll like it," he says good-naturedly. Sketching a diagram on a file folder, he reveals just how geeky he is himself. He certainly needs more than 30 seconds to get his point across.

That helps explain why, despite the interest from so many Democrats in his political aspirations, he seems genuinely distanced from the idea of running for President--at least for now. "What politics has become," Gore explains at one point during our discussion, "is something that requires a kind of tolerance for artifice and manipulative communications strategies that I just find I have in very short supply. I just don't have the patience for things that seem to be greatly rewarded in today's political system."

Politically, his outsider status makes him a potential kingmaker.

If this is sour grapes over 2000, it doesn't sound like it--at least not from the vantage point of 2007. "A politics of ideas, driven by passion, seems to encounter a headwind," he tells me. "I do think that the Internet is bringing revolutionary transformation. I have not ruled out the possibility of getting into politics sometime in the future," he says, "but I don't expect to. Because I don't expect things to change. If they did change, then I would feel differently."

As a political figure, Gore may be more palatable as a possible dark horse than an actual candidate--precisely because he seems incapable of turning his passions into sound bites. And in any campaign, he might find himself on the defensive for his business activities. In his slideshow tour, he has been paid by many companies, which could be used to challenge his integrity. (He routinely cuts or eliminates his fee for schools and other nonprofits.) He also headed the Apple board committee that cleared Steve Jobs of wrongdoing in the stock-options backdating scandal.

Sitting where he is, his outsider status makes him a potential kingmaker among the Democratic candidates. He has said he expects to endorse someone eventually. Whoever gets the nod can expect Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection to run its own campaign on the issues.

Gore sees no reason to apologize for not wanting to jump into the electoral fray. As a businessman, he can speak with a candor few successful politicians can maintain. He has made an enormous amount of money and achieved positions of influence from technology to financial services to media. He and Tipper are even setting themselves up as angel investors for a few early-stage tech companies they believe in. In doing one end run after another around the status quo, he has created a new life: a perfect amalgam of environmental activism and a new type of capitalism in which there is more than one bottom line to consider, more than one master to serve.

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5 Comments

  • marc zazeela

    What a cool story. Surviving as the butt of the pundits' jokes, he has become the envy of those who used to ridicule him. Particularly interesting that " if you can see it early, you can make a business opportunity out of it."

    Goes to show that politics has no room for visionaries, only reactionaries.

  • Alfred Hussein Neuman

    Update:  Current TV's peak rating of viewers out of the 50 millions households that have access to the network is 22,000.  Unfortunately, the Cable networks pay .12 cent per subscriber and not viewer.  As a comparison, MSNBC has 40 times more viewers, Fox News has 70 times more.  That any cable company would pay that much for Current TV is crazy.

  • Kate Hobbs

    Thanks for all of this insight. I was never aware that Gore had been on the board of Google or Apple, but it's no surprise that he has helped them in growing to the big brands that they are. It's no wonder that Adobe software has become the standard program for digital designers and Google has such a large market share.

  • Tom

    Kaye you are clearly an idiot. Gore has no expertise in anything that would be useful for Googole or Apple. Gore is a typical snake oil salesman.