September 2010 | Ken Kragan HBS '60

Ken Kragan HBS '60 (Manager, Producer, & Former President of the Country Music Association)

By Dayna Wilkinson

Kragan.jpgQuestion: What do Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, Burt Reynolds, the Smothers Brothers, Olivia Newton-John and the BeeGees have in common?

Answer: Ken Kragen MBA '60 was their manager.

The winner of multiple "Manager of the Year" awards, Ken has been the president of the Country Music Association and received two MTV Awards, an American Music Award, an NAACP Image Award and a United Nations Peace Medal, among other accolades. He’s probably best known as principal organizer of the original "We Are The World” and Hands Across America, the landmark charitable events.

Ken promoted concerts as a hobby when he was a college student. "Right after I got the letter saying I’d gotten into Harvard Business School, the Kingston Trio asked if I would become their full-time concert promoter because I had promoted their early shows. I wanted to go to work for them, but my dad [a distinguished UC-Berkeley law professor] said to me ‘Look, you’ve been accepted by the Harvard Business School and if you don’t go now you’ll never go.’”

Ken went directly from a post-college summer in Europe to the HBS campus. "I’d been in the dorm in Boston less than a day when a fellow came into my room and said ‘have you heard this song by the Kingston Trio? It’s the number one song in the country.’ I’d been totally out of touch and felt at that moment that my entire career had passed me by.”

While he was still at HBS, a little known pop group called the Limeliters asked Ken to be their executive secretary. "I told them ‘I didn’t go to Harvard Business School to be an executive secretary. If you decide you want a manager, call me.’ By the way, I didn’t have the slightest idea what management was or how to do it.”

The Limeliters did call. Enticed both by show business and the chance to work for himself, Ken turned down offers from companies like Time Inc. and Procter & Gamble to become their manager. During spring break he flew out to Chicago to spend time with them.

"As I walked into their hotel room I heard one of the members of the group say ‘OK, that’s it. We’re breaking up.’ Once again I thought I’d made a terrible career mistake. Fortunately I learned that they were always fighting. They broke up every day of the three years I managed them. They could never agree so they threw it to inexperienced me and I ended up making all the decisions after hearing each person’s position. It was a great learning experience."

The day after the Limeliters broke up for good, Ken signed the Smothers Brothers.

The Smothers Brothers Show on CBS (which Ken co-produced) led to more clients, including the rock group The First Edition, whose bass player was Kenny Rogers. Under Ken’s guidance, Kenny Rogers became a country music superstar and was a client for more than three decades.

"Tommy Smothers taught me that controlling the talent is the most important thing. Almost everything I’ve accomplished has come as a direct or indirect result of my work as a personal manager. In addition to talent management, which I love, I’ve produced, directed and done other challenging and exciting things in the entertainment business.”

What role does Harvard Business School play in Ken’s story?

"The first time I really buckled down and applied myself was at Harvard Business School,” Ken says, "and I came away fascinated by all different kinds of business, and by the techniques of business.”

His HBS training was reflected in the systematic and marketing-savvy way he represented clients, but he never talked about his degree. A Masters Degree just wasn’t cool when dealing with musicians, many of whom hadn’t even been to college. That changed twenty years after he graduated.

"Kenny Rogers and I were in a meeting with Lee Iacocca. For the first half of the meeting, Iacocca ignored me, then something came up that no one could answer. Iacocca’s number two guy said "Ken might know, he went to Harvard Business School.” All of a sudden Iacocca started addressing his comments to me. He and I went on to become friends, by the way. That experience taught me not to hide my credentials--finally it was okay to be a Harvard Business School graduate in the music industry.”

The Power of Giving

In 1985, Harry Belafonte called Ken with an idea for a concert to raise money for African famine relief. Looking at the success of Bob Geldof’s "Band-Aid” record, Ken instead suggested a recording session with American music stars. Within 36 hours, Ken secured Quincy Jones as producer, Lionel Ritchie and Michael Jackson agreed to write the song, and Stevie Wonder, Kenny Rogers and others signed up for the project. Then Bruce Springsteen came on board, attracting many others.

"We had singers who were at the top of the charts at the time,” Ken says. "Quincy Jones hung a sign on the door of the recording studio that said CHECK YOUR EGO AT THE DOOR.” In the end, forty-five soul, pop, rock and country artists participated. "We Are the World” was assembled and recorded in just twenty-eight days.

In the same period, Ken organized Hands Across America. On Memorial Day, 1986, five and a half million people held hands in a 4,152 mile coast-to-coast line singing "We Are the World," "America the Beautiful," and the Hands Across America theme.

Between them, "We Are The World” and Hands Across America raised over $100 million dollars to fight hunger and poverty in Africa and the United States.

"It was the most amazing year and a half of my life,” Ken says. "It cost me clients, money and physical effort, but nothing I’ve ever done gained me more respect in the industry. It clearly demonstrates that you can enhance lives and careers--including your own--by giving to others.”

Ken was often asked for advice on how to be successful in the music and entertainment businesses. He finally sat down and wrote LIFE IS A CONTACT SPORT: TEN GREAT CAREER STRATEGIES THAT WORK, a book whose principles have been taught to thousands of students at UCLA’s Extension Program and elsewhere. He’s even lectured at Harvard Business School.

This month (Tuesday evening, September 21st) in Los Angeles, the Harvardwood community can experience Ken’s enthusiasm and hear some of his time-tested wisdom at a program entitled THE STARDOM STRATEGY. Ken says "Everything in life is an opportunity.” This is one opportunity you won’t want to miss.

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