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Milken: Ten Years of Powerpoint and Trend-Spotting

By Tom Watson on April 25, 2007One Comment

There is some irony in the location for the annual Milken Global Conference, which this year celebrates a decade of meetings. The Beverly Hilton, a plush walled garden on busy Santa Monica Boulevard in Beverly Hills, used to be the site of Milken’s high-80s meetings of buy-out funds and takeover specialists. As the LA Times noted in a front-page profile this week:

There are a few echoes of the past: The four-day conference is held at
the same hotel where Milken in the 1980s presided over what became
known as the Predators’ Ball — a gathering of corporate takeover
artists who used his high-yield junk bonds to finance their hostile
bids. And the predominant attire is still the Wall Street power suit —
dark and tailored, shirt preferably white or light blue (all the better
for that hallway interview with Bloomberg Television or face time with
CNBC anchor Maria Bartiromo).

This year, in a crowd of boldface names that includes Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rupert Murdoch, Ted Turner, Sumner Redstone, John and Theresa Heinz Kerry, Boone Pickens, Michael J. Fox, Andre Agassi, Kirk Douglas, Sydney Pollack, Frank Gehry, Sherry Lansing, Quincy Jones, Mort Zuckerman, and Eli Broad among others, it’s Milken himself who stands out.

After all, his is a remarkable story of personal renovation – at 61, Milken has gone from the notorious junk bond king of two decades ago to a leader in innovative economic views, changing capitalism, and American philanthropy.

The Global Conference is a product of the Milken Institute, a 40-person think tank with staff in Los Angeles and Washington DC, which focuses on broad economic issues that affect change; it aims to accelerate that change by bringing together economists with government types, business leaders, financiers, and philanthropists. Oh, and Hollywood celebrities, of course. Milken clearly knows the value of a well-known face, and he easily salts the Institute’s work with connections to a who’s who in the entertainment world.

There are other projects, including the Milken Family Foundation; through the Milken National Educator Awards, the MFF
has awarded a total of about $54 million to more than 2,000 teachers. And there’s FasterCures/The Center for Accelerating Medical Solutions – a
non-profit "action tank" formed under the auspices of the Milken
Institute with a mission to identify and implement global solutions to
accelerate the process of discovery and clinical development of new
therapies for the treatment of deadly and debilitating diseases.

But the Milken Global Conference is Mike Milken’s public face on the powerful world of insiders, world leaders, and CEOs – its success gives Milken even more entree than he enjoyed before; its platform allows deals to happen, deals that are increasingly philanthropic in nature. It was no accident that this year’s conference was the first to feature a full philanthropic track, and that leaders in the social entrepreneurship area were very much in evidence.

It’s become one of the top three or four conferences in the world for serious economic discussion – the kind with real-world repercussions. The LA Times summed it up well:

The event has grown into a confab of Hollywood heavyweights and
political and academic stars — even the occasional Olympian. Milken
sets the agenda, and it’s an eclectic one, from the future of K-12
education to the future of prostate cancer treatment to the future of
capitalism. (Luckily for the high-net-worth gathering, the conclusion
of Monday’s panel of three Nobel laureates in economics was that the
free-market system had one.)

Think the World Economic Forum in
Davos, Switzerland, without the skiing and antiglobalization protesters
and with better shopping. (Which is why some have dubbed this Davos
West.) Or the Clinton Global Initiative without the presidential
invitation and the $15,000 annual membership fee.


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