Is Warner Music Group getting ready to put Edgar Bronfman Jr. out to pasture?
That may be the reading of some in the business following the company's announcement that the Warner CEO will swap jobs with chairman Stephen F. Cooper.
But consider another possibility.
When Sony BMG chairman Rolf Schmidt-Holtz and CEO Andy Lack switched jobs in 2006, Lack faded into the background until he eventually left the company. (He later resurfaced as a senior executive at Bloomberg.)
But in the case of Bronfman, it may be that he simply isn't interested in sticking around if WMG doesn't succeed in accomplishing what he will now be focusing on as chairman: vying to acquire EMI.
Keep running WMG in its present form? Been there, done that. And as someone else's employee? Fuhgeddaboudit.
In a memo to Warner employees, Bronfman actually sounded like he's getting ready to walk into the sunset, thanking them for their hard work and thanking the Access team for its support. He also ticked off some of his accomplishments: leading the acquisition of WMG from Time Warner, overhauling the company and overseeing its sale to Access (modestly leaving out that he turned a tidy profit on his WMG investment).
But Bronfman also made clear in the memo where his primary interest now lies: "I conveyed my strong conviction [to Access] that my energies on behalf of the company would best be directed toward transformative transactions and long-term strategy."
One such transformative transaction would be the acquisition of EMI.
If Access is successful in getting EMI, then Bronfman would probably want to stay to tackle the challenge of merging the two companies, wring even greater profits out of the merged company and perhaps prepare it for an IPO or for a sale to another buyer.
In other words, Bronfman would stick around for the possibility of reaping another financial windfall, and bask in the accolades of pulling off another business coup, just like he did with the sale of WMG to Access.
"I'm excited for what the next chapter holds," Bronfman said in his memo. "And I look forward to writing that chapter with all of you."
If that chapter doesn't end the way he's hoping, look for him to make his way to the exit.
Meanwhile, the appointment of Cooper to run the day-to-day operations at WMG is a shrewd move by Access. It injects new blood into upper management, but still enables Cooper to rely on the strength of WMG's current management team, including Bronfman. Cooper also will instill Access' financial discipline into the WMG's operations.
But is Cooper at WMG for the long haul? In addition to his responsibilities at the major label group, he does seem to have a lot of other things going on. He is a member of the supervisory board for LyondellBasell Industries N.V., a chemicals and refining company. He is founder and chairman of Cooper Investment Partners, a private equity firm. And he is a co-founder of, and advisor to, Zolfo Cooper, a consulting firm that provides advice on corporate finance and valuations, corporate restructurings and, ahem, interim management.
Executives from outside the music business who are installed as CEOs typically fall into two camps. Some are transitional leaders, looking to maximize the investment of the new owners before moving onto their next assignment -- witness Tony Alvarez and Wherehouse Entertainment.
Others fall in love with the music industry and try to stay around for the long haul, like former General Mills executive James Fifield, who was CEO of EMI from 1988-1998 and later flirted with the idea of trying to buy the company in the mid-2000's.
It remains to be seen which kind of CEO Cooper turns out to be.