The Big Fish of the Fun Business
Charlie Fink excels in small arenas where he can make a big splash
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"I'm in the fun business," says Charlie Fink, president of AmericanGreetings.com Network. " One of the great blessings of my career is that, with very few exceptions, I've never felt that I was doing a job that wasn't mostly fun." Interviewed on "Information Technology Leaders," Fink confesses that he still feels giddy about his work, and is still surprised that he gets paid for it.

Yet Fink's career proves that making it into the fun business is no cakewalk. He paid his dues to break into the film industry, where he became the youngest VP at Disney, then shrewdly shifted into interactive media and Internet ventures just when entertainment and the Web were beginning to converge. His secrets to success included recognizing key truths about himself and following his instincts -- even when they took him into the unknown.

"Information Technology Leaders," produced by the University of Washington’s School of Business, presents multi-faceted portraits of the people filling the top IT positions at major corporations such as Microsoft, Boeing, and AT&T Wireless Services. The revealing interviews show that personal characteristics often play an important role in the unpredictable career trajectories of this industry.

Raised in Westchester County, N.Y., Fink tapped into his creative side early. He wrote for the high school literary magazine, and he chose Sarah Lawrence College for its strong writing program. But the young man "bouncing off the walls" wasn't well-suited to the writer's quiet, solitary craft. Film and media, he realized, "was a good avenue and outlet for my desire to tell stories." In graduate school at the Art Institute of Chicago, he made a feature film, "Door to Door," that did well on the festival circuit

Despite his advanced degree, Fink had to start out in that lowliest of lowly film jobs, production assistant, first in Chicago, then in Hollywood, where he graduated to story editor. A few years later, thanks to his energetic networking, he was recommended for a creative executive job at Disney's animation division.

It was the mid-1980s, and Disney hadn't had an animated hit since "The Jungle Book" in 1967 -- a trend they hoped to change. Fink's team pumped new life into the genre, creating "The Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin," and "The Lion King." "It was quite a ride," Fink says.

During his tenure at Disney, Fink learned a few things about himself. First, that he was better at ideas than execution, which helped him set his career goals toward producer or CEO rather than writer or director. The second realization: he liked being the big fish in the little pond. In the animation team of only 55 people, he had a big impact. When he made the logical move to the much larger live-action division, however, he was just one of many ambitious hard-workers. Relegated to "talking-dog movies" and a few other unsatisfying projects, soon he'd had enough.

A new arena piqued his interest. "Just as my sense in 1986 was that the public's imagination was going to be captured by animation movies," Fink says, "so I felt in 1992 that the public's imagination was going to be captured by the personal computer." He teamed up with a like-minded former colleague, Tim Disney, and they bought an interactive software and role-playing game company, Virtual World Entertainment. Fink and Disney could see the possibilities of interactivity on the Internet. Unfortunately, they were years ahead of their time. Their dreams weren't realized with Virtual World, but to Fink the company was a helpful stepping-stone out of filmmaking into the online realm.

He joined AOL in early 1996, where he helped incubate special-interest sites and created and managed content channels. The company still qualified as a small pond with 900 employees. But when it grew to more than 80,000 strong, it was less of a good fit for Fink, who by then was tasked with conceiving new business ideas – many of which were never implemented. He took some time off to think, coach Little League, and play golf.

The downtime didn't last long. "In mid-1999, venture capitalists [were] running around with bags of money, looking for people with resumes and ideas," Fink recalls. He had a plan to leverage Internet content on the "killer app," e-mail, by providing personalized news and features to users every day. After finding financing for eAgents.com, he built it up into enough of a success to be acquired, one year later, by another company.

That company, AmericanGreetings.com (a subsidiary of American Greetings Corp.), was still somewhat of a start-up itself, Fink says—just the sort of small pond he likes. Creating online greeting cards featuring animated cartoons for e-mail, "kind of pulls together everything I did at AOL, Disney, Virtual World, and eAgents," he says.

As a leader, Fink focuses on defining the mission and empowering and equipping his employees to do their best. His many years in managing talent have proven that each creative person is unique; the key is figuring out how to maximize each individual's strengths. He knows he's successful, he says, when they do so well that he feels not needed.

AmericanGreetings.com does need this "CEO on steroids," as Fink's brother calls him, especially as it attempts to take advantage of the opportunities presented by broadband and wireless systems. And Fink needs AmericanGreetings.com, in part to fulfill a decade-long goal. "I've always wanted to build a successful company in interactive media; I've been trying since 1992. So I'd like to see this one through." He adds, "I'll keep doing it as long as it's fun."

Produced By: Christopher Redner

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