Postcards

How the power players do it - by Fortune senior editor at large Patricia Sellers

The sex scandal that derailed one of America's most promising executives

August 28, 2013: 11:12 AM ET

Richard Nanula has little chance to fulfill the high expectations that so many people once had of him.

Richard Nanula

Richard Nanula

FORTUNE -- When he was appointed chief financial officer of the Walt Disney Co. (DIS) at age 31, he was the youngest CFO in Fortune 500 history. When he became CEO of Starwood Hotels (HOT) in 1998, he was one of the first black Fortune 500 chiefs. Richard Nanula later became CFO of drug giant Amgen (AMGN) and served on the board of Boeing (BA).

Now the corporate golden-boy's career is in tatters. A Los Angeles Times story this past Sunday charges that Nanula, posing as a porn star called "Mr. Rich," videotaped himself having sex with adult film actresses. The story followed up on explicit photos posted on a website called Thedirty.com.

According to the LA Times story, the fateful entanglements, along with a sexual harassment charge, led Nanula, 53, to resign in July from private equity firm Colony Capital and the Miramax film company, where he was chairman.

I knew Nanula back when he was at his height of success. And ironically, he was known as an extraordinarily cautious and conservative businessman. As CFO of Disney, his main role was to be a critical and reliable "No" man to then-CEO Michael Eisner. "You can hold back the bridle of a fast horse more easily than you can get a dead horse to move," Eisner once told me. "I liked having Richard say, 'No, we shouldn't do that. Stop. It's irresponsible.'"

Nanula was key to Disney's success in the '90s. When EuroDisney was sucking billions of capital, the young Nanula negotiated with Saudi Arabia's Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bin Abdul Aziz Alsaud to help save Paris's version of Disneyland from bankruptcy. Actually, Nanula was so cautious that he discouraged Eisner from buying a TV network—which Eisner went ahead and did, acquiring ABC in a $19 billion deal in 1995. That purchase brought Disney ESPN and turned out to be a very wise investment.

Nanula went on to head Disney Stores and was on the company's fast track for 12 years before his best friend from Harvard Business School, Barry Sternlicht, wooed him away to run Starwood Hotels and Resorts. "I wanted to kill him," Eisner told me about Nanula's departure in 1998. "I was aggravated and personally hurt." Eisner gave Nanula his blessing, however, since Starwood—Sternicht's patched-together hotel empire, following a hard-fought takeover battle for ITT-Sheraton --was "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to lead a Fortune 500 company.

Fortune's New Black Power lineup in 1997. Nanula is second from right.

Fortune's New Black Power lineup in 1997. Nanula is second from right.

At Starwood, the golden boy's success began to unravel. Nanula, calm and self-possessed, and Sternlicht, who is intense and impetuous, couldn't stand working with each other. They veered toward divorce corporate-style. That is the title of my 1999 Fortune story about their time at Starwood. Nanula quit the day the Fortune story came out. The two men, who had once been in each other's weddings and had gone on family vacations and trips to the Super Bowl together, didn't talk until they ran into each other years later.

Nanula never got back on the fast track. Dismissing Eisner's invitation to go back to Disney, he briefly ran an Internet startup, Broadband Sports, whose investors included Michael Dell (DELL) and former Viacom (VIA) CEO Frank Biondi. The firm went bust a year or so after Nanula joined. His tenure as CFO of Amgen lasted six years but ended with controversy over late public disclosure of disappointing drug-study results.

At Los Angeles-based Colony Capital since 2008, Nanula was viewed as a smooth and astute businessman who operated below the radar. As chairman of Miramax, which Colony acquired from Disney in 2010, he was trying to restore the film studio to the stature it had when it was run by the prolific Weinstein brothers.

There has always been a bit of mystery to Richard Nanula. The son of an Italian father and an African-American mother, he once told me that his parents' divorce when he was six years old was very hard on him—and his way of handling their breakup was to make things seem just fine. That's how Nanula handled most hardships in his life. Today, Nanula has little chance to fulfill the high expectations that so many people once had of him. He didn't respond to an email that I sent to his personal account or to a voicemail left at his home.

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About This Author
Pattie Sellers
Pattie Sellers
Senior Editor at Large, Fortune
Executive Director of MPW/Live Content, Time Inc.

Pattie Sellers has written more than 20 Fortune cover stories including "Marissa Mayer: Ready to Rumble at Yahoo," "Muhtar Kent's New Coke," "Oprah's Next Act", "The $100 Billion Woman" (Melinda Gates), and "Gone with the Wind" (Ted Turner). She co-founded Fortune Most Powerful Women and oversees the Fortune MPW Summit, the preeminent gathering of women leaders in business and beyond—and programs such as Fortune MPW Entrepreneurs and the Fortune-U.S. State Department Global Women Leaders Mentoring Partnership. Pattie also develops Live Content across Time Inc. Her blog, Postcards, is about how power players lead and navigate their careers. Pattie won Time Inc.'s prestigious MVP award for her performance in 2012.

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