He’s orchestrated some of the biggest media deals in recent history, and on this week’s “Out of Office,” the LionTree boss discusses the core values that drive his work — and what it was like to get name-checked on Succession.
Aryeh Bourkoff is no stranger to a deal. The Founder and CEO of LionTree has been involved in just about every major media transaction of the last several years. From Comcast and NBC Universal to the New York Times and The Athletic to Warner Media and Discovery, he’s been at the table for each.
On this week’s episode of Boardroom’s “Out of Office” podcast, Bourkoff sits down with Rich Kleiman and Gianni Harrell to discuss his professional journey, the foundations of his practice, and the surreal moment when LionTree was mentioned on HBO’s hit show Succession.
The son of two immigrants, Bourkoff spent his youth in Palo Alto and in Baltimore, harnessing an entrepreneurial spirit at an early age. After graduating from UC-San Diego, Bourkoff set his sights on New York and never looked back.
He went to work at Smith Barney, who assigned the green Bourkoff to media, telecommunications, and technology. While he had no real experience in those fields at the time, he was excited about the challenge and quickly acquired the foundational skills that continue to drive his work today.
In 2012, Bourkoff left his job at UBS, which he had joined over a decade earlier, to start LionTree. As he explained to Rich and Gianni about that tumultuous decision:
“I had a choice to stay in a great seat and that’s even scarier sometimes. I was very conflicted because I really wanted to have the maximum impact. Why would I be such a schmuck to leave that kind of seat? Am I an idiot?”
But ultimately, he was ready to levy the risk in order to create something that would ultimately disrupt the system. And to do so, he was prepared to go all in.
“I was like, ‘We gotta do it big. We can’t do a small firm, small things.’ That was the first thing I was thinking about, like, ‘If we do small firm, small deals, we’ll fade into oblivion.”
With LionTree, he began to build something that he thought was missing from traditional banking institutions. While their work is unbelievably complex, Bourkoff breaks it down:
“We are seeing things in the US and globally that can be brought together and taken apart for the betterment of value creation, and also, we try to invest in the future companies, but always with a pro-entrepreneurial focus, putting the right people at the forefront, not ourselves, and try to help grow the pie and the whole digital economy, as it transforms.”
Throughout his career, Bourkoff has rooted himself in the meaningful evolution that he experienced — and continues to experience — even in the wake of monumental success.
“That’s the path. Self-awareness, self-correction, self-growth. If you don’t do those things, you are static. Stagnation is decay and motion is value. If you’re moving yourself forward by doing that process, you are growing.”
When he looks back on the extensive portfolio of history-making deals that he’s been a part of, Bourkoff identifies a number of things that ground his success: curiosity, creativity, and relationship building. But it’s the latter that he feels sets him apart and has fueled his trajectory most of all.
“I’m as comfortable in the boardroom as I am in the streets,” he notes.
He credits his network as the primary driver of his currency, and a simple way to assess his growth. Over time, he frequently asks himself:
“Is your network growing? And is the right kind of people? And just kick people out that don’t have integrity, kick ’em out…. Otherwise, grow that thing, you know? That’s the stock price. That’s your stock price,” he said.
Rooted in these relationships, Bourkoff is able to create meaningful connections with those embedded in his business happenings. This ensures that the work he is doing ultimately becomes more than basic transactions.; instead, he focuses on opportunities that are ultimately transformational.
As Bourkoff looks back on the deals that he’s been a part of with LionTree, he is clear that he’s not simply placing bets on things that might work out. Rather, he is constantly gathering data and recognizing patterns. Through the trends that he observes, he is able to make calculated assessments of what is possible.
“You have to be able to see things. Predicting the future is everything… That delta is everything, that change is the impact. You know, the herd mentality is not that interesting.”
It’s the same formula that drove him to make the move to starting LionTree in the first place, thus it makes sense that it continues to be his barometer.
The new model he built with LionTree creates opportunities for “cross-pollination” — a willingness to expand the circle of people and the types of business with which you’re collaborating. This is what drives his success in mergers as well, as he helps businesses see the gaps in their capacity and identify other companies that can help them fill those gaps, but, taking it further, in creating a transformation that allows them to thrive.
But for Bourkoff, he acknowledges that the industries in which he is working are constantly evolving, and staying informed on these changes — and how they might create new opportunities — is at the core of his practice. Right now, this means understanding the emerging blockchain and the metaverse spaces.
These are not simply emerging technologies, but new worlds.
As he seeks to enhance capacity through mergers of businesses like Verizon and Yahoo, he also sees opportunities in blend “traditional” companies with these worlds.
“I have a guy covering NFTs, metaverse, and crypto working as closely with me as the bankers covering the Disneys and the Walmarts and the AT&Ts of the world because I want to link the two generations and understand it and bridge it… I want to connect it. I want to flatten the curve,” Bourkoff said.
Through it all, his risk with LionTree has reaped immense rewards, propelling it into the cultural discussion. This was no more evident than when the firm was namedropped in December’s Season 3 finale of HBO’s hit show Succession.
“That was like a zeitgeist moment for us,” Bourkoff beamed.
And as for the future, the CEO has some big ideas, but he’s clear that you can only plan for so much.
“The hustle will be different in every decade and what your, your priorities will be and who you wanna spend your time around will narrow in and become more powerful,” he said.
But regardless of the next deal, curiosity, creativity, and relationships will serve always serve as Bourkoff’s foundation.