D: Barry Diller and Michael Dell

May 28, 2008, 11:50 PM UTC

CARLSBAD, Calif. – Barry Diller defines the calm, cool, collected CEO. At least on stage, when he’s on his best behavior. He called his recent (successful) litigation with partner Liberty Media a wrenching three-month distraction. Come Aug. 1, he says, IAC will complete its split into five companies, including the “new” IAC, a pure Web company.

Diller was more interesting about other people’s businesses than his own. About Hollywood, which he knows well, he said: “It’s a community that’s so inbred it’s a wonder the children have any teeth.” His point is that other than theatrical talent there’s no creativity coming out of Southern California. He expressed dismay that Yahoo (YHOO) let Microsoft walk away and implied that the only way he would have turned down such an offer would be if he knew – and not simply desired – that his business plan would produce a better return.

Diller has been around, so his thoughts on management are illuminating. He said the reason for breaking up IAC is that its more than 50 brands are too much for one company to handle. There’s always trouble somewhere with that many brands, he said. And as a manager, “what you tend to do is go where the trouble is,” as opposed to making trouble, which is far more enjoyable and profitable. Asked his opinion of the digital prowess of the major media conglomerates, he praised only one, News Corp. these days? Listening to Michael Dell speak, I have no idea. Dell himself noted that the company’s former “monolithic” strategy – its famous direct-to-customer manufacturing technique – didn’t work so well toward the end of its run. He cited five areas where Dell missed the boat: consumers, emerging markets, notebook computers, data centers and small- and medium-sized businesses. (Dell is the leader in PC sales to large businesses.) So instead Dell now emphasizes all those things, or at least is trying to. It dabbles in retail. It targets smaller businesses. Its growth has been impressive, but is that over a weak base, what Wall Streeters call an “easy compare?” Perhaps Dell eventually will do many things as well as it used to do one thing. For now, it’s a still a computer maker that spends a tiny percentage of its revenues on R&D ($600 million out of $65 billion in sales) and therefore sells me-too products, though often more efficiently than the competition.