Byrne Murphy (MBA ’86): Determination and Darden Values Power Cross-Cultural Entrepreneurship
By Tom van der Voort
It was April in Charlottesville, and Murphy was on the verge of completing his Darden career. All the lessons of the challenging and invigorating experience were finally coming together. But then a relapse of osteomyelitis, a serious chronic bone infection, struck. On Friday, Murphy was in class. By Monday, he was alone in a hospital bed at UVA Hospital, facing yet another surgery to eradicate the disease.
But whatever reflections he may have been having about his plight were interrupted by the ringing of his bedside telephone at 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday morning. “This is the long arm of Darden’s Business Policy class,” the voice at the other end intoned. “Please present today’s case.”
It was Professor Bob Bruner — with the entire section on speakerphone.
There was a moment of silence as Murphy thought to himself, “Good God! This time Darden has gone too far!”
Wising to the joke, though, he finally replied, “Yeah, right,” as the room erupted in laughter.
It was the opposite of a cold call. “Bob brought humanity and humor right smack into the middle of a very serious situation,” Murphy recalls. “He made it inclusive, he made it community, and I felt part of the team. It was a very Darden moment.”
A moment made possible, as it so often was, by Bob Bruner.
Bruner, of course, stayed at Darden, going on to become one of the School’s most important deans, a friend and mentor to hundreds of students, a beloved professor who is retiring at the close of the 2022-23 academic year.
Murphy returned to school, finished “Business Policy,” and earned his MBA. He was just getting started.
“Yankee Go Home”
As a young man — with a young family — Murphy’s career began with nearly a decade of major urban developments in Washington, D.C. Then his focus shifted to Europe. He “bet the farm, when, in fact, there was no farm to bet,” he recalls in his engaging and skillfully written memoir, Le Deal. The book’s title encapsulates his special ability to translate American concepts into European settings and to lead teams on which he was often the only American.
As with so many Darden success stories, the key to his eventual triumph may have been not knowing any better when he started. But he brought a characteristic determination and a keen cultural sensitivity to everything he tried.
Murphy’s move to Europe followed the Savings & Loan Crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s, which evaporated funding for real estate development projects in the United States. A “serial entrepreneur who engages in pattern recognition,” he saw that high-quality designer outlets thriving in the U.S. could also work in Europe. (The thought of living in Paris provided some extra incentive.) But the adaptation required to make the projects function in a new environment required something often overlooked by ambitious Americans: empathy.
“Context is paramount,” says Murphy. “Ignore it, and many surprises are coming your way, almost all of them unpleasant.
“You have to take the time to understand the culture in which you are operating, and that means not just listening, but hearing. Thirty years of my career has been in a foreign culture.”
Eventually Murphy found his first European success with McArthurGlen Designer Outlets, but not before encountering “Yankee go home” protesters in Normandy and, more significantly, a political environment deeply resistant to his plans. “I ended up in a mano a mano wrestling match with the Prime Minister of France, Édouard Balladur. I had to defend my concept in the Supreme Court of France. Gerhard Schröder [who eventually became Germany’s Chancellor] was out to politically slit our throats — which he did before we even knew there was a knife fight.”
“Consumers loved everything we offered, and the supporting sub-sectors of the economy loved everything we offered. Politicians did not necessarily love what we were offering,” he recalls.
Today McArthurGlen comprises 25 outlet centers that have generated more than 30,000 jobs, but as the 1990s gave way to the year 2000, another challenge was beckoning Murphy: the internet.
Translation: Act Two
Murphy wondered how to take his expertise in the physical world of real estate and apply it to the growing digital world. The answer was data centers, and in Bill Conway of the Carlyle Group, he found a willing partner for his new vision.
DixiPlex was a Scandinavian data center company in the process of failing. Carlyle had shepherded a $270 million investment and another $100 million in debt to build 13 data centers to satisfy demand they were sure would come. It didn’t, and eventually the banks took over all the data centers. “The industry overbuilt tremendously,” recalls Murphy. After converting to a nonexecutive role on the board of McArthurGlen, he and Conway joined in a private investment to purchase a single DigiPlex’s facility in Oslo.
In 2003, while still leading DigiPlex, Murphy launched one last special project, turning the Palazzo Tornabuoni, the fifteenth-century Florentine home of Alessandro Medici, into a private residence club, Europe’s first.
The following year, Murphy returned to the United States with his family, and began commuting back to Europe to run Digiplex. Working with a single employee and one consultant, he maintained a close partnership with Conway, allowing the pair to nimbly take advantage of every opportunity. Scandinavia’s combination of plentiful, very inexpensive hydropower and its naturally cool climate were important advantages, saving customers up to hundreds of millions of dollars. And their impeccable green credentials put them on the leading edge of a sustainability wave — heat from the data centers even re-purposed to service homes nearby. Demand eventually grew. “We became the worldwide green alternative before anyone was doing green. And then, all of a sudden, everyone in Silicon Valley is asking, ‘How can I be your customer?’”
Recently Murphy sold his interest in DigiPlex (now operating under the brand STACK Infrastructure) and has turned his attention to another source of tremendous economic and environmental value: carbon sequestration.
Darden may not have been top of mind during much of Murphy’s all-consuming business career — during which his family grew to encompass his wife Pamela and four daughters. But the School was with him nonetheless: “Darden’s approach does put humanity at the center of the circle. And every little skill, or tool I was taught at Darden I used intensely over 30 years given what I set out to do.”
“You know your management philosophy is working when the entire team is rowing at the same cadence, in the same direction, to the same destination with gusto and trust. That’s hard to do in a multicultural environment. Darden helped me learn and hone the basic skills to do that.”
Like so many alumni, Murphy reconnected with the School when the time was right, supporting numerous initiatives and serving on the Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees, which he continues to do.
Despite the heights to which he had risen in the business world, he found that Bruner, who had long ago pushed him in Business Policy, continued to loom large. In his unassuming way, Bruner reviewed Murphy’s book and recommended it to readers, praise that meant more to the author than a 2009 Axiom Award for Best Business Memoir, a glowing review the Wall Street Journal, and others.
Murphy’s time on the Board of Trustees overlapped with Bruner’s deanship, making the two colleagues. And now, with Bruner’s official retirement, Murphy is delighted to honor his friend, leading efforts to establish the Bruner Fund for Transformational Learning, including the Bruner Collection housed in the Bruner Case Study in the new Forum Hotel on Darden Grounds. There, readers can enjoy books and cases either written or recommended by Bruner.
Appropriately, Murphy’s words will forever capture Bruner’s impact on the School through the introduction to the case collection:
No Darden leader or professor better personifies that (world class) faculty or that (transformational) experience than Dean Robert “Bob” Bruner. . . . If you were in Bob’s classroom, you were tested by the best of the best. Forty years of Darden Students thank him, profusely, for his teaching and for his example.
Murphy’s journey was unique, demanding a personal blend of creativity, sensitivity, positivity, insight, determination, and a special family to see him through it all. But he is delighted to admit that, as a person who grew to be better and stronger thanks to Bob Bruner, he is simply one among many.
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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