The Survival of the Fittest

First, he went back to Harvard to study law.

He excelled, of course, and to make extra money he purchased surplus military items at reduced rates offered to veterans. In a preview of his deal-making prowess, he took these boxes of tools and sold them for $10,000, a sum that would translate into about $90,000 today. Not bad for a young man still in his 20s.

Upon graduation and with some money in his pocket, he got a position as a clerk in the U.S. Court of Appeals in San Francisco, making about $43 a week. Then in 1951, at the ripe young age of 28, he became partner in the Washington law firm of Ford, Bergson, Adams, Borkland & Redstone, earning an astounding $100,000 a year back when six-figure incomes seemed more like rumor than reality. It was during this time that Sumner made one of his first risk-taking decisions—he left his prestigious high-paying job to work for his father for just $5,000 a year.

“When I was a lawyer I enjoyed practicing law because I thought I would make the world better,” explains Sumner. “It may sound jargonistic today, but a lot of kids, particularly in Washington, thought they were going to make a dent by being lawyers. And when I realized that the law was just another business, I decided I had enough and went to work for my father’s company.”

Sumner’s father and younger brother Edward ran Redstone Management, the family’s small chain of drive-in theaters in the Northeast. They were small fish in a large pond trying to stay competitive against the big Hollywood studios that owned theaters and wouldn’t give them first-run on new movies. Sumner took Hollywood to court and won.

Not long after, Sumner started to see the bigger picture, so to speak.