How Ted Turner has built success by sticking to a few key principles

The halls and rooms that comprise Turner Enterprises Inc. are more than simply office space for the entity that runs famed businessman Ted Turner’s operations. They’re partially a tribute to Turner, chairman of the organization, featuring photos and awards depicting his success, but they’re also part museum, with memorabilia and paintings decorating conference rooms and foyers that show his passions ranging from the Civil War to sailing.

Enter Turner’s assistant’s office and you’ll see more than 100 magazine covers featuring Turner from over the years adorning the walls. And from there, enter Turner’s own office — dim, as the lights are off to conserve energy — and you can’t help but notice the wall full of honorary degrees behind his desk and further evidence of his achievements and interests.

It’s all a legacy of a life of entrepreneurship and innovation by the man who pioneered 24-hour news by founding CNN and has been involved in many different business ventures over the years, including starting the Ted’s Montana Grill restaurant chain. Beyond his business achievements, he’s won 180 sailing trophies and is one the largest individual landowners in the United States with approximately 2 million acres of personal and ranch land. He’s also passionate about furthering clean-energy initiatives, and he gave a $1 billion gift to the United Nations through the United Nations Foundation, which he created to support goals and objectives of the U.N.

Turner’s accomplishments could take up pages, but constrained by word counts, simply put: Ted Turner is a legend most business owners would do just about anything to sit down and talk to, but when it comes down to it, he can summarize his success in just a few main keys.

“One common thread is hard work, and another is careful consideration and thinking through what it was that I wanted to do and going through the mental exercises of what could go wrong and being prepared for that as much as possible,” Turner says. “You can’t predict completely what’s going to happen, but you can have a plan and think it through as carefully as you can, and then once you make the decision, after very careful thought — or this is the way I did it — when I did decide to move forward, then move forward with great speed.”

Think through an idea

When Turner first thought about the concept of 24-hour news, like most great ideas, it was because he had a problem.

“I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t convinced I was right, and the reason was I never got to see television news because I got home after 7 o’clock when the news went off at 7,” Turner says.

He also went to bed before 11 o’clock when the news came back on, so he had to read the newspaper to keep up with current events. Twenty-four-hour radio was already successful, so he thought if 24-hour radio news could work, why couldn’t 24-hour television news?

“People came home, and it was 8 o’clock at night, and they already missed the early news, and it was three hours away from the late news, so why wouldn’t it be something some people would want to watch?” Turner says. “Maybe a lot of people would want to watch sit-coms and the talk shows, but there probably would be some people who would like to see the news and not waste their time with entertainment.”

But, like many often do, he didn’t initially do anything about it.

“The easiest thing is to do nothing, and then you’ll never get in trouble — and you’ll never get anywhere either, but doing nothing is an option, and that’s an option that most people avail themselves of in life,” Turner says. “They do as little as they can, and they don’t realize what they could have done because they didn’t do anything. That’s most people. It’s just too hard, and it is hard. It’s extremely hard, and you’ve got to be — there’s an old expression I heard somewhere — smarter than a tree full of owls to do anything like create a Microsoft or a Google or a CNN.”

He says you have to be like Yogi Bear — smarter than your average bear — and that’s exactly how Turner was as he thought through this seemingly crazy idea of 24-hour news.

“At the beginning, when I first thought that, I never thought that it would be me that did it, because I didn’t have two nickels to rub together, and I knew it was going to cost a fortune to do,” he says. “So for the first three years, I sat there and watched and nothing happened. I figured CBS or NBC or ABC would do it, or all three of them at the same time, but they didn’t. They made the choice to fight cable rather than embrace it and try to keep things the way they were with three channels.”