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.”
Create a distinctive plan
When Turner realized he would have to be the one to start 24-hour news, he made sure to think through what it would take and the possible problems.
“Let’s face it: 90 percent of all new businesses fail, so the odds are way against you to start, but that’s how you really break through,” Turner says. “You have to come through.
To really break through, you have to come up with some kind of plan that’s a little bit distinctive and hopefully a little bit different than what your competitors are doing — if there are competitors. Usually there are.”
He’s seen both — when he started Ted’s Montana Grill, there were tens of thousands of other restaurants he would be competing against but very little barriers to entry. On the other hand, with CNN, the barriers to entry for delivering 24-hour news were huge.
“They were costly, and there were limited satellite distribution capabilities at that time, and there was not very much distribution — certainly not enough,” Turner says. “There was no way CNN could be profitable with cable penetration at 14 percent, which is approximately what it was when we started.”
Instead, he recognized that it needed to be at 50 percent.
“In order to get my television channels in to people’s homes, we had to get the rest of the people in America to subscribe to cable, and cable wasn’t even in front of over half the homes,” he says.
Recognizing what he thought was the threshold for success was an important part of creating that plan.
“You make your own metrics for what success is,” Turner says. “You set up criteria and write down what you think would make you feel successful. Each person would do it differently. What success is for one person wouldn’t be success to another. If one guy said, ‘If I made $1 million, I’d be a success,’ but to another, ‘I wouldn’t be a success unless I made $1 billion.’ They’d be off by a factor of 1,000 to one.”
Sometimes you may start in with your idea and then realize you’re not going to make it unless you reach certain thresholds.
“To grow a business successfully, you have to have a successful business or have an idea of how to make the business successful if you grow it a little bit more,” Turner says. “Some businesses are a little too small and would have to reach a certain tipping point of size to where they tip in the right direction.”
When it comes down to it, you may simply not know what it will take to be successful.
“You just have to estimate it,” he says.
Turner says that comes down to judgment and using your mind.
“It’s pretty tricky, but some people know how to do it,” he says.
Turner says it’s important to stretch your mind and its capacity as much as possible.
“It helps to be born with it, I guess, because basic intelligence is inherited,” he says. “It’s an inherited trait as much as anything else, but you can develop it. Your mind is, to a large degree, a muscle like the other muscles in your body, and the more you use it, the sharper it gets, just like your body. You can take a skinny little kid and turn him into a marathon runner if they’ll train hard enough and are motivated to train hard enough, and basically my success in business and in life, it was due, to large part, I just wanted to do it and wasn’t afraid.”
When he made the decision to go forward with 24-hour news, he didn’t lollygag.
“I moved as quickly as I could, for instance, to get CNN on the air because I wanted to pre-empt CBS, NBC and ABC because once we announced that we were going to do it, it was going to make them think about it and revisit it more, and all three of them had everything they needed to start.
“They already had bureaus. They had news organizations. They had news anchors that were underutilized — they were doing two hours of news a day, and they were spending $200 million a year to do two hours of news a day, and I was going to do 24 hours of news for about $30 million.”
He planned to get CNN on the air within 10 months because he anticipated it would actually take longer, and he wanted it on in 11. Along the planning road, most things went according to plan, but he did have his share of anxieties. While he thought through most of the worst-case scenarios, he was completely caught off guard, for instance, when their satellite disappeared and they lost their satellite signal less than four months before CNN was set to air.
“It never occurred to me because I wasn’t in the satellite business — what do you mean the satellite disappeared?” Turner says. “That was my reaction. Well, that’s what it did. They never found it. It just blew up, and it’s out there floating around in space. There was a TV series called ‘Lost in Space’ and our satellite was lost in space.”
Luckily, there was a clause in the contract that anticipated this possibility, so they were able to negotiate a deal to gain access to another satellite in time for the launch. CNN launched in 11 months — as Turner had anticipated with his one-month, built-in cushion.
While he moves full-speed ahead in business, he recognizes sometimes it doesn’t work.
“We went full blast with the AOL merger right into disaster, just like the Germans when they invaded Russia,” Turner says. “They were going fast, but they were headed straight for catastrophe — they were headed for Stalingrad. So going fast can be reckless and very foolish, but you’ve got to be sure you’re right, then go ahead. But that’s not easy to do always. It’s not always easy. Not everybody can see the future with accuracy, and there are the things that happen along the way that sometimes aren’t anticipated, no matter how good you’ve done, and then you’re in real trouble.”
He says there are all kinds of ways to get into trouble in both business and life, and sometimes you won’t know right away.
“A lot of times you have to wait and see, and only history will tell if you’re right or wrong,” he says.
While Turner may have made some mistakes along the way and had his share of challenges, he’s had more success than anything, and he says it comes back to those main keys.
He says, “Those are the main things that in starting a voyage or a venture, those three things would be very carefully think through what you’re going to do, then what could go wrong — take a look at what could go wrong and anticipate that in advance and be prepared — and the third thing is when you do decide to go forward, move rapidly.”
On a mission
If you look in the parking lot at Turner Enterprises Inc., you’ll see solar panels, which Ted Turner installed as an energy source.
“Anyone can do that, and the technology already exists, and it works,” Turner says. “This building is going to be powered by those solar panels.”
Turner is passionate about environmental causes and encourages other business leaders to follow suit.
“They can put solar panels on a fence post — electrify your fence and keep out people that you don’t want to come in. Keep your cattle in or your bison for that matter,” he says. “We use solar electric power fences on a ranch. If you have a house, you can have a solar hot water heater.”
If you’re not quite sure if solar power is the way to go for your business, Turner suggests at least seeking outside help to identify ways for your business to make a difference.
“Hire an environmental consultant to come up with recommendations specific to your company and business for how you can cut down your carbon footprint and use less energy,” Turner says.
Beyond the big things, he points out there’s also myriad small things you can do. For example, when you walk into Turner’s office, it’s dim. He keeps the lights off to save energy and only turns them on when he needs them. Additionally, he uses low wattage bulbs. He also suggests looking around you for the obvious.“As you walk down the street, if you see piece of trash, you can bend over, pick it up and carry it to the next closest wastebasket,” he says. “Making the world a better place is as easy as picking up a piece of paper.”