Clear skies Featured

9:05am EDT July 16, 2004
It was one of those days when dark, menacing clouds reached toward the troposphere, portending the pending storm. Debora Wilson lifted the garage door of her Atlanta home and watched the ominous skies as the rain began to fall.

"It began to rain, and it began to rain very hard, and there was huge lightning, an electrical storm. I just stood there and watched it. It was awesome," says Wilson.

For anybody else, it might have been disappointing -- a storm that cancelled a family picnic or perhaps a company softball game. But for Wilson, the storm was business.

A former Bell Atlantic executive, she assumed the reins at The Weather Channel as its president June 7 after serving as COO of The Weather Channel Networks and The Weather Channel Interactive, which operates one of the world's most popular Web sites, weather.com. As such, Wilson is very clear on the importance weather, and therefore The Weather Channel, has on, well, everyone.

"You know what's so cool about what we do," she says, "is that, unlike any other information category -- unlike sports, unlike business information, unlike even news -- weather information is relevant to everybody. There is nobody on the planet that it is not relevant to. In many cases, it's relevant to you and important in the decisions you're making, not only every day, but probably multiple times a day for some outdoor activity."

With that in mind, Wilson, who was responsible for launching weather.com as that division's president and CEO, has spent the last decade helping to build the nascent cable network into a weather conglomerate. Since her arrival, the changes have been numerous.

"One is very obvious, and that is the breadth of the products that we offer to consumers," Wilson says. "I came to The Weather Channel 10 years ago when The Weather Channel had half the history it (currently) has under its belt. We were predominantly a cable network; that is how we started life."

And while the business was strong at the time, today, with nearly 800 employees, it retains only the barest resemblance to that fledgling television company.

"We have probably a dozen different growth-oriented businesses under the umbrella of the Weather Channel brand," Wilson says. "The breadth of the products we have and the different ways that we touch the consumer every day is an important shift. Backing that up and supporting it is the degree of technical sophistication that we have."

But technology is nothing new to The Weather Channel, which launched May 2, 1982, and which now reaches more than 87 million households or 95 percent of all cable homes in the nation. Says Wilson, "We've always been a technology-based company. As a cable network, we had a great deal of automation in our broadcast center. So we've always been wide on technology. And in order to be able to distribute our network -- we're the only national cable network that also distributes local information within its national feed -- it's imperative."

Adopting technology

The weather affects every person who ventures outside of their home, a fact that is not lost on Wilson or her staff.

"You watch The Weather Channel and you hear what is happening across the U.S., and you also get your local content," she says. "At the same time, your friends (in other cities) get their local content, mom and dad, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, whoever, get their unique local content."

To accomplish that, The Weather Channel had to invent a new technology to, as Wilson puts it, "distribute the data that was necessary to power each individual local forecast."

The company did just that in the 1980s, long before the personal computer had become pervasive. So when the growth of the PC market was followed by the explosion of the Internet, The Weather Channel was ready. And weather on the Internet became an instant success.

"As we broaden the number of products we offer and the degree of sophistication that we've grown into, we've definitely increased the level of technical sophistication that we have," Wilson says. "When I came to The Weather Channel, that's what my job was. I was very specifically hired to do that, so I was glad to be able to do one or two of them."

But even Wilson couldn't have expected the level of success that The Weather Channel's Web site has achieved or the impact it would have on the company as a whole. Each month, the site reaches an average of 20 million users, and last year, the interactive division's revenue grew by 65 percent over the previous year.

"It's shaped and crafted what we provide today," she says. "Somehow, it all magically works. Because here we are, and weather.com is one of the 15 most used Internet sites in the world every month."

The site's impact was immediate.

"The minute we began to put The Weather Channel content on the Internet, the most amazing thing started to happen," Wilson says. "Consumers started to talk back to us. It was awesome.

"I tell this story about our first online presence; (it) was actually through CompuServe. It just feels like so long ago. (At the time) AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy had all these chat and discussion rooms. That's how they really began to flourish. It provided, for the first time, electronic communication.

"So, we put weather content online through CompuServe and literally within minutes, we got hundreds, and then thousands, and then millions, of e-mails."

Wilson recognized the opportunity as soon as she saw it, and knew the company had to capitalize on it.

"It was awesome," Wilson says again. "We printed them out (the e-mails) and we taped them up on a conference room wall. We invited all The Weather Channel employees to come and look at them. Most of them started out saying, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you, to The Weather Channel for giving us you through the PC,' 'We love you,' 'This is awesome.'"

Managing growth

As much of a boon as the Internet was to The Weather Channel, the Internet boom -- the crazy period where it seemed just adding ".com" to a business plan made someone an instant millionaire, created enormous challenges for the organization's leadership.

"Personally, it made it hard to separate the real from the unreal because it wasn't like it lasted a day; it lasted several years. And all the evidence seemed to point in a different direction than every bit of foundational learning that you had would suggest," Wilson says. "The Weather Channel and also our parent company, Landmark Communications, struggled as every media company did during that period of time, to separate the real from the unreal.

"Collectively, they did a terrific job of thinking about it for the long haul, responding however to the real challenges that we had in our organization as we sought to build a valuable weather.com to attract and retain the people that we needed to have here," she says. "I think we had a really good balance despite how, in hindsight, how strange it all was."

Wilson was able to help make the right decisions to lead the company through the confusing times, in part, because of her strong background.

"I had the really good fortune of, through Bell Atlantic, of doing two things -- one is to always manage, from the very first day," Wilson says. "I was 21 years old when I came, and I had a team of people who reported to me. From the very first day, and forever thereon, I had teams of people that I was responsible for. So I was a manager. In my very early days, I learned to feel comfortable with and actually embrace and love working with people and managing groups.

"In hindsight, as I look back and work with and mentor other managers and leaders, it's very unusual for someone to have had that experience that early in their career," she says. "And it makes a big difference in their capabilities and their degree of comfort later on."

But there was something else, Wilson says.

"The other piece of it was that I've had some of the ugliest jobs early in my career," she says. "They were very operational. I ran customer service organizations. I ran an installation dispatch center that was responsible for shepherding thousands of work orders every day and making sure that our telephone customers got hooked up and their problems got taken care of. I managed the executive support and financial management of an entire division, which for them is like 10,000 people."

All of which provided a valuable operational foundation that Wilson taps into today.

"When you get out of school, you don't realize how important your foundational experiences are in business," she says. "So now that I run The Weather Channel, no matter what the function is -- whether it is marketing or production or graphic design or facilities management or financial management or legal -- I feel comfortable. Even though I don't have a degree of expertise in each one of them, I feel comfortable with them and allow myself to enjoy the day-to-day hum of what makes a company work." How to reach: The Weather Channel, www.weather.com