George Miles was attracted to WQED Pittsburgh because he thought the opportunity to revive the public broadcaster would be a great career capper. It could have been a career killer.
Miles was enjoying a successful career in public broadcasting in New York when the chance to be president and CEO of the flagging Pittsburgh organization, WQED Multimedia, came along in 1994. He was eager to take on the challenge, so much so that he leaped before he looked. The company wasn't just in the hole, it was virtually broke -- $13.5 million in debt with a net worth of just $11,000.
Miles wasted no time in lifting the company back to its feet. He cut the number of staff members in half. And he shifted the focus of the television and radio stations back to the local market, with a renewed emphasis on programming for a Western Pennsylvania audience.
Miles also mounted a long effort to sell WQED's second television station, WQEX. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts to sell it to raise cash and streamline operations, the station's license was converted to commercial status. Meanwhile, WQED Multimedia improved its overall financial condition, and now that it is in a stronger position financially, Miles says, WQEX-TV is an asset that can be sold at a premium to an interested bidder rather than sacrificed in a fire sale, a danger that lurked when the company was in more dire fiscal straits.
Miles spoke with Smart Business about leading a turnaround, what it takes to be a leader and changing your style.
When you came to WQED in 1994, what did you find?
This place was in a deeper hole than I thought. I really didn't do the right due diligence that I needed, but I really wanted to do this. When I accepted the job and I got here, I found it was really a mess.
It was a dysfunctional organization in a lot of ways. A lot of people weren't talking with each other. It had lost a lot of credibility in the community because the previous management, instead of keeping their eye on what was going on in the marketplace, were concerned about their own salaries. So the place imploded.
The scandal became the salaries. The truth of the matter is, salaries were part of the problem, but that wasn't the whole problem -- you could have solved that overnight. The problem was they weren't keeping their eyes on where they should be going. So all these big national projects we were committed to didn't have funding. I thought when I got here it essentially had been turned around but it hadn't, so we had to dig out of a hole.
What were the first steps you took to turn things around?
We did a couple of things. First of all, we had to decide which direction we were going to go. Are we going to be this big national player, like a WNET (New York) or a WBGH (Boston)? We decided if we are going to be a player, we've got to be local, our emphasis has got to be on Southwestern Pennsylvania.
And we also had the tools to do it. We had the TV stations, the radio station and the magazine. What better assets to have if you want to turn yourself into a local entity? We got rid of the national stuff we were doing and focused on local.
We had to look at some assets to sell to get the debt down. We looked at WQEX. We had to convert it from a noncommercial to a commercial license, and we worked on that for about six years. As of today ... our net worth is over $11 million. We think it could go really high one of these days --if we ever get WQEX sold, there could be $30 million of net worth.
What are you doing with WQEX?
We're leasing time on it to the Home Shopping Network. The WQEX situation was like a house that we couldn't use for commercial use, so we had to get the zoning changed. It took us a long time to get that done, but once we did, we said, now we can sell that to a business.
We had people coming to us trying to really low-ball us. So we said, let's leave this house empty. What we'll do is lease it for a couple of years. Somebody comes along with the right offer and we'll sell it.
How did you put together a plan to make improvements?
Every couple of weeks, I would report to my friends down at the bank. Basically, I'd bring in the keys; I'd never know when I'd have to turn them in. But I felt I was a turnaround guy. I knew at the end of the day, I'd do my best job, and if it doesn't work, it wasn't going to work.
When you're in a turnaround, you're not about delegating, you're about you do this, you do that. That's what turnaround guys do. And that's the mindset we had. In turnarounds, you can't do collaboration. You don't care if people buy in because you've got to move, you've got to make decisions and get results.
But now, it's a whole new ballgame. We're a different organization now. We're doing strategic planning now. There was a time at board meetings when I was the only one who would speak up -- 'Here's what we're doing, here's where we're going.'
How did you improve the public's perception of the organization?
I spent a lot of time networking, trying to rebuild internally, externally. I was everywhere, I was out at every function, going to speak at Rotary clubs, Kiwanis ... going to two or three parties in one night. It was like being a politician.
People had to buy into you if they were going to buy into the organization, if they were going to buy into your leadership. It was a great learning experience for me. Would I want to do it again? No. Am I glad I did? The answer is absolutely yes.
How do you shift from turnaround mode to normal operations mode as a CEO?
You've got to change your style, you've got to be kind of a chameleon. I made adjustments in my management style, trying to open the process. You go through cycles.
Every couple of years, you've got to retool yourself, you've got to look at the organization and ask, 'Is this the kind of complement to keep us growing in the right direction?' You do have to change your style and get different people in the circle.
How to reach: WQED Multimedia, www.wqed.org