Business Tycoon Ted Turner Reflects on His Successes, Sacrifices at Annual Buckhead Coalition Luncheon
ATLANTA — Billionaire entrepreneur and legendary media mogul Ted Turner, who along with Coca-Cola and Delta Air Lines helped put Atlanta on the map, captivated a packed house at restaurant 103 West on Wednesday afternoon during the annual luncheon of the Buckhead Coalition.
Business and political leaders from across Atlanta and Fulton County gathered to hear the 76-year-old, straight-talking Turner reflect on his life and career during a one-on-one interview with Sam Massell, president of the Buckhead Coalition and former mayor of Atlanta from 1970-74.
Turner didn’t disappoint. He and Massell bantered back and forth for 20 minutes, leaving the audience hungry for more.
Turner began his career as an account executive with the Turner Advertising Co., which made a substantial profit selling billboard ads. In 1970, he entered the television business when he acquired an independent UHF station.
In 1976, Turner purchased Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves and launched the TBS Superstation, originating the “superstation” concept. The following year, Turner Broadcasting System Inc. acquired the National Basketball Association’s Atlanta Hawks and in 1980 Turner launched CNN, the world’s first live, 24-hour global news network.
Over the next two decades, the company built a portfolio of cable television news and entertainment brands and businesses, including CNN Headline News, CNN International, TNT, Cartoon Network and Turner Classic Movies. In the mid-1990s, Castle Rock Entertainment and New Line Cinema became Turner Broadcasting properties.
In October 1996, the company merged with Time Warner Inc. And in 2001, Time Warner merged with AOL to create AOL Time Warner. The company later changed its name back to Time Warner Inc.
Turner has also made his mark as one of the most influential philanthropists in the United States. He is the chairman of the Turner Foundation, which supports efforts for improving air and water quality, developing a sustainable energy future to protect the climate, safeguarding environmental health, maintaining wildlife habitat protection, and developing practices and policies to curb population growth rates.
Since its inception in 1990, the Turner Foundation has given more than $300 million to hundreds of organizations.
With approximately 2 million acres of personal and ranch land, Turner is the second-largest individual landholder in North America. Turner Enterprises also manages more than 51,000 bison across the various Turner ranches.
In 2002, Turner launched Ted’s Montana Grill in Columbus, Ohio. There are currently 45 Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants in 16 states, according to the company’s website.
Massell: What can young and up-and-coming entrepreneurs do today to achieve what you did, or is it even possible?
Turner: Anything is possible. All you have to do is look at Google and Amazon and a lot of the dot-com billionaires. They did it even faster than I did. Thirty years ago, things weren’t moving as fast as they are today. So, the opportunity to make a lot of money in a hurry is greater today than it was back when I broke out.
Massell: Which is more important today, the academic level of achievement, or the entrepreneurial creativity?
Turner: They both are [important]. I’d put my money on the brainpower. I’d rather be smart and poor than rich and dumb.
Massell: You currently have several businesses under the Turner Enterprises umbrella, including ranching, renewable energy, restaurants, land management, and of course the foundations. What drives you to continue to seek out new business opportunities? Why don’t you retire and just go sit on the beach somewhere?
Turner: You get sunburn if you sit on the beach. Work to me never was work. This is part of the adventure of life, and I was pretty good at it so I stuck with it.
Massell: What can we expect of you in the future?
Turner: Not a whole lot (audience laughter). I work, I’m not retired. I still have six or seven different businesses. I am tired.
Massell: You realize there are a lot of media here reporting on this event.
Turner: I know. I didn’t say I was quitting. I’m not. But it’s hard for me to be as productive as I was 30 years ago. Most people work a regular day, and at 6 o’clock or thereabouts they head for home. For 20 years, I ran the Braves as well as CNN and all the television networks. I would go to the ballpark, and I would stay until the game was over, even if it went into extra innings. My wife at the time said there were two things that she disliked more than anything else — one was extra innings, the other was overtime.
Then after the game, at 10:30 or 11 o’clock, I would get in my car and drive back to the station, and I slept on the couch. For 20 years, I lived in my office and I worked 18 hours a day. I had to stay at the ballpark. No matter how much we were down, I had to cheer them on.
And then it was the Hawks. If they were out of town, I would watch them on television until the games were over. If you count postseason and preseason, that’s abut 300 events a year that I had in prime time, including on the weekends. Most people get the weekends off. It was Friday night at the ballpark, Saturday night at the ballpark, Sunday afternoon at the ballpark. God help me. People say, “Do you miss the Braves?” I say, “Yeah, I do.” But in a way it’s a relief because I don’t think I could have lived much longer.
But I enjoyed it. Not many of y’all would work that hard. So, if you are jealous of my billions, of which I don’t have really much left …. If you economize and don’t buy new planes every year and so forth, you can get by on $1 billion.
Massell: Do you subscribe to the theory that exercising the mind will help with longevity?
Turner: I don’t know if it helps with longevity, but it will sure help you in business.
Massell: I think it does both. I think we’re both are witness to that. As a longtime environmentalist and an advocate of solar and wind energy, and as the owner of Turner Renewable Energy, what are some of the things that residents of Buckhead, in particular, and all of Atlanta for that matter can do to make our community cleaner and even more beautiful?
Turner: I live on top of my office. (The nine-story Turner Building located at 133 Luckie St. in Atlanta houses Turner Enterprises as well as the corporate offices of Ted’s Montana Grill, the Turner Foundation and other tenants. A Ted’s Montana Grill restaurant is on the ground floor.) I had to buy the building on Luckie Street because after my disastrous merger with Time Warner, where I lost 80 percent of what I had, I needed some good luck. I walk around the block all the time to get some exercise. I live on the top floor. If someone doesn’t show up at the restaurant, I will fill in a little bit. I’m the only chain restaurant owner in the country who lives in the restaurant. That’s the way they used to do it.
Anyway, when I walk around the block I pick up trash and carry it to the garbage cans. I’ve had garbage cans installed everywhere. I do my part to keep Atlanta clean. I pick up trash myself. I try to encourage other people to do the same. If we’re individually cleaner, we’ll be collectively cleaner.
Massell: Is there any way architecturally to make solar panels more attractive? (In 2011, Turner Enterprises completed construction of a 25-canopy solar array in the parking lot adjacent to the Turner Building, the first and largest of its kind in downtown Atlanta, according to the company’s website. The array provides an estimated 25 percent of the Turner Building’s total annual energy needs.)
Turner: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. All of our parking lots should be covered with solar panels, and then global warming wouldn’t be as near as much of a problem. (The asphalt and concrete in parking lots absorb the sun’s energy and retain heat, which contributes to the urban island effect in cities, say industry experts.) Probably all of our highways should be covered with solar panels.
Massell: In 1997, you pledged $1 billion to the United Nations’ causes …
Turner: It’s all been paid. A lot of people promise, but not so many deliver. That $1 billion is in cash — real money, not notes or wills. That’s a lot of money. I found out the hard way.
Massell: As a result, at that time you became the largest individual donor in the history of philanthropy. That’s a pretty good title. Many others — some of the richest individuals in the United States — have followed suit. You must be proud of this giving revolution that you started. Do you think that more can be done and should be done?
Turner: More can always be done in everything. The people who earn the money can decide what they want to do with it. There are all sorts of things you can do with money, but you have to have it before you can have those options.
Massell: As an old, broken-down politician, let me throw this in. How about the idea of giving the money to governmental entities in exchange for reductions in taxes?
Turner: I don’t know.
Massell: You started your career here in the South, and you pretty much put Atlanta on the map. Was it the right selection? Would you have rather have gone to New York or Los Angeles?
Turner: No, Atlanta is my home. My father moved to Savannah when I was in the fourth grade, and he sent me to Georgia Military Academy in the fifth grade. So, I was here in College Park and going to what is now Woodward Academy with my little uniform on and walking around when I was 9 years old. And I said, “Atlanta is where I’m going to make my home.’ It took me awhile. I lived in Savannah for about 10 years after that and Macon for a couple years as I worked my way toward Atlanta. When I got here, there was no doubt that I was going to stay.
Massell: We talked before about some environmental [issues]. You’ve gotten over the attractiveness of billboards, haven’t you?
Turner: Well, the thing that I didn’t like about billboards is that it was all advertising. With television, you get to make programs. What I really wanted to do was make programs like CNN.
— Matt Valley
The Buckhead Coalition is a nonprofit organization of business and civic leaders whose mission is to help coordinate orderly growth for the approximate 78,000 residents within Buckhead’s 28-square-mile community in Atlanta.