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Ted Turner’s Best Business Practices

July 23, 2013

Editor’s note: Todd Wilkinson’s work is well known to readers of ANA Magazine. Over the years, he has written numerous profiles and think pieces about leading CMOs. His new book, Last Stand: Ted Turner’s Quest to Save a Troubled Planet (Lions Press), demonstrates how companies that do good by their customers and their environment can be rewarded in the marketplace. We invited Todd to pen the guest blog below about Turner’s best business practices that still guide him as he tries to blend economic profitability with the goals of preserving the natural world and helping humanity.

By Todd Wilkinson

The first thing you need to know about Ted Turner is that he rejects the premise that economic prosperity must translate into a despoiled environment. “I believe the object of being a responsible business person is to leave the lives of those you come in contact with richer, not poorer; smarter, not dumber, and fuller rather than more depleted,” he says.

Make no mistake, the green Turner is a shrewd businessman, an innovative thinker and billionaire who time and again has demonstrated an uncanny ability to peer around corners and anticipate new emerging trends in society. While plying his fortune as a do-gooder and tree hugger, he’s also a believer in free enterprise. “Capitalism isn’t the problem,” he says. “It’s how we’ve been taught to practice capitalism that has caused dire problems in the world, affecting nature and human quality of life.”

In writing Last Stand, I thought a lot about the great conversations I’ve had over the years with ANA member CMOs at some of the biggest companies, as they share a lot in common with Turner. Last Stand is a story about conscientious leadership. Here are seven lessons from Ted based on his own slogans or aspirational mantras that have guided him over the past 50 years.

  1. Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise. This was the first maxim taught to Turner by his father in the 1960s. Ed Turner, the family patriarch, had built a regional advertising business in the Southeast armed with an arsenal of billboards. Indeed, it was this mom-and-pop operation that Ted Turner parleyed into a global media empire in Atlanta. In hindsight, Turner believes the phrase speaks to more than an obvious roll-up-the-sleeves work ethic. His best ideas, he says, always emerged from getting a full night’s rest. In fact, Turner believes that it’s better to approach a business opportunity from the promise of rising sunrises than from the fading light of dusk. A notorious workaholic, Turner says effective advertising is about more than pitching a product — it’s about the execution of purposeful vision, persistence, and helping others open their eyes to understanding broader landscape
  2.  Either lead, follow, or get out of the way. These words are etched into a plaque that still sits on Turner’s desk in Atlanta, and they were a guiding mantra that carried forth his famous underdog battles. They inspired him when he skippered the yacht Courageous to victory in the 1977 America’s Cup; when he started TBS the Superstation and pioneered 24-hour news with CNN; when he turned the hapless Atlanta Braves into a perennial pennant contender and World Series champion; and when he’s tackled major conservation, humanitarian, and national security initiatives. For Turner, the slogan means having the courage to be innovative, and not letting your own fears stifle others from seeking the next big idea. “The best breakthroughs that I’ve been involved with started with naysayers proclaiming something couldn’t be done,” Turner says. “Believe in big ideas because they are the only things that have ever changed the world. Step forward and aim to be part of solutions. This applies equally to business as it does to trying to make positive contributions to our communities and lives of customers.”
  3. Remember the Rotary’s Four-Way Test. The first business service organization Turner ever belonged to was the local chapter of Rotary Club International. When making business decisions, he strongly subscribes to the ideals of Rotary’s Four-Way Test: 1. Is it the truth? 2. Is it fair to all concerned? 3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships? 4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned? Through the United Nations Foundation that he founded, Turner is working with Rotary to eradicate polio and reduce the incidence of malaria in developing countries.
  4. Seek scale. Everything starts small, but real accomplishment comes from operating at scale. Turner became a billionaire by figuring out how to make cable television available in every living room and office in America. But he also knew that giving customers original distinctive content is what would complete the sale. He’s taken the same premise and applied it to land stewardship and humanitarian causes. With two million acres, he is the second largest landowner in the U.S. His herd of bison, some 55,000 animals strong, is the largest ever owned by a single individual in history. Bison are being used as “ecological tools” in healing marred landscapes. Innovatively, as part of his pasture-to-plate initiative, Turner is at the forefront of promoting the health benefits of eating bison.
  5. “Eat great. Do good.” Diners at Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants across the country are greeted with this motto, which dovetails with the business approach to the Triple Bottom Line (see below). Customers are courted and praised as partners for insisting on having a healthier diet, reflecting on where their food comes from, and doing their part in generating less waste and protecting the natural world. At all the eateries, replicas of priceless 19th century romantic landscape paintings (the originals of which are owned by Turner) are featured and used to promote a vision of what healthy landscapes look like.
  6. “I was cable before cable was cool.” Companies that chase what’s popular in the moment are destined to always be behind the curve, Turner says. Trends are set by anticipating what customers want but, more importantly, what they need. The premise also applies to companies when they endeavor to think and act green. Turner and business partner George McKerrow have been major catalysts in helping the one-million-member strong National Restaurant Association refine its thinking about sustainability. In their own operation, Turner and McKerrow have realized millions of dollars in cost savings by embracing efficiency in energy, water use, and waste. As Turner says, “Doing what’s right by the environment delivers dividends.” Which brings us to the next point:
  7. The value of the triple bottom line. This is a socially conscious accounting system based on the premise of a three-legged stool. The first delivers profit, the second ensures that products are made in a way that does no harm to the environment, and the third has a human dimension: treating your employees right and investing in the local community where profit is made. “Our business lives should make us feel better at the end of the day,” Turner says. “If we strive to leave the world a little better off than how we found it, every one of us can make a difference.”


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