Turner exec questions, listens before plotting growth abroad

Expand overseas.

That’s been the prescription laid out for many U.S.-based companies facing the twin challenges of a mature market for their brands here, along with a still-faltering economy.

Louise Sams

Louise Sams

Business execs often salivate when they think about the large, ripe markets of India, China and Brazil, among others. But like any worthwhile venture, there can be plenty of risk.

Enter Louise Sams, president of Turner Broadcasting’s international operations. For six years, Sams, a Decatur native and Princeton grad, has run Turner’s TV networks around the globe.

By next year, Sams will oversee more than 2,400 employees at 104 Turner channels in 180 countries. But that’s still relatively small potatoes, since international represents less than 15 percent of Turner’s revenue, which is about $7 billion annually.

“We’re trying to broaden our portfolio of channels and we’re trying to get content anywhere the consumer wants it,” Sams, 51, said during an interview last week in her CNN Center office.

In terms of growth, international is key for Turner, whether talking about news, cartoons or movies.

Sams said pay TV has an 88 percent penetration rate in the U.S., compared with 40 percent internationally.

But, she added, the international numbers are all over the place, “a patchwork quilt.” For example, penetration in Brazil is 12.5 percent, while it’s 65 percent in neighboring Argentina.

That means balancing risk and reward becomes essential when you have as many balls in the air as she does.

Take India. With more than a billion people, Sams said, there are only about 144 million TV households. That’s a number with enormous growth potential over time.

But, she warned, “in hot markets, there’s lots of investment, lots of competition. That’s raised the price of programming and talent. You have to be prepared for risk in high-growth areas.”

So, Sams added, to reach her shorter-term profit and growth numbers, she tries to mix a long-term investment in India with a quicker payoff in a more stable market like Japan. There is opportunity for growth there, but not explosive growth. Recently, she engineered an acquisition of two channels there ­­— travel and lifestyle.

One of her tough decisions is whether growth in a specific area should come from an acquisition of an existing brand or through organically building Turner’s own brand.

Each case and country requires a thorough analysis. China, for instance, is not on the top of her expansion list because of its media restrictions.

“I approach this from a commercial and business standpoint,” Sams said. “Where are we going to make the money, looking at the dollars and cents? How much is it costing?”

The key, she said, is talking with the Turner people on the ground in each part of the world.

“I’ve got to listen all the time. I’ve got to have no preconceived notions,” Sams said. “By listening, I can ask the right questions.”

Sams knows how to ask questions. She’s a University of Virginia-trained lawyer who has the added job of general counsel at Turner.

“If you don’t listen, you miss something,” Sams said. “I don’t have to hear myself talk.”

Several execs I’ve interviewed for this column have had similar advice. To come up with an appropriate strategy, top execs need to park their ego.

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One comment Add your comment


July 12th, 2010
9:02 am

It sounds like Turner is very reactive in this article. The critical question is what form of delivery will be used in the non-wired world. In the US, Turner benefited from its satellite transmission system until the cable industry reached a high level of market penetration. In emerging markets, Turner may become an app.