Stan Kasten could be a poster child for effective networking.
From a casual conversation with Ted Turner after a ball game 36 years ago, Kasten launched a successful career as a pro sports executive. You might remember him as the president of the Atlanta Braves when the team in 1995 won the city’s only championship in a major professional sport. Kasten, the quintessential Type A multitasker, ended up doing four jobs simultaneously — president of the Braves, Hawks and Thrashers, and chairman of Philips Arena — before leaving Turner’s sports operation in 2003.
Three years later, he became part-owner and president of the Washington Nationals. Then earlier this year, Kasten, 60, teamed with Magic Johnson, film executive Peter Guber and investment firm Guggenheim Partners to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers for a record $2.15 billion. He became president of the team.
Kasten, who still has a home in an Atlanta, talks about what he learned from Turner and what the Dodger players learned from Johnson. Kasten also discusses his parents, who were Holocaust survivors.
Q: Your father managed to endure Nazi concentration camps. Your mother escaped them by hiding her Jewish identity, although her parents, four sisters and a brother were killed. What did you learn from them?
A: The most important thing was how lucky I was to be here in America. We didn’t have an easy life. My parents were chicken farmers [in central New Jersey]. To them, this country was the greatest thing in the world. They had escaped unimaginable terror. Growing up relatively poor, we were taught how lucky we were and how great the opportunities here were.
Of course, my parents worked non-stop, all day, every day. They loved every minute of it.
My father had a sunny outlook and a good sense of humor. I suppose that’s one way you can get through really difficult times. He loved telling jokes and hearing jokes.
Q: After graduating from Columbia University law school, you had a networking experience that people dream about. You met Ted Turner at the ball park in St. Louis. Would you please discuss?
A: Everything I’ve done in my career has been the product of making contacts and meeting people. Meeting Ted is one example. I was just out of law school, taking a trip around the country to watch ball games. After a game, I went up to Ted and we just started talking. He saw a role I could fill and he invited me down to Atlanta. It’s not more complicated than that.
Similarly, when I stepped away as president of the Braves, Hawks and Thrashers, I had a lot of people calling me. I went around the country meeting and talking to them. That’s how I was able to put a group together, which joined another group to win the bid for the Washington [baseball] franchise. I employed that same process when I left Washington. That’s how [Guggenheim’s controlling partner] Mark Walter and Magic and I came together to make the bid for the Dodgers happen.
I tell my own children and the people who work for me the importance of learning whatever you can from anyone you meet, and preparing yourself for whatever opportunity may arise because you can’t predict when it will arise and what it will be.
One of a thousand conversations may be the one that gets you the opportunity. But you don’t know which one of the thousand it will be, so you need to have all of them to get where you’re trying to go.
Q: What was the most important lesson you learned from Turner?
A: If you’re afraid of going too far, you’re never going to go far enough.
Ted was always looking for the upside. He was willing to gamble and take risks if the upside potential was sufficient. He did it here when he bought a baseball team to act as programming on a super station. And the way he got the super station was taking a risk, betting on his own creativity, his own initiative.
All through the time that Ted ran the company [Turner Broadcasting], that climate pervaded. We were all encouraged to be entrepreneurial. You’re not always going to bat 1.000. But if you look at the growth of that company, a lot of us had an awfully good batting average, being led by Ted as the visionary.
Q: You were the top executive of three pro franchises and an arena in Atlanta, all at the same time. How did you manage that?
A: I had absolutely great staffs. My personal technique is to be involved in as much as possible, but not micro-manage.
I delegate, but I don’t delegate blindly. I try to understand all of the details, but then let the people responsible know that because I understand what they’re doing, I have their back in whatever decision they make. Because I’ve been at this for so long, I understand the challenges that any of my department heads have or even any of my front line people — salesmen and people who work in the concession stands and parking lots.
Good people — and I’ve found that most people are good people if they get the proper guidance and support — can do a good job. If I have a problem in any department, the guy who works in that department will have a much better idea of how to fix it than I will.
Q: Would you please describe an interaction between Magic Johnson and the Dodger players that provided a teaching moment?
A: Magic truly understands the appeal that he has, and has done a great job of deploying it productively. I sit in his office and watch younger athletes from other sports make pilgrimages to his office to get his advice.
When Magic was a player he was always available for networking, for meeting people who were going to be helpful to him during his basketball career, but also after his career. He took advantage of every public appearance he could make and every community relations opportunity.
Recently, Magic decided to give every Dodger player two autographed Laker jerseys — one was personalized for that player and one was for that player to donate to the charity of his choice. So the guys came to work that day and these two jerseys are in each of their lockers. They’re just like little children, walking around with their Magic Johnson jerseys.
I said: “Guys, five minutes ago you were all running around like little children. Let me remind you that every time you give someone an autograph, that’s how they feel, too.
“Who’s been more successful after his career than Magic Johnson? This is how he did it — by being active in community relations, by being active with fans, by being active with sponsors. Take advantage of this opportunity. You should be asking us to help you do more in the community, because this is good for you.”
Each week, Sunday Business Editor Henry Unger has a candid conversation, called “5 Questions for the Boss,” with a top executive in Georgia. Some remarks are edited for length and style.