Before there was a 24 / 7, all-news cable network and before giving away money became more common among top business execs, there was Ted Turner with a vision for both. On Tuesday, Turner’s commitment 15 years ago to give $1 billion to the United Nations will be commemorated at a special fundraising event in New York. He’s getting close, having donated $917 million so far.
The founder of Atlanta-based CNN and Turner Broadcasting, and former owner of the Atlanta Braves and Hawks, is the second largest landowner in the United States. Worth an estimated $2 billion, Turner, 73, is actively pursuing his environmental goals. He’s teamed with Atlanta-based Southern Co. on three solar projects in New Mexico and Nevada. And he’s partnered with a restaurant industry veteran to help save the American bison by creating a commercial demand through Ted’s Montana Grill.
Turner’s business career hasn’t been without mistakes — including a major one. He lost an estimated $7 billion of his personal wealth in the Time Warner-AOL merger. Turner carved out time for a short interview this week before flying from Atlanta to his Montana ranch.
Q: How are you spending your time now?
A: Most of my working time is being spent on various United Nations projects, from a new initiative to get clean, cook stoves into the developing world, to getting electricity to the 1.4 billion people who don’t have it. You could put a little solar panel on everybody’s little hut and give them a couple of light bulbs. At least their kids can do their homework.
Electricity for all. You’re distributing some money to those who need it worse than you do.
Q: You’re known for taking risks. Would you please discuss what you’ve learned?
A: Taking risks depends on how good your judgment is. I went along with the AOL merger with Time Warner and it was a catastrophe. Supporting the merger was the biggest mistake I made.
We took a risk with CNN and it was a huge success. There’s an old saying, “Be sure you’re right and then go ahead.” I was sure I was right, so I went ahead. It was the best idea I had.
I did a lot on instinct. It helps to have a little bit of luck, too. But mainly, it’s a matter of judgment. That means you gotta be smart. Self-confidence helps, but you don’t want to be overconfident. That’s where good judgment comes in. If you don’t have that, you don’t have a chance.
Q: What’s a good way to develop an entrepreneurial spirit?
A: Ninety percent of new ventures fail. So if you bet against them, you’re going to win 90 percent of the time. It’s real easy for people to be skeptics about someone else doing something.
If you go to work for a small, entrepreneurial company with no capital or little capital, you’ll learn to be more entrepreneurial.
It’s hard to develop an entrepreneurial spirit in a big company. If you work for a big, bureaucratic company, you probably work for a bureaucratic person who’s happy about not taking risk. Usually people go to work for a big company who are happiest not taking risk.
Q: Why did you go into the restaurant business, partnering in 2002 with industry veteran George McKerrow to start Ted’s Montana Grill?
A: I didn’t want to retire. I felt I was too young to retire when I was let go by Time Warner. And the restaurant business was not capital intensive. I could afford to go into that business and help the threatened bison herd.
People wanted me to buy the Braves again, but I really couldn’t afford the Braves. The restaurant business met a lot of criteria. I think it’s fun. I like to see happy customers. I liked to see them at the baseball game, when they were watching CNN, or Andy Griffith on TBS, or watching the Cartoon Network. If you make people happy, it’s good for business, too.
Q: Do you think Atlanta has lost its mojo, especially because of its traffic congestion?
A: No. The congestion on the highways is a sign that we’ve had a lot of success in attracting a lot of people to move here. We’re close to being overcrowded. The leadership did too good a job in getting too many people here.
The way I avoid the traffic jams is I live in the building where I work. (Turner owns the downtown building). I only have to go down one flight of stairs to go to my office.
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.