Ted Turner: ‘Taking risks depends on how good your judgment is’

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.

Ted Turner

Ted Turner

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.

32 comments Add your comment


October 13th, 2012
5:01 pm

God loves you, Ted.


October 13th, 2012
5:24 pm

He was ahead of his time with 24 hour news. Fortune magazine (owned by Time Warner) had said many times that Ted Turner would fail. He did not fail, they eventually failed him. Such is big business.

Corporate Meltdown

October 13th, 2012
5:50 pm

But! But Ted! Is there anyway to get rid of the Republican and Democrat parties by bannishing them to one of your waste collection points that your Bison use?

Scott Anderson

October 13th, 2012
6:11 pm

Ted has always been a inspiration to me and alot of ppl in Atlanta.

Wish him good things in the future.

lego lunatic

October 13th, 2012
6:25 pm

I like Ted. Wish he could do away with CNN’s liberals and resurect it back to what it use to be. Hope he figures out there is a God one day. Also want him to take the Brave’s management to the woodshed. My favorite quote of his-” Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and advertise”.

Fan of Ted

October 13th, 2012
6:38 pm

If you have not read Ted’s autobiography, do it. He is a unique thinker and his insights are illuminating, whether you agree or disagree. An Atlanta treasure. I wish Ted would sell some land and buy the Braves! Or better yet, he should become Commissioner of MLB. Selig needs to stand down. He is a tool. Ted for Commish!


October 13th, 2012
6:48 pm

He didnt build that…..

Quack Quack

October 13th, 2012
6:53 pm

Mr. Turner, please buy back the Braves……


October 13th, 2012
7:23 pm

Ted was a horrible owner of the Braves for many years. He was an embarrassment. Finally, in 1991, he figured it out and got out of the way. it is true the Braves need a passionate owner like Mr Blanks is with the Falcons but not a crazy man who had no clue about the game.


October 13th, 2012
8:01 pm

Love Ted! Atlanta owes a lot to him. Wish he still owned the Braves, price was no object to him. John Stoltz has some very nice things to say about him, and CNN was a premier news channel under him…the REAL “Fair and Balanced” news.

Kneel Borezt

October 13th, 2012
8:09 pm

He promised a man a million $ if his wealth ever reached one billion dollars. Then Turner reneged on his promise and was sued. Welshing tells you a lot about Ted Turner. Tthis is man who was so drunk on live tv that he fell off his chair and disappeared under the table.


October 13th, 2012
8:23 pm

I appreciate the nice gestures Mr. Turner makes, but salvation is possible only through the blood of King Jesus. Even our best deeds are dirty in the sight of a perfect and holy God.

Greg Camp

October 13th, 2012
8:36 pm

Go Ted! Ted is a visionary and master of his own destiny. Ted is the embodiment of Atlanta, warts and all.


October 13th, 2012
8:38 pm

PLEASE buy the Braves again. PLEASE?


October 13th, 2012
8:46 pm

elr: I could say something but i won’t, thanks everyone else for your positive comments about a real Home Town Hero.


October 13th, 2012
8:54 pm



October 13th, 2012
9:14 pm

“I could afford to go into that business and help the threatened bison herd.”

Hmm, if I’m a bison I won’t feel threatened if they want to serve me in a reataurant? Joking aside I’m a Ted fan, bravo for him for directing his $ toward good humanitarian causes.

Ed S.

October 13th, 2012
9:19 pm

Say what you want about Ted Turner. But the fact is he put Atlanta on the map. I have nothing but respect for the man.

there is no jesus

October 13th, 2012
9:23 pm

I agree with agnostic Ted.

Tony Thevis

October 13th, 2012
9:40 pm

Ted Turner made a 1 billion dollar pledge to the United Nations over a 10 year period. He lost 7 billion during that time and STILL kept his commitment. Granted, it has taken 15 years to date instead of the 10. Show/tell me of one human being who has or would keep their word and signature like that. A true American hero.

Political Mongrel

October 13th, 2012
9:45 pm

Mr. Turner is one man with whom I could disagree intensely and still have enormous respect for. Now, if he could take control of CNN again . . .

Big Fan Of Ted

October 13th, 2012
9:53 pm

hesalive – You sound like you are in a cult. Oh wait, you are. Long live Ted Turner. His autobiography is a very, very good read.


October 13th, 2012
10:08 pm

Yeah yeah, CNN, Braves, Braves, CNN. When will anyone ever ask this man about buying Hanna-Barbera and launching Cartoon Network, which is celebrating its 20th birthday? I love this man, but that part of his legacy is never explored. I also wonder if he regrets the Time Warner merger, or just the AOL/Time Warner merger.


October 14th, 2012
1:12 am

Ted is, and always has been, an inspiration to me. The greatest shame of today’s society is that he went with the Time Warner/AOL merger, if he hadn’t, we may actually still have a real news channel to tell us the truth.
That’s the one thing about Ted, he was insistent on telling the truth as he saw it and put his money where his mouth is.
And as far as Legolunatic up there calling CNN liberal, it’s just about the farthest thing from it, they’ve been trying to outFox FoxNews for some time now, just look at Wolf Blitzer calling the VP debate for Ryan the other day, when clearly Biden wiped the floor with him.
We need more atheists in the current media to call the proselytizing when we see it, how I wish that someone with sense would blast these hypocrites out the water like good ole Ted was never afraid to do.


October 14th, 2012
7:54 am

I guess Ted Turner’s judgement is sound. He was sure he was right and then he went ahead. He saw his duty and he done it! All to the benefit of Atlanta and the Bison Herd and everything.

Where do we get such men?


October 14th, 2012
9:16 am

He’s right. The region was too good in attracting new people. I still know people that move here in the HOPES they will find a job when they GET here, even in this economy. Anyway, everyone isn’t entreprenuerial. Isn’t that a great thing? Or else the entreprenuers wouldn’t have anyone to work for them to help them build their companies. But with that being the case, everyone can’t own the building they work in or live near the job. Metro Atlanta needs to resolve it’s traffic problem. More comprehensive and extensive transportation options beyond roads and tolls. 5million+ people in a 50+ mile radius but only approximately 1.6million with in a LESS than reasonable range of mass transit(fulton and Dekalb)…that’s not reasonable and is foolish planning or lack of planning.

No Proof

October 14th, 2012
10:09 am

Get over your Sky Fairy Fantasy preaching, please.

In the good ol’ USA, we have a right to be critical thinkers and to have differing belief systems. I’m not going to tell you, “Hope you find Atheism one day!”… but I guess I just did.

lego lunatic

October 14th, 2012
2:19 pm

Umm….CNN isn’t liberal?!?….they are as liberal as Fox News is conservative. The difference is Fox has 2x the viewers as the 2 liberal cable channels combined. That aside, Ted is an inspiration to business and to many people personally, mysself included. Just like Truett Cathy, he went out and made as much money as he could, doing what he knows best, and has chosen to give away a huge portion of it as he sees fit. That is the true beauty of capitalism, and not too many practice it as good as Ted.


October 14th, 2012
2:40 pm

Miss you Ted, so much…Having an absent owner who doesn’t love the Braves is very discouraging


October 16th, 2012
4:48 pm

To participate in a forecasting project that helps to improve your judgement try http://www.forecastingace.com


October 17th, 2012
10:43 am

instead of wasting all that money given to the UN, Ted should have bought the braves again—he would have hired the right people to win titles.


October 18th, 2012
2:05 pm

I had the unique opportunity and pleasure of getting to know Ted back in January of 2002 when we started Ted’s Montana Grill. I was fortunate enough to get in on the ground floor of this company and loved every minute of it. One thing that struck me then about him is his passion & committment for what ever he undertakes.

Early on in the startup of this company he attended one of the quarterly meetings that we had to review the companies performance. When he arrived he came in and took the seat next to me and immediatly started to ask questions of me. Pressure? One of the richest men in the world who at one time was known as Terrible Ted because of his temper asking questions of yourself. Pressure would be an understatement. Fortunatly over the course of the next three days I was able to answer all of his questions. He is an unique character and someone that I have the utmost respect for.

To give an example of his committment to the environment we were out in front of the restaurant & corporate office one day downtown on Luckie Street. He looks down and sees cigarette butts that people had carelessly thrown down on the sidewalk as smokers tend to do. Ted stoops down and picks them up and carries 5 – 6 butts into the office to properly dispose of them.