MT Special: Ted Turner on the new Depression

Legendary CNN founder and philanthropist Ted Turner tells MT how we can dig our way out of recession...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Ted Turner has packed more than most into his 70 years. Not content with turning his father’s billboard business into one of the biggest media empires on earth, including the world’s first 24-hour news channel (CNN), he also found time to have five children, own the Atlanta Braves and Hawks, become a world-class yachtsman (winning the Americas’ Cup), and give away billions of dollars to charity. Now the biggest landowner and one of the richest men in the US, he spends his ‘retirement’ popularising bison meat (he owns the largest herd in the world) through his new restaurant chain Ted’s Montana Grill and trying to ‘alleviate poverty, disease, misery and unhappiness’, rid the world of nuclear weapons and solve global warming through his philanthropic foundations. Crikey.

It’s all in his new autobiography, ‘Call Me Ted’, which is (ghost-) written in the first person, but interspersed with extended quotes from some of the main characters (a format that actually works pretty well). The furious pace of Turner’s life makes for a good bouncy read, but it made us tired just thinking about it. So when MT caught up with Ted this week, we asked him when he was due to retire. ‘Retirement? No, that’d be boring. I love business; I’ve been a businessman all my life. I’m never going to stop working.’

Turner’s pretty downbeat about our current economic situation, which he reckons is the worst in his lifetime. ‘This recession we’re having now, there’s a good chance it could be another Depression, right? I’ve lost a lot of money, like so many people have – although I lost a lot more on AOL ten years ago.’ (According to his book, this amounted to $8bn in 30 months – nearly $10m per day). But even that doesn’t put him off. ‘I look at it as an opportunity. When it’s over, I think we’ll have very a different world to the one we lived in before – less materialistic; hopefully less emphasis on how much you have.’

He does accept this is likely to reduce people’s appetite (and ability) for philanthropy. ‘Everyone has seen their wealth greatly diminished. I say to people: ‘Thank God I gave my money away when I did’ – lots of people hung onto their money and lost it anyway! You might as well at least get the credit for doing something worthwhile with it. What I’m telling people now is: you might have half as much money as you had, but lots of you have more than you need. So keep your philanthropy up.’

Besides, he says: ‘I learned early on that how much money you had really didn’t determine how happy you were. What brings you happiness is seeing your family do well and having good friends that you share experiences with. You don’t need a 400 ft yacht.’ Of course reading the book, it’s clear that a succession of big yachts and his various business interests prevented Turner spending as much time with his family as he would have liked. ‘To be very successful you have to work hard and put in a lot of hours,’ he admits. ‘How many very successful business people are successful raising families too?’

Turner rates CNN as his greatest business achievement, although he admits it was a bit hairy to start with. ‘It was five years before it broke even, and during this time we lost $250m,' he says. 'To this day I don’t know how I financed it. We got by, but we sweated every payroll for ten years.’ And on the flip side, he counts the disastrous AOL deal as his ‘one big failure’ – although he’s keen to point out that he wasn’t the Time Warner CEO at this point, so there wasn’t much he could have done about it (or so he argues).

So what was the secret of his success as a business leader? He puts it down to energy and drive, infectious enthusiasm, a keen eye for cost-cutting, and his powers of delegation (although he reckons necessity was the mother of invention here: ‘I was doing so many different things I couldn’t have done it any other way’). He says: ‘I ran my business like I was a commander-in-chief. We deployed, we kept attacking, and when we ran into obstacles, we went around them or blew them up.’

In a similar way, he thinks there’s only one solution to our current woes: ‘If you’re in a hole, the only way out is to work hard and dig your way out.’ Even at 70, with a few zillion in the bank, he still seems to be digging harder than most...

In today's bulletin:
FTSE hits six-year low as Lloyds sinks again
Bovis Homes cheers despite big loss
MT Special: Ted Turner on the new Depression
Costa gets tongues wagging with £10m taster
Sugaring the pill on apprentices

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