What I learned from One of Ted Turner’s Biggest Business Mistakes

Ted Turner in his Atlanta office
Photo: Ben Baker

The luxury suite at the Ritz-Carlton, Buckhead in Atlanta where Jack Welch and Ted Turner met to size each other up turned out not to be big enough for the both of them.

In 1995, Jack and I had traveled by corporate jet from New York that morning to meet the free-spirited Turner on his home turf. My team and I had negotiated a deal for NBC to purchase Turner Broadcasting System for $23 a share. It was structured as a reverse merger that would have made TBS a publicly traded company under the new name Turner NBC, controlled by GE. Turner would remain on the new company’s board as an advisory vice chairman. It was a fair offer that would give Turner scale, if not the independence or control he craved. After years of false starts with Turner, this was my best shot to bring our companies together.

The only thing left was determining whether Welch, GE’s (GE) acerbic chairman CEO, and Turner, cable’s most enigmatic entrepreneur, could coexist and avoid getting in each other’s way. It took less than an hour for them to demonstrate that was impossible.

Everyone, including Jack—and maybe even Ted—had difficulty visualizing how an impetuous guy like Ted would fit into the GE culture. Top-ranked executives at GE and NBC were used to seeing their work as an extended part of their social structure and family life. Playing weekend golf and dining or meeting Saturday mornings around the kitchen table in my Connecticut home for an informal work session was all part of the GE/NBC protocol. Was that Ted’s way? We were about to find out.

During the flight to Atlanta that morning, Warren Jenson, NBC’s chief financial officer, reviewed a letter of agreement he had prepared for Jack to sign. The last line just above Jack’s “all the best” sign-off and bold signature read, “Looking forward to working with you for many years to come.” Jenson had added it as a friendly gesture, something he routinely did for Jack.

“I’m not saying that!” Jack bellowed. He had just spent half the plane ride doubled over in laughter with me and Jenson as they tried imagining how Turner could fit inside GE’s buttoned-up corporate ethos. I was the only person in the room to witness the surreal encounter. These two enterprising, outspoken empire builders had stark stylistic differences and a strong dislike for each other. Welch had set disciplined expectations for executive behavior and financial performance inside his sprawling global conglomerate with such textbook metrics as Six Sigma. Turner had revolutionized television by executing his vision for 24-hour cable news at CNN and mainstream entertainment at TBS. But his unpredictable, free-spirited nature often got him into trouble with even his closest, most forgiving constituents. Ted had been sharing his grandiose NBC takeover plans with me for years.

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Jack was very interested in an NBC-Turner merger, but he didn’t want to bring Ted Turner anywhere near the GE board. It was still early in Jack’s GE chairmanship, and he didn’t want to deal with disruptive influences. And Ted, known for outrageous statements, could certainly be disruptive. Welch decided that day he would not negotiate with Turner about an appointment to the GE board or a higher position in the organization if he asked for it. In fact, Welch wasn’t going to give an inch on anything the relentless Turner requested.

For his part, Ted had already decided he would push for more money and a vice chairmanship that would assure him a prominent place on the GE board. He had worked hard to boost TBS’s value to $30 a share and wanted a golden parachute. Welch wouldn’t hear of it. The minute Ted opened his mouth, Jack immediately cut him off. And that annoyed Ted. And that’s when the trouble began.

Turner insisted he deserved extraordinary consideration given the entrepreneurial firepower he was bringing to GE’s rigid corporate ranks. His ideas, contacts, and name brand were as valuable as the hard assets NBC was buying. “I’ve earned it,” Turner demanded, looking Welch straight in the eye and leaning far across the cocktail table separating them.

“We can’t do that! We’re just not set up for that!” Welch snapped. What Jack was really saying was that Turner was a loose cannon. He inevitably would say something outrageous that would anger shareholders and investors. Welch and the GE board were already uncomfortable with the corporation’s exposure to the erratic, high-profile media world of fickle patrons and roller-coaster revenues. That uncertainty would be exacerbated by expanding NBC’s portfolio to include Turner’s cable networks and recently purchased MGM studio, and Turner’s own element of surprise.

As the tension mounted, Ted began barking like a dog. It was his very Turner-like way of demonstrating that he could, when pushed, be subservient to Welch and GE’s conservative board. It took even the extroverted Welch by surprise. Ted wanted a platform to speak from and not have to worry about managing a company anymore. But he wanted to speak on any subject at any place and any time. And that wasn’t what GE was prepared to give him.

Finally, an exasperated Welch and a ramped-up Turner gruffly shook hands and bolted for the door, leaving me and my team to pick up the pieces. The outcome might have been different that day had Welch at least given the appearance of courting Turner. But he didn’t even try. So we lost that one.

I wasn’t ready to give up completely.

What I learned from my dealings with Ted Turner I put to work in my building of Autism Speaks. That was an even more elusive and passionate endeavor than I had known in my media career because it involved people’s real-life destiny—autistic children and their families, and Christian and my family in particular. And I suddenly understood what it felt like to have your soul on fire.

This excerpt is adapted from Bob Wright’s The Wright Stuff: From NBC to Autism Speaks and is printed with permission from RosettaBooks.

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