There are academics who think you can teach people to be entrepreneurial. The Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, Mo., gives away money to encourage entrepreneurship. If you read the advertisements in the back of The Economist, you would think that wealth is only a business degree away. Hundreds of business schools around the world want to set you on the path to riches.
If you feel the urge to enroll in a business school, you might first read “Call Me Ted,” the autobiography of Ted Turner: a swashbuckler and an unorthodox entrepreneur. A husband of Jane Fonda, father of five, winner of the America’s Cup yacht race, Turner is everything you have heard about and more. The man who comes through in this book, coauthored with Turner Broadcasting veteran Bill Burke, first published last year, is a force in nature: a roiling lightning storm of a man with seemingly inexhaustible energy and never a hint of self-doubt.
What Turner’s memoir does not do is dish the dirt about his wives or his opponents in Major League Baseball, who treated him appallingly because of his crowd-pleasing antics. Although he was very bitter about being frozen out at Time Warner, after he sold his broadcast properties to the company, Turner barely raises a lip when writing about Jerry Levin, the man who finally drove Turner to leave the vice chairmanship of the company and sell his stock. As you read his story, you come to realize that despite all the larger-than-life aspects of Turner, he is also a Southern gentleman.
He writes with passion and real understanding about the sea and his life-threatening experiences; one when he was an inexperienced captain, and another when disastrous storms hit the Fastnet race across the Irish Sea. Some 19 sailors on other boats died in that race, and Turner and his collaborator do a wonderful job of invoking the horror of a killer storm. Turner is equally good in describing his tacking duels in the America’s Cup.
Fascinating is Turner’s confession that he had no interest in news whatsoever when he started CNN. He was fascinated with satellite technology and had used it successfully to turn his Atlanta UHF station into a national or superstation.
It was the second time Turner had exploited a new technology. The first was in using microwave line-of-sight technology to spread his Atlanta station into new markets.
But his big hit was with CNN. And with it, the no-interest-in-news entrepreneur revolutionized television news for all time.
In his book, Turner uses an odd but endearing technique: He has some of the players write their version of events. This means we get some graphic examples of Turner in action. One player, Sumner Redstone, believes Turner stood on his desk during a presentation. Another, John Malone, describes Turner crawling around the floor during a meeting, shouting, “Whose shoes do I have to kiss?”
No wonder Turner did not fit in, unless he owned the company. He did not fit in at Brown University, where he failed to graduate. He did not fit in as the owner of the Atlanta Braves and constantly faced fines and suspensions for violating the other owners’ sense of propriety. He did not always fit in at the New York Yacht Club with the social sailors.
Turner found the time to race yachts partly because the baseball commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, had suspended him for acting as the Braves’ manager. Of course, Turner showed up at the America’s Cup victor’s press conference dead drunk and slid under the table looking for his bottle.
While racing with the best on earth, he was also putting together CNN and jumping over hurdles set up by Federal Communications Commission for the cable operators.
Turner had something of a start, but it was modest: He inherited an outdoor advertising company from his father. He was 24 at the time. He went from there to radio, to television and into history.
This kind of entrepreneurism cannot be taught. It takes a wild man with a gleam in his eye, and a preparedness to bet the company over and over.