Big Apple chomps on Ted’s Atlanta legacy

Kempner’s Unofficial Business

This is a new column by me, Matt Kempner. I’ve been a reporter or editor since gas was about a dollar a gallon and “Hands Across America” was a thing. I’ve spent lots of time covering government, the environment and, for most of my career, business. But I don’t day dream about fiscal policy and corporate earnings. What I love about business is the strategy and the people and the journeys that those people take. I like irony and surprise and nuance. I’ve interviewed soldiers, oystermen, football stars, chicken plant workers, Fortune 500 CEOs, suburban activists and entrepreneurs dreaming big dreams. How cool is that? I’ve teared up in interviews, laughed inappropriately, been yelled at, and snookered. I do like an adventure. Let’s see where this one goes.

They carted off the best stuff slowly. Like we wouldn’t notice.

An on-air anchor here, a creative guy there. They left the studios. And the tour guides at CNN Center. And more than 5,000 other employees. And the signs along the highway for TBS, TNT and Cartoon Network.

But don’t be fooled. The powers over Turner Broadcasting System eventually made off with stuff metro Atlanta doesn’t want to do without. They shifted several CNN shows elsewhere. They cut lots of jobs. And now they’ve gutted much of the senior leadership ranks here and put their offices in New York and Los Angeles, far from the house that Ted Turner built.

Top leaders matter. If they are good, they help set the strategy and lead the charge.

So now at Turner, which helped set Atlanta’s international image, many of the top bosses have become visitors.

Once they think of Atlanta as a place to stop in rather than live, do we really think they would have the same commitment to grow jobs here or to be active in community projects?

The latest leak of leadership juice is the recent news that the company’s new executive vice president and chief strategy officer will be in Manhattan, not Midtown Atlanta. Ah well, what’s one more?

Among those already gone from the ATL are Turner’s chief executive, the chief financial officer, the president of CNN Worldwide (plus his heads of programming, marketing, digital and HLN) and the president of TBS and TNT, who also functions at the chief creative officer for Turner Entertainment.

For 40-plus years we could write “Atlanta-based Turner Broadcasting” in our news stories. That phrase no longer works.

A year and a half ago, John Martin became the company’s first chief executive not based in Atlanta. He’s in New York, close to his boss at parent company Time Warner.

Chopping career ladders

This is the kind of stuff that makes Turner’s local employees jittery, especially after last year when the company eliminated nearly 1,500 jobs, two-thirds of them in Atlanta. Some worry more Atlanta career ladders will be snapped off a few rungs up, leaving Atlanta to become Turner’s back office: A place to make a nice living, but not the hub of action.

Last summer, pushed by employees’ questions, Martin told employees, “We are not considering moving Atlanta to New York. Not only would it be almost physically impossible; it would economically impossible…. There’s so much pride, so much talent and so much infrastructure here. Atlanta is an enormous part of what comprises Turner.”

But Martin couldn’t stop himself there. “Is it the ‘corporate headquarters?’ I’m going to give you an answer that may surprise you: I don’t know. I don’t know what that means. We’re a global media company. I want the greatest talent on Earth to work at this company. If that talent is in Ohio or Texas or Mumbai or Abu Dhabi, that’s what’s important. I think people are more important than locations.”

Neither Martin nor any of his senior reports are based in Ohio, Texas or Mumbai. But several of them are at his elbow in New York.

CEO skips his own Atlanta party

Early on, Martin told employees that he would buy a place in Atlanta (he did, in Buckhead) and that he would be down here every week. That last part is squishy.

Turnerites say he’s been in Atlanta about five times in the last five months, usually on only brief visits.

Time Warner spokesman Keith Cocozza says Martin has been in Atlanta “a fair amount,” and is committed to the community.

I wondered if there were a couple examples that would show that. Here’s what I was told: Martin and his wife ran in 5K race Turner put on at Centennial Olympic Park.

And Martin “threw” a party for Turner employees at the company’s Techwood campus after its networks aired many of college basketball’s March Madness games.

The “threw” is in quotes because Martin didn’t actually attend the party. He wasn’t in town.

Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin recalls that former Turner leaders and employees were active “in numerous civic projects from early and financially significant commitments to the Center for Civil and Human Rights, acquisition of the Morehouse College King Papers Collection, Arts and Cultural Program for APS students, Mayor’s Youth Program and the Atlanta Beltline.”

Turner’s last chief executive, Phil Kent, was a founding member of Atlanta Committee for Progress, she wrote in an email.

Some Turner leaders continue to serve on executive boards. Martin is listed as a member of the Atlanta Committee for Progress. But former Turner executives say the company’s community involvement has fallen off sharply.

Top bosses give a community more than donations, volunteer hours and the ability to force through difficult civic projects. CEOs talk to each other. It’s nice to hope that the more hot shots there are here, the more other hot shots might think of metro Atlanta as a home for their own companies.

Talent farm

Big companies become talent farms for other ventures. After leaving Turner, former executives have led startups in Atlanta and launched small TV networks from here. Turner alumni are CEOs of the Atlanta Hawks, Georgia Public Broadcasting and Public Broadcasting of Atlanta.

None of this is to suggest that Turner is done in Atlanta. Over half of Turner’s 11,500 full-time employees are based here. CNN still has a big newsroom at CNN Center. TNT’s “Inside the NBA” show airs out of Atlanta. Turner’s web site shows more job openings in Atlanta than for either New York or L.A. And Atlanta is still home to the company’s distribution chief, the leader of the Cartoon Network and kids business, the head of Turner Sports, the company’s general counsel and the head of H.R.

But Time Warner has missed much of what Atlanta and Turner mean for each other, one former long-time employee told me. “They know what Turner means on the balance sheet, but they don’t understand the soul of Atlanta in Turner.”

Turner shouldn’t always be based in Atlanta just because Ted built his company on the back of a billboard business his dad happened to have here. But there are other arguments for keeping top executives here.

Atlanta fit with Ted’s quest to bust the lip of broadcast TV with upstart cable TV networks. You want to shake things up? The contention inside Turner was that being in Atlanta helped Turner leaders think differently than others in the New York and L.A.-centric media industries.

Times change, I’m told.

Ted Turner sold his company nearly 20 years ago to New York-based Time Warner. At first, Ted was still a big shareholder and Time Warner had other fiefdoms, so the Atlanta operation got to run its own show.

In recent years, Time Warner shed many of its other holdings. That’s put more attention on Turner as now the biggest chunk of Time Warner revenues. The more important you are, the more Time Warner bosses want you close.

And there’s the rub. All our wireless connections and Delta SkyMiles could keep us linked to a distant home office. But sometimes that isn’t enough.

For the bosses at Time Warner, proximity matters. For Atlanta, it does, too.