CEO Phil Kent reflects on 11 years leading Turner Broadcasting
By Maria Saporta
Published in the Atlanta Business Chronicle on January 3, 2014
Kent has just stepped down as its top executive, but he will remain chairman of Turner Broadcasting until April 1.
During his 11-year tenure in that role, full-time employment at Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta — and its multiple cable networks, increased from 4,400 employees in 2003 to 6,900 employees today, more than a 50 percent increase.
But with Kent’s departure at the end of 2013, it is the beginning of a new day at Turner Broadcasting, a subsidiary of New York-based Time Warner Inc.
For the first time in its history, none of the company’s top executives will be based in Atlanta. That is quite a change for the company that was founded in 1970 by Ted Turner, the visionary media entrepreneur from Atlanta.
The new CEO of Turner Broadcasting is John Martin, who has been the chief financial officer of Time Warner. And the new president of Turner Broadcasting is David Levy, who has been heading up Turner Sports. Both of them live in New York.
Their appointments follow that of Jeff Zucker, the relatively new president of CNN. He also is the first president of CNN to not be based in Atlanta. He is based out of New York.
In a two-hour interview with Atlanta Business Chronicle on Dec. 17, his last in the office, Kent downplayed the significance of having Turner Broadcasting’s top executives having closer ties with the Big Apple than the Big Peach.
“John Martin will have two homes — he’s already bought a home in Buckhead,” Kent said. “These are global companies. Turner is a global company, and Atlanta is the global headquarters. Where the CEO lives and where his family lives is less important than it used to be.”
Part of the reason Turner’s executives are based in New York is because of the growing importance of Turner Broadcasting to the overall business of its parent company, Time Warner Inc.
“More than half of Time Warner’s profits come from Turner Broadcasting,” Kent said. “When I first joined as CEO in 2003, we were just over 20 percent. Since then, Time Warner has shed several divisions and gotten smaller, and Turner Broadcasting has tripled its operating income.”
So is there any chance that Time Warner could move its corporate headquarters to Atlanta?
“I just don’t see that happening,” Kent said. “It is a media company, and New York is the media capital. But the cable networks will be based in Atlanta.”
Kent added that most of Martin’s direct reports and senior leaders will continue to be based in Atlanta. They include John Kampfe, Turner’s chief financial officer; Kelly Regal, an executive vice president; Louise Sams, its general counsel; and Scott Teissler, its chief technology officer; as well as Steve Koonin, the president of Turner Entertainment Networks; Stuart Snyder, president of Turner Animation, which includes the Cartoon Network; Jack Wakshlag, Turner’s chief research officer; and Misty Skedgell, who heads up Turner’s philanthropic, civic and community engagement.
And Kent said that Turner Broadcasting will continue to be a growing presence in metro Atlanta’s economy — employing the very people the region wants to attract.
“We have a high concentration of young professionals in the creative fields who are making high wage incomes,” said Kent, who has made it a top priority to get the company, its executives and its employees more involved in the community.
When Kent became Turner’s CEO, he focused the company’s giving so it would have a greater impact — targeting green space, the arts, education and diversity.
Turner made a host of high-profile grants, often being the first company to make a contribution to a particular initiative. For example, Kent was one of the four co-chairs to raise private funds for the Atlanta Beltline, and he led the pack with a $1 million gift. Turner also was the first $1 million donor for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. And even before Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed was inaugurated for his first term, Kent announced that Turner would donate $1 of every CNN Tours ticket sold to the city’s new Centers of Hope initiative. Other major gifts from Turner under Kent’s leadership included $5 million to Zoo Atlanta, $1 million to Piedmont Park and $500,000 to Central Atlanta Progress.
Kent also took on several leadership roles. He chaired the board of the Woodruff Arts Center in 2011; he chaired the Atlanta Committee for Progress for two years; and he chaired Central Atlanta Progress in 2006. He also has been a close adviser to both former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and the current mayor.
Because of the transition in leadership at Turner Broadcasting, there is concern in the community about whether the company and its executives will dial back their giving and their involvement.
“I know there’s speculation that it won’t continue, but I have every reason to believe that this will continue under the new leadership,” Kent said. “I also think that Time Warner deserves some credit. They have made no effort to overshadow the contributions of Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta.”
Kent said that he already has arranged for Martin to serve on the board of the Atlanta Committee for Progress, which serves as the mayor’s blue ribbon business cabinet and meets on a quarterly basis.
Plus Kent said that because Turner is a global company, he was never in Atlanta more than half of the work days.
“It’s truly a global virtual company. I had to be in New York regularly, in Los Angeles, Buenos Aires, London …,” Kent said defending his successors’ decision to live in New York. “Their families live in New York. Their children go to school in New York. What matters is that they do have, and will have, a substantial presence in Atlanta.”
When asked about why he was leaving Turner at this time, Kent, 59, said it was a “big decision but not a particularly difficult decision” for him.
“I’ve been CEO for 11 years, and that’s a very long period of time for a CEO, especially in the media business,” Kent said. “The best time to make a transition is when things are going well, and things are going great at Turner right now.”
Kent and Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes agreed to the timing in mid-June when they were both in the south of France. Asked if he had ever wanted to become CEO of Time Warner, Kent said no. “I thought my job at Turner Broadcasting was more interesting than being CEO of Time Warner,” he said. “I took that off the table eight years ago.”
But Kent makes a point of saying he is not retiring.
He plans to travel and spend time “doing things that make him happy.” It will be about finding “personal and emotional satisfaction and some form of giving back while having time to enjoy life a little more.”
Even though his future still has several unknowns, Kent is sure about one thing — he will continue to call Atlanta home. “I’m going to stay a Midtown Atlanta resident for the foreseeable future.”