Contrasting stories at Market Basket and Turner Broadcasting for Labor Day

By Maria Saporta

What a fitting story for Labor Day.

Employees of the Market Basket grocery store chain in New England had walked off their jobs for six weeks because they wanted to work for the company’s fired CEO, not his not-so-liked cousin, who had won a family rivalry over who would be in charge.

The stand-off ended Aug. 28 when Arthur T. Demoulas announced he had been able to buy a majority of the company and would be reinstated as CEO. The response from the employees was nothing short of jubilation.

It made me pause. Which CEOs in Atlanta would employees be willing to fight for – be willing to put everything at risk – because they believed in that person’s leadership?

Sadly, the inspiring news of Market Basket’s relationship between management and labor was happening simultaneously as the news that Time Warner/Turner Broadcasting would be cutting back up to 1,500 jobs at CNN and the amazing array of Turner’s entertainment channels — TNT, TBS, TCM, the Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and so on.

Yes, there was a time when the bond between Turner Broadcasting System’s employees and notorious founder Ted Turner may have been as powerful and invigorating as that of Market Basket and Arthur T. Demoulas.

You see, Ted Turner believed in the magic he was creating, and he was able to get others to not only believe in the magic, but also put their hearts and souls into creating more magic.

The worst thing one could say to Ted Turner was that it couldn’t be done – that he couldn’t establish a credible 24-hour news channel., that he couldn’t launch a serious news operation out of Atlanta, that he couldn’t take on the major New York-based or Washington, D.C.-based entertainment companies, and that he couldn’t do his part to change the world from the penthouse offices of CNN Center.

But Turner defied gravity and beat the odds. He did it because he believed in the product. News was sacrosanct. Opening up lines of communication between arch enemies was the only way to turn them into friends.

And as Turner built his media tentacles, he also reinforced his relationships with the people who worked for him. Yes, he let environmentalists have a voice through his channels. Yes, he made sure there were documentaries about topics he felt were important to the world.

And yes, he felt it was to his advantage – the company’s advantage to make Atlanta the launching pad for strongly-held values and inner-business sense.

As Ted Turner recently said, if he still owned the Atlanta Braves, they would not be moving to Cobb County. They would be staying at Turner Field. We have every reason to believe him because when his folks were telling him he needed to move the Atlanta Hawks to the suburbs, he said he would not leave downtown.

That’s what makes the news of the last few days – that Turner Broadcasting will be having all these layoffs – so disheartening.

The decision to slash and burn the news and entertainment operations in Atlanta are being made by faceless executives who are based in New York – executives who have only given hypocritical lip service to the importance that Atlanta will play in the company‘s future.

They only seem interested in playing defense, be it against a Rupert Murdoch or against an unseen Wall Street fear of being taken over or an even greater fear that they are being left behind in the changing media landscape of news and entertainment.

They are a far cry from Ted Turner who look into the future and see how to position his  channels for the next generation of audiences and communications.

If only we could find a new owner for Turner Broadcasting – a new Ted Turner – someone who really cared about its news and entertainment channels, someone who really cared about its employees, someone who really cared about Atlanta, someone who had a soul – someone like Arthur T. Demoulas.

When he won the battle be reinstated as CEO of Market Basket, Arthur T. Demoulas addressed the employees who had put their jobs on the line for him:

“You are simply the best,” he told hundreds of workers as he stood on the back of a pick-up truck. “As I stand before you, I am in awe of what you’ve all accomplished. It is an example you have all set for so many people across the region and across the country. There is very little I can ever add to your brilliant work, your extraordinary display of loyalty and the power of your enduring human spirit over the past six weeks.”

Now those are the inspiring words we want to hear from a CEO on Labor Day. And they are made only that much more inspiring because we hear them so rarely these days.

Where are the Ted Turners of today when we really need them?

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

11 replies
  1. JR in Mableton says:

    To answer your question, there are not any CEOs who employees would stand up and fight for.  We learned that lesson during the TSPLOST debacle.Report

  2. Bob Andrews says:

    The changes at CNN are being brought about because CNN’s content, programming and operations must be improved to generate better performance for Time Warner/Turner Broadcasting’s Shareholders.Report

  3. John Hutcheson says:

    Bob Andrews That’s precisely the problem, Turner is an innovator, a visionary who strength is building. Time Warner is more concerned with its next quarter’s stock performance than it is about the future. The maturation of the corporate form and the concentration of power is killing American competitiveness.Report

  4. JWK says:

    I would pick up my sword and shield and go to “war” for Bob Nardelli! He worked for GE so obviously he is the greatest thing since sliced bread. If not Bob then it would have to be Leo Mullin cause every time I fly into turbulence I put my head between my knees and pray for him and not this “overpaid” pilots!
    Pardon me but I just woke up from my 15 year nap. What do you mean…those “Captains of Industry” are no longer in charge???Report

  5. Reinvent_ED says:

    Maria, while we can be saddened by the situation facing Turner, I find myself somewhat offended by your story and the way it was portrayed. I have known Turner CEO John Martin for nearly 30 years.  We went to college together, then to a public accounting firm together, and eventually to Time Warner together.  He is a very hard-working, very smart man who has been at Time Warner for nearly two decades.    For you to say he’s a “faceless” executive is categorically untrue and coming from someone who does not know the man, nor understands the harsh realities facing Turner today.
    He is painfully aware of the legacy of Ted Turner, but the world has changed.   Turner is a multinational company now.  Nearly half of its employees are based in other states and other countries.   The company faces significant strategic challenges.  It is not the “growth company” that Ted built years ago.  It is a mature company and its infrastructure is not strategically aligned to compete in a world where many consumers go to digital platforms BEFORE they go to the television.   The company needs to be restructured – this is business.  It is NOT personal.  Yes, it’s personal for the people who will lose their jobs, and it is likely that Atlanta’s jobs market will not be able to absorb many of them.  But the ones taking buyouts will be in excellent financial shape.  It was a a very generous early retirement package.   So it is important that you temper your disappointment and understand that Turner is in a different place today and its market leadership is at risk.   Martin is wise to do this before the crisis really hits.  Being proactive will pay huge dividends later.

    And again, let me reiterate that the Braves made the correct business decision.  If they followed your advice, they would absolutely lose their market competitiveness.   The city never developed the area around Turner Field.  The Braves don’t control the revenue from the stadium.    Their fan base is largely outside the city limits.    So the Braves got an offer they couldn’t refuse from Cobb County.   So long as they solve the transportation issue (certainly not an easy problem to solve and a big “if”), they now become vested in the community.   They’re not a tenant anymore and they have revenue streams to help them continue to pay the outrageous player salaries.

    It’s ok to wish for a new Ted Turner.  However, if you looked at the major media companies today, there are few, if any, visionary leaders left.    Most are superb fiscal managers who generate superior shareholder returns.  But most of the innovation won’t be happening at these companies.   They will buy their innovation.  That’s reality.     But please don’t go bashing John Martin as a faceless executive.   I’m sure if you reached out to interview him, perhaps you’d get to know him and start to see him like I do.  He’s making the tough decisions that should have been made years ago.  I just pray that Turner comes out of this a stronger company.Report

  6. Reinvent_ED says:

    Let me also add regarding the Braves decision that they have one of the worst television contracts in the league!   That was the product of vertical integration – owning both the team and a cable network!   So another reason they needed to move because they had a better shot at a new stadium deal than in breaking a rights contract that couldn’t be broken.Report

  7. John Hutcheson says:

    I do not know John Martin, so, in fact, he is a faceless corporate executive to me. I do know a lot of long-time Turner employees — to whom he is also faceless. Maria, I’m sure did not mean this as a personal affront, but in fact, this term implies a perception of alienation and powerless when leaders do not lead but merely use force to demand compliance rather than valuing the experience and knowledge of those around him/her.The fact of the matter is that when Turner sold out to Time Warner was the point at which those who had been advocating for digital capacity expansion were devalued. Up to that time, Turner had retained a fairly innovative culture, but that was destroyed by the Time Warner take over when the Time Warner culture of compliance clearly took over. 

    So, I think it rather disingenuous to say that Martin is being proactive, when in fact, it was Time Warner’s lack of ability to assimilate the more progressive risk-taking culture of Turner that is clearly antecedent to the current situation. Again, as corporations become larger and larger, their sole focus becomes stable growth in stock prices. This discourages investment in the future and stagnation — unfortunately, it is seldom the people who profit from stagnation that pay its price. Claiming this is merely a ‘business’ decision is simply passing the buck. The fact is Time Warner simply wasted the innovative resources that had been nurtured by  Turner.  Why buy innovation if you are just going to destroy it?Report

  8. Reinvent_ED says:

    John Hutcheson Reinvent_ED John, you are correct that Turner’s innovative spirit ended when Time Warner bought Turner.  But John Martin is not the problem. In fact, John Martin was part of the team that SAVED Time Warner after the failed AOL merger! He calmed investors and worked with Dick Parsons to stabilize the company.   So Turner should be very fortunate to have someone like John steering the company through troubled times.  

    I can write volumes on what Time Warner may have failed to do in order to remain a leader on digital platforms.   I would disagree that Time Warner does not possess a risk-taking culture.  Every time they put $150 million or $200 million into a new movie, they take a risk.  Every time they pay billions for sports rights, they take a risk.  Turner took a huge risk years ago when they launched Adult Swim, or when they took over the business, only to give it up due to failed negotiations on price renewals.

    I agree that public companies become focused on stock prices – but that is capitalism.   Corporations are responsible to their shareholders – sometimes we forget that when people become entrenched in positions of power.  But some companies can do both.   It seems that Disney has done quite well adapting to a digital world after fending off Comcast 10 years ago.

    So yes, John.  It is a business decision.  Turner needs to be leaner – it needs to do things differently.   Organizations have to change, and change is unsettling, especially when downsizing is involved.  So it is not “passing the buck.”     Have you looked at Turner’s performance versus its peers?  How about a primer:

    1.  It’s networks are aging up.  They are not the market leaders in targeting the valuable younger demographic.
    2.  They have no retrans consent leverage with their networks, because they do not own a broadcast network,  so in a world where leverage is shifting to disgtribution, they are at a strategic disadvantage.
    3.  They are facing increasing competition for sports rights, and there are now three 24 hour sports networks competing with Turner for content.
    4.  They are not the leading news network anymore – Twitter has taken that by storm, and they risk losing their online leadership to BBC News.

    There are many more issues I cannot list so as to not bore the readers of this blog any further.  But finally, it is a fact that big companies buy their innovation, because innovation happens from the outside.   See Clayton Christensen’s tried and true “disruptive innovation” theory.

    So Turner is faced with the prospect of having to restructure.  And that means layoffs.   They’ve never had to do it on the scale we’re talking about today, but they have to do it.    John Martin may disappoint Atlantans who grew up with Ted Turner, but leaders have to make tough decisions.  I for one am rooting for John to reinvent Turner Broadcasting and position it for years of growth and profitability.  It’s time that new leaders are born at Turner.Report

  9. John Hutcheson says:

    ED, just another typical corporate apologist — clearly, because the state would not support expansion of a rail spur to Turner field, the organization that calls itself the ‘Atlanta Braves’ decided it would have a better chance to get what it wanted if it moved to Republican controlled territory. The state will foot the bill for the destruction of South Cobb County with pavement. This was not so much a business decision, but a political-control decision. Decisions that suppress political empowerment are risky in democracy — short-term gain is likely to result in long-term loss. Where will the ‘Braves’ move next — South Carolina? Will we still call them the “Atlanta’ team. As I’ve said before, let’s make things clear — change the name of the team to the Cobb County — ‘whatever you want.’ They’ll never get my money again — of course, they will try to take my state taxes — I’ll do everything I can to prevent that.Report

  10. Burroughston Broch says:

    Maria, you should take off your rose-colored glasses about line employees’ role in Market Basket. I suggest you read Holman Jenkins recent WSJ op-ed piece on the subject ( Here’s an excerpt:
    “It may be heartwarming to think of workers rallying to save Arthur T. Demoulas, the CEO who ran the family supermarket chain allegedly to benefit customers (low prices) and workers (high wages) rather than shareholders. Unfortunately, this requires overlooking a lot.
    The walkout was led not by store employees, but a handful of long-serving headquarters and warehouse executives whose actions were plainly coordinated with Arthur T. (so known to distinguish him from cousin Arthur S.). Their main concern, over which they were prepared to destroy the company, was their extraordinarily generous but otherwise not highly rated profit-sharing plan, which they considered endangered by a change in management (in fact, the $520 million fund, in which fewer than half of employees participate, is protected by federal law).”Report

  11. BJERKNES says:

    The only thing Turner employees have seen of John Martin’s face is his headshot, which has earned him the nickname Zoolander. Time Warner has been nothing but a slow-rolling disaster for every property it swallows up. No vision, no innovation, no strategy. Now, all that’s left to do to bolster the stock price is to gut each operation to spiff up the balance sheet for a quick sale. And that means big layoffs with no thought as to which individuals are necessary contributors to a higher quality product. Oh, and chasing last year’s big thing in hopes that lightning might strike twice (hint: Sony) or picking up worn-out cable programming and renaming it (does Mike Rowe smack of Fonzie on water skis to anyone else?) Turn and burn. Go Zoolander. Good luck with that.Report


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