The media business is in the rear window for Ted Turner, the bold entrepreneur who in 1980 founded CNN, the nation's first all-news cable network. Today, Turner is focused on developing ways to stop global warming, encourage energy conservation, and stem out-of-control population growth.
Turner recounted how he went from running his father's billboard business to billionaire to high-profile humanitarian in a wide-ranging talk to students as a "View From The Top" speaker at Stanford GSB. He is chairman of the board of the United Nations Foundation, a public charity he founded in 1998 with a historic $1 billion pledge, the largest philanthropic gift of its time. The foundation seeks to strengthen and support the United Nations and a variety of causes around the world through a blend of advocacy, grant making, and partnerships.
The foundation is also helping end disease. Because of the foundation's work, along with former Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates and the Rotary International service club, Turner said the organization is close to eradicating polio, a disease not often seen in industrialized nations that still infects many in pockets of the developing world. "That will be only the second disease in the history of the world that's been eradicated — smallpox is the other," he said. "That would be a gigantic win."
But the main problem to be addressed, Turner said, is too many people — a surging population that is overwhelming the earth's resources. "The planet is collapsing all around us," he said. "Ocean fisheries are collapsing from over-fishing. Wind, water, and erosion are washing the topsoil away. We've got to take better care of the planet."
He said his own lifestyle reflects that philosophy. He drives a Prius. "That's my main car and I'm a billionaire still," he said. "And I don't have a gigantic house, so I don't feel guilty about living there."
The outspoken environmentalist is also the nation's largest land owner, overseeing 1.9 million acres in 6 states, property the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. He uses much of that land for ranching bison, whose meat is served in his Ted's Montana Grill restaurant chain.
During the early 1990s, he created the environmentally focused animated series, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, a show many in the audience remembered and that Turner told the audience he wished he could convince the Cartoon Network to air again. He also invested in Turner Renewable Energy, which was sold in 2007. "It's time to say goodbye to coal and oil and replace them with renewable energy" — including solar, wind, and geothermal and biofuels," Turner said. "We should be doing a lot of research; it all has tremendous potential. If I were starting a business today, that's where I'd go."
The legendary businessman, now 71, told students it was up to their generation to find solutions to population and environmental problems, and they need to do so quickly. Of the earth's current 6.7 billion inhabitants, 1.6 billion go to bed hungry each night, Turner said. "What will we do if we have 2 or 3 billion more people?" he asked the audience of first- and second-year MBA students. "We've got to take better care of the planet because without a healthy environment, the population's not going to make it. We've got to start with you."
During his wide-ranging talk, Turner cracked jokes, recited Shakespeare, and showed his penchant for speaking his mind, a trait that earned him the nickname the "Mouth from the South." His secret to business success? "Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell, and advertise." His advice to the new generation of business leaders? "You've got to play by the rules. It's not that hard. You can make billions playing by the rules and doing things honestly, if you're smart enough and work hard enough."
What's the quickest path to wealth? "Start out with nothing and turn it into a fortune."
His biggest disappointment? Turner said he regrets that all three of his marriages, including his most recent marriage to actress Jane Fonda, failed. But, in business, he met major success. Turner recounted how CNN had 35 employees during its first year, reported $600,000 in revenue, and lost $900,000. "That same exact company, 30 years later, did $2.5 billion in revenue, had 12,000 employees, and made $600 million," he said. "That's what you can do, too."