The Sure Thing

Here is an excerpt from a classic  New Yorker article by , published in the January 10, 2010, issue. To read the complete artic le, check out others, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Illustration Credit:  Jean-FranÇois Martin

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Successful entrepreneurs are seen as bold gamblers; in reality, they’re highly risk-
In 1969, Ted Turner wanted to buy a television station. He was thirty years old. He had inherited a billboard business from his father, which was doing well. But he was bored, and television seemed exciting. “He knew absolutely nothing about it,” one of Turner’s many biographers, Christian Williams, writes in “Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way” (1981). “It would be fun to risk everything he had built, scare the hell out of everybody, and get back in the front seat of the roller coaster.”

The station in question was WJRJ, Channel 17, in Atlanta. It was an independent station on the UHF band, the lonely part of the television spectrum which viewers needed a special antenna to find. It was housed in a run-down cinder-block building near a funeral home, leading to the joke that it was at death’s door. The equipment was falling apart. The staff was incompetent. It had no decent programming to speak of, and it was losing more than half a million dollars a year. Turner’s lawyer, Tench Coxe, and his accountant, Irwin Mazo, were firmly opposed to the idea. “We tried to make it clear that—yes—this thing might work, but if it doesn’t everything will collapse,” Mazo said, years later. “Everything you’ve got will be gone. . . . It wasn’t just us, either. Everybody told him not to do it.”

Turner didn’t listen. He was Captain Courageous, the man with nerves of steel who went on to win the America’s Cup, take on the networks, marry a movie star, and become a billionaire. He dressed like a cowboy. He gave the impression of signing contracts without looking at them. He was a drinker, a yeller, a man of unstoppable urges and impulses, the embodiment of the entrepreneur as risk-taker. He bought the station, and so began one of the great broadcasting empires of the twentieth century.

What is sometimes forgotten amid the mythology, however, is that Turner wasn’t the proprietor of any old billboard company. He had inherited the largest outdoor-advertising firm in the South, and billboards, in the nineteen-sixties and seventies, were enormously lucrative. They benefitted from favorable tax-depreciation rules, they didn’t require much capital investment, and they produced rivers of cash. WJRJ’s losses could be used to offset the taxes on the profits of Turner’s billboard business. A television station, furthermore, fit very nicely into his existing business. Television was about selling ads, and Turner was very experienced at ad-selling. WJRJ may have been a virtual unknown in the Atlanta market, but Turner had billboards all over the city that were blank about fifteen per cent of the time. He could advertise his new station free. As for programming, Turner had a fix for that, too. In those days, the networks offered their local affiliates a full slate of shows, and whenever an affiliate wanted to broadcast local programming, such as sports or news, the national shows were preëmpted. Turner realized that he could persuade the networks in New York to let him have whatever programming their affiliates weren’t running. That’s exactly what happened. “When we reached the point of having four preempted NBC shows running in our daytime lineup,” Turner writes in his autobiography, “Call Me Ted” (2008), “I had our people put up some billboards saying ‘the nbc network moves to channel 17.’ ”

Williams writes that Turner was “attracted to the risk” of the deal, but it seems just as plausible to say that he was attracted by the deal’s lack of risk. “We don’t want to put it all on the line, because the result can’t possibly be worth the risk,” Mazo recalls warning Turner. Put it all on the line? The purchase price for WJRJ was $2.5 million. Similar properties in that era went for many times that, and Turner paid with a stock swap engineered in such a way that he didn’t have to put a penny down. Within two years, the station was breaking even. By 1973, it was making a million dollars in profit.

In a recent study, “From Predators to Icons,” the French scholars Michel Villette and Catherine Vuillermot set out to discover what successful entrepreneurs have in common. They present case histories of businessmen who built their own empires—ranging from Sam Walton, of Wal-Mart, to Bernard Arnault, of the luxury-goods conglomerate L.V.M.H.—and chart what they consider the typical course of a successful entrepreneur’s career. There is almost always, they conclude, a moment of great capital accumulation—a particular transaction that catapults him into prominence. The entrepreneur has access to that deal by virtue of occupying a “structural hole,” a niche that gives him a unique perspective on a particular market. Villette and Vuillermot go on, “The businessman looks for partners to a transaction who do not have the same definition as he of the value of the goods exchanged, that is, who undervalue what they sell to him or overvalue what they buy from him in comparison to his own evaluation.” He moves decisively. He repeats the good deal over and over again, until the opportunity closes, and—most crucially—his focus throughout that sequence is on hedging his bets and minimizing his chances of failure. The truly successful businessman, in Villette and Vuillermot’s telling, is anything but a risk-taker. He is a predator, and predators seek to incur the least risk possible while hunting.

Giovanni Agnelli, the founder of Fiat, financed his young company with the money of investors—who were “subsequently excluded from the company by a maneuver by Agnelli,” the authors point out. Bernard Arnault took over the Boussac group at a personal cost of forty million francs, which was a fraction of the “immediate resale value of the assets.” The French industrialist Vincent Bolloré “took charge of the failing family company for almost nothing with other people’s money.” George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, shifted the financial risk of his new enterprise to his family and to his wealthy friend Henry Strong. ikea’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, arranged to get his furniture made in Communist Poland for half of what it would cost him in Sweden. Marcel Dassault, the French aviation pioneer, did a study for the French Army that pointed out the value of propellers, and then took over a propeller manufacturer. When he started making planes for the military, he made sure he was paid in advance.

People like Dassault and Eastman and Arnault and Turner are all successful entrepreneurs, businessmen whose insights and decisions have transformed the economy, but their entrepreneurial spirit could not have less in common with that of the daring risk-taker of popular imagination. Would we so revere risk-taking if we realized that the people who are supposedly taking bold risks in the cause of entrepreneurship are actually doing no such thing?

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996. In 2001, he won the National Magazine Award for his New Yorker profiles, of Ron Popeil, called “The Pitchman.” He is the author of the New York Times best-sellers “The Tipping Point,” “Blink,” “Outliers,” “What the Dog Saw,” “David and Goliath,” “Talking to Strangers,” and “The Bomber Mafia.”

He is the co-founder and president of the audio-production company Pushkin Industries, which is the home to his popular podcast “Revisionist History” and his most recent audiobook, “Miracle and Wonder,” a biography of Paul Simon.

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