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At Their Knee

Some Inc. 500 CEOs owe their success (at least in part) to mentoring from some very celebrated business icons. So what's Ted Turner really like as a mentor?
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Mentors

Tips Ted Turner told me, encouragements Frances Lear gave me, and other mentoring tales.

Most entrepreneurs would probably jump at the chance to take the likes of Ted Turner out for lunch, pick his brain, and pocket his advice. But what happens when a celebrated business icon really does become your mentor -- coaxing, guiding, and even shaping your own entrepreneurial dreams?


THE FEMINIST WHO LOVED ME: Veronica Rose is glad she had no idea who Frances Lear was when she met the grande dame of media in 1993. Rose was working as an electrician at the time, complete, as she puts it, with "hard hat and toolbox."

Lear, a former self-described Hollywood wife, came into $112 million in a 1986 divorce settlement from legendary producer Norman Lear (All in the Family, Maude). The feminist then plowed millions into Lear's, a magazine for women over 40. But it was another investment that brought Lear and Rose together. One day Rose saw an ad for subjects to appear in a film, produced by Lear, that would follow seven women who would each be given $1,000 to invest. Rose answered the ad.

For six months Rose and Lear worked on the documentary (which was never released), meeting at a studio or in Lear's palatial Manhattan apartment. Once the electrician discovered her adviser's stature, "I paid a lot closer attention to what she said because I realized how valuable her time was," Rose says.

The elder executive gave Rose an eye for profit. "The problem is, everyone talks about the top line, but success is measured by how much money you make, by the bottom line," Lear taught Rose. She also helped her develop a business plan. "The difference between a dream and a goal is a plan that you have written down," Rose recalls Lear telling her.

Rose founded Aurora Electric (#140) in 1993, three years before Lear died. The business has grown to $4.6 million in sales. "I decided the greatest way to honor her," says Rose, "would be to take all the advice she gave me and run with it."


MY BOSS, THE MEDIA MOGUL: In contrast with Rose's initial ignorance of Lear's celebrity, Charles Smithgall had long known who Ted Turner was. Smithgall, now CEO of Smithgall Enterprises (#256), was schooled at a military academy in Tennessee. Turner, who is four years older, graduated as the top cadet at a rival academy. The two reconnected in 1975 at a convention of cable-television executives. Three years later Smithgall went to work for Turner as a salesman at Turner Broadcasting System.

Because Turner's company was small then, with fewer than 100 people, Smithgall was able to work closely with his increasingly famous boss. He even lived in Turner's house for four months in 1980 while Turner was sailing in the America's Cup. "You're around a bright guy, you try to pick up everything you can from him," says Smithgall, recalling those years.

Lesson one: Have a good fallback plan. "Ted, although giving the public appearance that he shoots from the hip, is actually very conservative fiscally and always has a well-thought-out plan in case things go wrong," Smithgall says. "One day when CNN was in the planning stages, Ted asked, 'What are we going to do if this doesn't work?' And nobody said a word because no one had thought of it. Ted asked the same question every day for several days, and then one morning he came in and said, 'I know what we'll do if it doesn't work. We'll sell most of it to the cable operators. Then they will have to carry it.' Seven years later, when TBS was in a financial bind, Ted sold a portion of the company to the cable operators."

Smithgall left TBS in 1982 to purchase an Atlanta radio station, but Turner continued to exert a strong influence on his career. "Soon after I left, Ted called and convinced me to become the flagship station of the CNN Radio Network," Smithgall says. He stayed in Turner's orbit until 1995, when he cashed out of broadcasting and purchased his first Aaron Rents franchise, which leases and sells furniture, electronics, appliances, and computers.

Which brings us to lesson two. Smithgall, whose company is based in Louisville, now owns 24 Aaron Rents franchises. But he says he's trying to grow slowly because he saw Turner struggle as his empire grew. "I've got huge places that I could build stores right now, but I don't want to outrun the supply lines. That's one of the things I learned from watching him. But of course, you're talking about the flea versus the elephant here in terms of my little operation," Smithgall says.


WONDER YEARS AND GOLD RECORDS: Larry Brahms also first encountered his mentor back in high school. "I used to make sure to be home by 4:30 every afternoon," recalls Brahms, now CEO of MTI Home Video (#148). The aspiring music producer didn't want to miss what he calls "the music show of the moment" -- Where the Action Is. The host of the series, which aired in 1965 and 1966, was a former soul singer named Steve Alaimo. His claim to fame was recording the song "Every Day I Have to Cry," which was also covered by Ike and Tina Turner and Dusty Springfield. On the show, Alaimo bantered with the likes of James Brown. Offscreen, he was a successful producer.

Years later Brahms broke into the music biz, landing a job at a soul label. On his first day at work, in 1973, he walked into his office and got the shock of his life. His teenage idol, Alaimo, was a vice-president in charge of production at the same company.

Brahms soon became Alaimo's music-industry protégé. The former TV personality opened doors for Brahms, introducing him to Dick Clark and other stars. Alaimo also opened his eyes to the vicissitudes of working in the entertainment world. The best piece of advice he ever gave Brahms? "Don't have an ego."

Alaimo also advised Brahms to "keep away from Las Vegas. There's too much money, it's too easy." In three decades in the business, Brahms has never, ever worked the Strip.

Rifka Rosenwein is a senior writer at Inc. Reporter Tahl Raz contributed to this article.


Brushes With Fame

THE BUSINESS ICON: Bill Weisz, legendary former CEO of Motorola
THE CEO HE INFLUENCED: Russ Intravartolo, CEO of StarNet (#232)
In 1991, Intravartolo was taking a management-training course at Motorola. During one class he argued with a vice-president about how best to handle employee layoffs. Weisz heard about the contretemps and later approached Intravartolo to congratulate him for standing up for what he believed in. Over the next three years, Weisz regularly sent Intravartolo management-related articles along with handwritten notes with tips and advice. Ten years later the StarNet CEO still keeps two of those articles in his desk drawer.

THE BUSINESS ICON: W. Edwards Deming, economist credited with rebuilding Japan after World War II
THE CEO HE INFLUENCED: Ed Schmidt, CEO of eCopy (#316)
Deming taught a statistical-quality-assurance course at New York University, where Schmidt was getting his M.B.A. in the early 1970s. But the course ended up being "more philosophical than statistical," according to Schmidt. Deming, then 83, taught his students that "it's up to management to provide the system that will allow people to succeed." In his current role, Schmidt says, "I apply those principles every day."

THE BUSINESS ICON: Stew Leonard Jr., owner of the supermarket chain Stew Leonard's
THE CEO HE INFLUENCED: Adam Eiseman, CEO of the Lloyd Group (#296)
Eiseman attended "Stew Leonard's University" for a day last year and had lunch with the grocery-store maven. The event "seemed to validate my ideas," says Eiseman, even though his company does information-technology consulting. "Like Stew Leonard's, we look at having clients and employees for a lifetime," he says.


View the 2001 Inc 500 list.


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Last updated: Nov 15, 2001




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