Dec. 10, 1999-Jan. 13, 2000
Alumnus Frank Batten Sr. gives $60 million to Darden entrepreneurial institute
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Entrepreneurial spirit continues to feed Frank Batten's success
Frank Batten

Frank Batten

Entrepreneurial spirit continues to feed Frank Batten's success

By Carol Wood

Frank Batten never considered playing it safe and merely tending his uncle's business when he took charge. Publishing two healthy, competitive newspapers that rolled off the presses side by side in Norfolk would have been enough for most folks. Batten, instead, rolled the dice and started making investments, first in people, then in expansion. Additional newspapers plus a couple of radio and television stations gave him a firm hold in the communications business. Frank Batten had vision long before it became an industry buzzword. [See Alumnus Frank Batten Sr. gives $58 million to Darden entrepreneurial institute]

There have been a number of driving forces in Frank Batten's life: communications, education and ethics top the list.

To the first, communications, he dedicated his more public side as he built a successful private media company, Landmark Communications Inc.; to the second, education, he dedicated his civic side as he endeavored to change lives through learning. The third, ethics, he made sure ran through everything he did.

His communications company is a solid business known for its fiscal soundness, willingness to take risks, and ethical practices. In the early days of The Weather Channel there was some cause for concern within the company, even some not-so-gentle cynicism. Batten decided the start-up was a risk worth sticking with -- despite the jibes and low profit margins. "I remember when the world thought we were goofy to program 24 hours of non-stop weather," Batten said in a talk to his managers years later. The Weather Channel now reaches more than 72 million U.S. homes.

He has focused on education in his community leadership: Batten became the first rector of Old Dominion University in Norfolk; served stints on the boards of the College of William and Mary and Hollins College; and was vice chairman of Virginia's State Council of Higher Education. Ten years ago, he founded with fellow U.Va. alumnus Joshua P. Darden a financial aid program for high school students in Hampton Roads. In addition, Batten became the driving force and namesake behind the entrepreneurial leadership center at Darden.

Although he received his MBA from Harvard -- "In two years at Harvard, I gained about 10 years' experience. A graduate business education is critical to developing a first-rate business, especially in today's economy," he says -- it is to Darden's future that Batten is committed.

While it was Harvard that nurtured his business acumen, it was the University of Virginia, where he received his undergraduate degree, to which he was tied -- by family and lifelong friends. And it was in his home state that he decided to operate and expand his businesses as well as to test his entrepreneurial business philosophy.

Frank Batten did not stop learning when he received his MBA, but made Landmark, his media company, a laboratory for entrepreneurial thinking. It was there that he brought in promising managers to help build the company and plan its future. Landmark became a place for young visionaries to experiment with new ideas and to succeed -- or even to fail -- in these new ventures. It was a revolutionary way of thinking for a mid-sized media company plopped down in coastal Virginia.

Batten has come to learn that, to be a success in business, you must think creatively and move faster than the proverbial speeding bullet. And not necessarily dodge it. "Not everything we have done has been a winner," he once explained to Landmark managers. "But failures, in an odd way, are a mark of success in an innovator as long as they are not too big or too many. At the root of successful innovation is a willingness to take intelligent risks."

He also has come to realize that entrepreneurial thinking is a must within any successful company.

"Some of our most successful enterprises have been entrepreneurial," Batten says, referring to his early venture into the cable business. "We got into cable before most people knew what cable was."

Twenty-five years later he sold the privately held and carefully managed TeleCable to TCI for an undisclosed, but healthy sum.

"Companies have to get more interested in the future. There's such a rush of competition and technological change that nobody's markets are secure," Batten says. "Every time you blink, there's a new product. ... There's no doubt that the risk of failure is greater than it has ever been, but the speed of change and the onset of technology has allowed new competition to invade the space of established businesses."

Which leads to why Batten thinks an institute for entrepreneurial leadership is so important: "Entrepreneurial thinking will be the most critical skill a manager will have to master to be successful."


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