Batten The Entrepreneur
Dec. 10, 1999 -- Frank Batten never considered
playing it safe and merely tending his uncles business when
he took charge. Publisher of 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 went
about 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.
have been a number of driving forces in Frank Batten's life - communications,
education, and ethics top the list.
the first -- communications -- he dedicated his more public side
as he built a successful private media company; 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. Oftentimes, the three forces merged and Frank
Batten can attest to the power of that partnership.
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. The companys
startup was one of the risks Batten decided was 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. "There were times
when we doubted our own sanity." The Weather Channel now reaches
more than 72 million U.S. homes.
community leadership is equally impressive: 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.
years ago, he founded with fellow U.Va. alumnus Joshua P. Darden
a financial aid program for
underprivileged high school students in Hampton Roads and became
the driving force and namesake behind the entrepreneurial leadership
center at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of
the emphasis on education? Because it's what makes a difference,
Batten says. It gives people jobs, power, economic independence.
It builds communities. It builds businesses and helps them to prosper.
the power of an MBA: "It made an enormous difference in my case.
. . . In two years at Harvard, I gained about 10 years experience.
It helped me to develop a philosophy of business as well as the
skills to implement that philosophy . . . a graduate business education
is critical to developing a first-rate business -- especially in
it was Harvard that nurtured his business acumen, it was the University
of Virginia, where he'd done his undergraduate work, to which he
was tied -- by family and lifelong friends. And it was in his home
state that he'd decided to operate and expand his businesses as
well as to test his entrepreneurial business philosophy. It was
a philosophy that made sense to him, for after all, what is an entrepreneur
but someone who, according to Webster (and Batten) "assumes the
risk for the sake of profit."
Batten did not stop learning when he received his MBA, but continued
to build on his successes as well as his failures. If you look closely
at Landmark, his media company, and its evolution
over the years you might think that it was something of a laboratory
for Batten. It was here that he brought in promising managers to
help grow the company and plan its future. The laboratory included
room for entrepreneurial thinking, and 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
companies reinvent themselves. His newspapers always look for ways
to discover new readership; one was among the first in the nation
to partner with a local cable company to form a 24-hour news operation
to expand its audience. An on-line, electronic publishing company
called InfiNet was created to serve yet another market niche. His
broadcast companies are continually experimenting with new ways
of delivering service and capturing market share.
Frank Batten has come to learn is to be a success in business you
must think creatively and move faster than that proverbial speeding
bullet. And not necessarily to 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."
has also come to the realization that entrepreneurial thinking is
a must within any successful company.
of our most successful enterprises have been entrepreneurial," Batten
says, beginning a lesson on 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 tidy sum.
have to get more interested in the future," Batten says. "There's
such a rush of competition and technological change that nobody's
markets are secure. Every time you blink, there's a new business
or a new product
Look at Apple -- a dozen years ago it was
the darling of Wall Street.
no doubt that the risk of failure is greater today 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. To
be successful companies are going to have to be invaders themselves
that be on the defensive."
leads to why Batten thinks a center for entrepreneurial leadership
is so important:
thinking will be the most critical skill a manager will have to
master to be successful."
is well aware that entrepreneurship and leadership come naturally
to some people, but is convinced that they can be taught to others.
"People who have an interest in leading others can learn how to
do it. The same goes with entrepreneurial skills."
it all works is up to the employer, he says. "Create a climate that
encourages managers and employees to want to change and improve
and you're on your way." However, he agrees, just because you build
the field, good employees won't come and stay. "The entrepreneurial
spirit has to permeate the entire company - top down, bottom up."
Driving such a change, a cultural change throughout a company, takes
time, patience, and money. Which is exactly what Frank Batten committed
to doing some eight years ago throughout Landmark when he began
to institute the concepts of continuous improvement and team-based
management. Frank Batten's entrepreneurial streak was showing,
and the then-64 chairman of the board was wise enough to know that
revolutionary talk could cause even the most trusting employee discomfort.
He did it anyway. Thus began a shift that's not over yet. There
have been occasional missteps along the way, and there have been
some for whom it took longer to get on board, as well as a number
who abandoned ship. But Batten, like the youthful sailing enthusiast
he once was, is not about to change course.
vision for Darden students is similar to the one he holds for Landmark
employees, "To integrate the entrepreneurial effort into the day-to-day
routine so that it not be a separate venture but a way of thinking,"
Batten says. "Businesses will not be able to move quickly, to respond
instantaneously to what their customers are saying, if they don't
encourage all their employees to become risk takers, to think like
Carol Wood, (804) 924-6189