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Frank Batten The Entrepreneur

Dec. 10, 1999 -- Frank Batten never considered playing it safe and merely tending his uncle’s 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.

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; 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.

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. The company’s 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.

His 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.

Ten 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 Business Administration.

Why 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.

On 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 today's economy."

While 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."

Frank 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 Virginia.

His 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.

What 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."

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

"Some 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.

"Companies 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.

"There's 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 rather that be on the defensive."

Which leads to why Batten thinks a center for entrepreneurial leadership is so important:

"Entrepreneurial thinking will be the most critical skill a manager will have to master to be successful."

Batten 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."

How 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.

His 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 entrepreneurs."

Contact: Carol Wood, (804) 924-6189

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: please contact the Office of University Relations at (804) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (804) 924-7550.
SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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