Lehigh University
Lehigh University

News

'God Hates a Coward'

Philip Kent '76 leads an entertainment conglomerate with close to 10,000 employees worldwide.

As chairman and chief executive officer of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., Philip Kent '76 presides over an entertainment empire that spans the globe and includes such familiar household brands as CNN, TBS, TNT, and Cartoon Network.

Considering that he worked his way to the pinnacle of his profession after starting out 30 years ago as a sales assistant at a New York City company that sold advertising to local stations, it may seem odd that Kent credits some of his success to the time he has spent not working.

Or, to be more precise, the two times in his career that he has taken yearlong sabbaticals to see the world.

"I think it is very good to take a break at a certain point in your career and get a little perspective beyond what you are doing," Kent says. "I think for one, you realize that the sun doesn't rise and set with your job. And secondly, you realize something that I say to people all the time: We are all just temporary occupants of powerful positions. A lot of successful people tend to identify themselves too much by their career, and I think it's important to realize you can get along in the world without having a fancy title."

Kent took his first world tour after the first phase of his career, which saw him rise from sales assistant to the high-pressure world of a Hollywood agent. When he returned from his first year abroad in 1993, he was offered a job at Turner Broadcasting, running a division that included book publishing, product licensing, and worldwide home video distribution.

After three years, the company asked Kent to manage its international division in London. "I did that for about five years and then I was asked to move back to Atlanta to run CNN. That lasted for a little over a year, until I had a little disagreement with the new corporate management, which was when I decided to do my second trip around the world," he says.

Kent, who was used to other people handling his travel arrangements, learned to be more self-reliant on that trip. "I became very adept at doing things by myself. I was used to traveling with a schedule and having a driver meet me wherever I went," he says. "All of a sudden, I was out there on my own seeing the world. I would end up in a train station in Hamburg with a piece of roll-on luggage, and say to myself, 'Now what?'"

Traveling on every continent has opened Kent's eyes to what a big, interesting world we live in. "I loved traveling around Europe, especially by train, and I loved Australia so much that I bought a piece of property there," Kent says.

His unplanned, five-continent world tour ended abruptly with a phone call from his former employer. "Turner [Broadcasting] Time Warner called me out of the blue and asked if I would consider coming back as chief executive officer of Turner. I said yes."

In a first-person column he wrote for The New York Times in November 2006, Kent quipped: "It had to be one of the few upwardly mobile sabbaticals in corporate America."

In person, Kent has a pleasant and accomplished air, and it's clear that he genuinely loves the field of television. He's quick to pull out his cell phone to show a photograph of the special Muppets created for Sesame Street India (which, he says, include a big pink bird and no cows), and a shot of himself and Ted Turner posing in the Oval Office set of The West Wing, with Turner hovering above him -- "like my guardian angel" -- as he sits in the president's chair.

"I told Ted, 'I have to be the president,'" he jokes.

Learning from the ground up

As the leader of a major entertainment conglomerate with close to 10,000 employees worldwide, Kent employs what he calls a commonsense approach to management.

"I pick great people, make sure they are in the right jobs, and I create an environment where employees are encouraged to take risks, collaborate, and think beyond the next step," he says. "I also move people around departments. It was a function of my own career -- to move around to different jobs and businesses -- so I try to give my employees the same opportunity.

"I don't know if it's a science, but I want to create stability in management. I also want to avoid complacency at all costs. To accomplish this, I think you need to keep a sense of urgency and a little bit of paranoia about the future," he says. "What I want is people focused on the job and the competition and the product, not on whether or not they are pleasing me on a given day. There are companies where people spend a lot of time worrying about their position, worrying about who they send an e-mail to -- we would like to minimize that and make it more open."

Kent also has been a leading advocate for diversity in the workplace. "Companies shouldn't strive for diversity to win awards or to have articles written about them. It's really good for business, and very important for business," he says.

His management philosophy reflects the rather peculiar path he has taken to the top.

Get in on the ground floor

Phil Kent '76 speaks to Lehigh business students during a recent visit back on campus.

Kent came to Lehigh from White Plains, N.Y., in 1972, following in the footsteps of his father, Marvin D. Kent '41, and older brother, David I. Kent '73. He originally planned to major in civil engineering or business.

"But my career goals were redirected when I failed to pass integral calculus," he says. So he majored in economics.

After graduation, Kent did a few independent studies about the television industry and was bitten by the TV bug.

It also marked the beginning of what he calls a career pattern.

"I have worked for two companies twice -- Blair Television and Turner Broadcasting," he says. Kent started at Blair as one of the few male sales assistants in New York City's TV business. "I got the job because my mother made me take touch typing in summer school, and I could type 100 words a minute -- who knew typing would be so valuable?"

After he was promoted at Blair, Kent eventually got bored and quit to start a business producing and selling news inserts to local stations, a venture he embarked on with a retired astronaut and a weatherman. When that failed, he returned to Blair in the TV syndication and production area with a higher salary.

"I brought back a show called Divorce Court," he says.

After his second stint with Blair, Kent joined the Creative Artists Agency and made the transition to Hollywood agent. It was a highly stressful job, one that demanded that he be available 24/7. "I eventually burned out," he says.

No wonder taking a year off to see the world seemed like a good idea at the time. With the way it all worked out -- two tours around the world, two tours with Turner Broadcasting culminating in running a major media giant -- it seems like a brilliant plan in retrospect.

It also gave rise to Kent's career mantra: "God hates a coward."

Translated, it means he's willing to take chances professionally, and refuses to worry whether he'll find another job.

That mantra also applies to his business decision-making. Kent sees Turner charting a new direction in new businesses like GameTap, an online service where subscribers can play "classic" video games. This new category had absolutely nothing to do with Turner's existing networks, which is partially why Kent says he went for it.

"Such departures are critical," he says. "It's not just about where we are today, but where are we going to be five years from now?"

Kent returns to Lehigh to share his experiences and insights with students once a year. "I had been out of touch with Lehigh for some time, but then I was invited to come back and speak to a class. I had a lot of fun doing it, so I have continued to come back, most recently to speak about diversity," he says.

Kent tells college students who aspire to be in a position like his to follow a similar path. "Get in on the ground floor at a company that does what you want to do and learn," he says. "There is no substitute for learning a business from the ground up. Beyond that, there is no magic formula, no magic bullet. You just have to find an entry-level position and ask a lot of questions and soak up all you can."

--Elizabeth Shimer

Top photo by Theo Anderson. Bottom photo by Douglas Benedict.

Lehigh Alumni Bulletin
Spring 2007

Posted on Friday, March 23, 2007

share this story: