Maverick entrepreneur Ted Turner said Friday that he would step down as a Time Warner Inc. director in May, ending his colorful and volatile 10-year affiliation with the world’s largest entertainment company.
Turner, who joined top management and became the largest individual shareholder after selling his cable channels and entertainment businesses to the New York media giant in 1996, had grown distant from Time Warner since its ill-fated 2001 acquisition by America Online. The deal cost him his operating role and billions of dollars in stock holdings.
Since then, the mercurial 67-year-old billionaire and ex-husband of actress Jane Fonda has devoted more time to philanthropy, land acquisitions and a growing restaurant chain called Ted’s Montana Grill that serves bison meat.
“It is after much deliberation that I have decided not to stand for reelection at the annual meeting,” Turner said in a statement.
Time Warner executives said the timing of Turner’s exit had nothing to do with the recent campaign by dissident shareholder Carl Icahn to break up the company because of its faltering stock price. In settling with Icahn, Time Warner agreed to name two independent directors to its 14-member board.
Time Warner already had two director vacancies to fill in May from the resignations of AOL co-founder Steve Case and Miles Gilburne. On Friday, the company also said former U.S. Trade Representative Carla Anderson Hills would step down in May because of a mandatory retirement age of 72. With Turner’s departure, Time Warner will have four vacancies.
A Turner spokesman said Friday that the media mogul “has been thinking for some time about refocusing his energies.”
Time Warner executives said Turner had threatened to leave the board since resigning as vice chairman in early 2003. Last year Time Warner Chief Executive Richard D. Parsons persuaded Turner to remain as a director for one more term.
One of the most visionary and dynamic media figures of the 20th century, Turner was a pioneer in using satellite technology to broadcast his Atlanta-based WTBS-TV station nationwide.
In 1980, he revolutionized TV news with the first 24-hour channel, which naysayers called the Chicken Noodle Network. After CNN hit its stride during the Persian Gulf War, Time magazine named him “Man of the Year.”
Known in Atlanta as “the Mouth of the South,” Turner often left the more staid Time Warner executives speechless with his volatile outbursts and outrageous remarks.
Amid the early elation of the Time Warner-AOL deal, Turner declared the combination better than sex. He once likened News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch to Adolf Hitler, accusing him of using his media outlets such as CNN challenger Fox News Channel to further his conservative political agenda.
Although Turner had voted in favor of AOL’s $99-billion acquisition of Time Warner, he quickly turned sour when he was edged out of his role overseeing the cable group he built, Turner Broadcasting System, which includes CNN, TBS, TNT, Cartoon Network and the Atlanta Braves.
He became even more embittered when Internet values collapsed and AOL Time Warner’s shares plunged. Turner is worth about $2 billion today, down from about $7 billion at the time of the deal, according to Forbes magazine. He holds about 32.8 million shares in Time Warner, a stake of 0.7%. That is down from 10% before the AOL deal and 4% after its completion.
Turner is credited with having helped galvanize directors to oust Gerald M. Levin, an architect of the AOL-Time Warner deal. Levin stepped down as CEO in 2002, succeeded by Parsons. Case, the other architect, resigned as chairman the following year, with Parsons picking up his title.
Although Turner occasionally stopped by Turner Broadcasting’s headquarters in Atlanta even after his spirits were broken by the AOL-Time Warner deal, executives say he rarely shows his face anymore. About four years ago, he moved his office to a building four blocks away that houses one of his restaurants.
People close to Turner said he never got over being “fired” by Levin. They said he felt like an outsider and was offended when he wasn’t consulted about CNN and other assets important to him. Turner also was said to be hurt when he was not asked to replace Case as chairman.
In an interview with CNN on Friday, Turner said he was pleased with how Parsons was running the company “for the most part.”