For Mike Kelly, talking about the weather is anything but shooting the breeze.
As president and chief executive of the Weather Channel Cos., Kelly oversees a cable network in nearly every one of the 100-million cable homes in the country; weather.com, a website with more than 40 million monthly visitors; and the second most popular smartphone app behind Facebook. Annual revenues are north of $500 million.
In other words, your rainy day is his cash cow.
The Weather Channel, which turns 29 on Monday, was initially a hard sell. After all, who would tune in for something they could find out by looking out the window?
Conceived by "Good Morning America" meteorologist John Coleman, the idea was rejected by potential partners left and right until Landmark Communications and its then-owner Frank Batten backed him and launched the network.
In 2008, Landmark sold the company to private equity firms Bain Capital LLC and Blackstone Group and NBC Universal for $3.5 billion, and the new owners tapped Kelly, who spent most of his career in magazine publishing at Time Inc., to run the company.
Looking to change the perception that it is more than only about precipitation, the network has added original programming with shows such as "Storm Stories" and its latest series "From the Edge with Peter Lik," which follows the renown landscape photographer around the country as he battles the elements to find the perfect shot.
The network has to be careful not to stray too far from its roots and alienate its core audience, as was the case a few years ago when its decision to telecast weather-themed movies ("The Perfect Storm") backfired.
"People are coming to the Weather Channel in a similar way that they're coming to Google," Kelly said. "They're looking to find specific information that has a big impact on their life."
Some of that information can be life-saving. The channel has won praise from its viewers for its service Notify, which texts and emails subscribers severe weather alerts.
In an interview with Company Town, Kelly talked about the benefits of knowing which way the wind blows.
Did you have to take a crash course in meteorology to run the Weather Channel?
I took meteorology in college. I won't reveal the grade, but, no, you don't have to be a meteorologist. You do have to get excited about the weather.
What made you want to take a meteorology course?
I needed a science credit. It turned out to be real hard.
Weather information is ubiquitous. Where is there money to be made in it?
Our digital offerings are going through the roof. More than 40% of our total advertising revenue is from digital.
People tune in, hear the forecast and go. How do you get them to stick around longer?
Time spent viewing is the challenge. When you tune into news, you want to find out what happened. Most people who check on weather are really doing it to support their lifestyle, so I think we have a big opportunity to move more toward lifestyle programming.
You're in virtually every TV home in the country. Is there any growth left?
We are increasingly thinking of our digital assets as global assets. We're getting consumer adoption around the world for our mobile operations.
When you wake up in the morning and it's sunny, is that a bad day for business?
We're a national weather service, so there's bad weather some place.