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American Tycoons

Tycoon. The word comes from Japan, where it means the equivalent of shogun. But long ago America confiscated the title. It was in the U.S. that tycoons became paragons of power and influence. American tycoons swung deals, not swords, and changed the
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

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It was the worst disaster in yachting history. About 300 yachts, including Ted Turner's Tenacious, were competing in 1979's Fastnet race off Ireland when a fierce storm hit. The race became a fight for survival, and Turner and his crew, among many others, were reported missing. By the time the storm passed, 22 sailors had died; only 92 boats crossed the finish line. The Tenacious was first across, with Ted regaling the press at dockside. He's been called Captain Outrageous and Terrible Ted.

But cable TV pioneer Robert Edward Turner III, Time Warner's vice chairman (and its largest shareholder), has also been compared to broadcasting legend William Paley. And no one's ever called him boring. Son of a disciplinarian father, young Ted grew up in military schools. After expulsion from college, he worked for his father Ed's billboard company. A natural salesman, Ted quickly moved up.

In 1963, Ed Turner committed suicide. Few expected Ed's playboy son, then 24, to take over. But Turner expanded the business, buying ailing radio stations and promoting them with his billboards. In the early 1970s, he bought two bankrupt UHF TV stations, investments so controversial that his accountant quit. But behind his impulsiveness was a gift for seeing potential in overlooked properties. He broadcast old movies and TV shows, wrestling and Atlanta Braves games, selling his programming as escapism.

By 1973 he was broadcasting from Atlanta via microwave, creating the first cable network. Four years later he began beaming his signal via satellite to cable systems nationwide, then a radical idea. TBS, his Atlanta "Superstation," would become the country's most profitable. During this time Turner, an avid sailor, raced his yachts, earning four Yachtsman of the Year titles and, in 1977, the America's Cup. In 1980 he launched the Cable News Network, the first global channel. By the 1990s, TBS was cable's largest network with 18 channels, a vast film archive and an unprecedented global reach. In 1996, Turner sold TBS to Time Warner in a $7.5 billion stock swap; his cut--nine percent of Time Warner's common stock.

In January, America Online and Time Warner agreed to merge. Worth an estimated $10 billion, Turner will be vice chairman of the new company. Though Turner's impulsiveness often pays off, his shoot-from-the-lip style has offended many. His mercurial behavior and decades of reputed womanizing contributed to the breakups of his first two marriages. He separated from third wife, Jane Fonda, in January. America's largest private landowner, with 1.4 million acres, Turner has become a conservationist. Promoting global understanding, he created the Goodwill Games and has pledged $1 billion to the United Nations. Critics say his save-the-world dreams are unrealistic. To Turner, they're just another challenge.--TF


William H. Gates III had business on his mind right from the beginning. At the ripe old age of 10, he wrote a $5 contract giving him unlimited access to his older sister's baseball mitt. In 1980, Gates inked a far shrewder deal, licensing a disk operating system to IBM Corp. for its new personal computer.

The move gave Gates's young Microsoft Corp. revenues from every computer sold with that system and created a pair of juggernauts--Microsoft has revenues of $19.7 billion, and Gates is, by a comfortable margin, the wealthiest man in the world. Forbes magazine estimates his net worth at $90 billion. The IBM deal was like a poker game, which Gates was ready to play.

The Harvard dropout spent many nights playing cards until daybreak, and his negotiating talents were considerable. He didn't have the software that IBM needed, but he was negotiating with a competitor who did. Gates kept the details cloaked from both parties and bought the system he needed for $50,000. That program became MS-DOS, which powers more than 80 percent of the computers sold in the world today.

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