Andrew T. Heller, Vice Chairman of Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. (TBS, Inc.)
Andrew T. Heller HOF Speech
Not every man can negotiate tough deals for a living and then turn around and have those who faced him across the table say he's "one of my best friends," "a great guy" and "someone with incredibly high integrity." But that's how people uniformly describe Andrew Heller, vice chairman of Turner Broadcasting Systems, who came up through Turner as a tough-asnails lawyer-turned-operations-chief. Today, Heller is charting new strategic directions for Turner, starting with TV Everywhere, Time Warner Chairman and CEO Jeff Bewkes' initiative to bring TV to cable subscribers anywhere and anytime.
Heller graduated from New York's Fordham Law School in 1980 and spent the next five years practicing law at a commercial litigation and then a bankruptcy litigation firm in the city. Working in television never occurred to him until he got a call from a friend of a friend from law school who told him: "I need a street lawyer. I need someone who knows how to collect money and chase down people who breach their contracts."
Turns out those skills would serve Heller well throughout his long career in the cable industry. He worked for HBO from 1985 to 1990, "on stuff that involved everything that you were reading about in the newspaper about the industry and where it was going. It all hooked me pretty quick. I sort of fell in love," Heller says.
In 1990, Heller found himself working on the merger of Time Inc. and Warner Communications, and specifically on the merger of Time's cable company, American Television and Communications Corp. (ATC), and Warner Cable, to form Time Warner Cable. When all the paperwork was done, Henry Gerken, ATC's general counsel, invited Heller to join them on the distribution side.
That's when Heller met Fred Dressler, Time Warner Cable's legendary head of programming, who passed away on Christmas Eve 2007 after suffering from pancreatic cancer. Heller and Dressler became a dynamic negotiating duo.
"From that moment on, I personally negotiated every contract we had-and we had 495 retransmission consent agreements in 1993-for the next eight years," says Heller.
"When he and I first met, Andy was doing the lawyering for Fred Dressler and I was doing the lawyering for Tom Rogers at NBC," says David Zaslav, who is now president and CEO of Discovery. "We were the guys who stayed up all night and wrote the agreements. Andy always had this rebound wallop-nine months into an agreement, you would find out there was some sort of problem. Andy would tell you to look at provision 3A, and of course there would be something in the deal that got them extra flexibility. It was never devious; he's just really artful.
"Andy and Fred were an amazing team. They helped me create a lot of value for NBC, while we created value for Time Warner. He's one of my best friends."
In 1996, Heller and Dressler were neck-deep in Time Warner's merger with Turner Broadcasting; by then, Time Warner Cable was owned by several cable operators. One of those operators was Tele-Communications Inc., which had a veto right over the merger.
"Fred and I were loaned to [Turner CEO] Terry McGuirk and Ted Turner to fundamentally buy TCI out of their veto," says Heller. "We worked for Terry and Ted for three months to make that happen. About a year and a half later, Terry called and said, ‘Why don't you come down here and do this for a living?'"
Moving his family from Greenwich, Connecticut, to Atlanta wasn't easy. Heller's wife, Margaret Dorsey, had a thriving law practice and had run for political office. The couple's kids-daughter Megan and son Stephen, now 26 and 23, respectively, and both following their parents' footsteps and pursuing law degrees-were in school.
"I knew this would be a big career opportunity for me," says Heller. "I would have access to [Time Warner's] Dick Parsons and Jerry Levin, and I thought it would be foolish of me not to take this. Fortunately, my wife agreed." After having to retake the bar, Dorsey went on to become a superior court judge in Georgia's Fulton County.
In 1998, Heller arrived at Turner Broadcasting System Inc., as president of domestic distribution, leaving both Connecticut and his lawyer days behind. Heller ran the division that distributed the Turner networks-CNN, TBS, TNT, TCM, etc.-to the cable, satellite and telecom industries, and for the first time had many direct reports answering to him.
"If you are good at being a collaborative negotiator, as opposed to being a person who knows how to win points, you are likely to be good at managing people," says Heller, who earned his undergraduate degree in industrial and labor relations from Cornell University. "If you try to find common ground, share information and understand the importance of having people at the table who make you look good, those skills all come in handy. Those two skill sets-lawyering and managing-are closer than they seem."
Heller did that job for 10 years, adding oversight of Turner's private networks, video-on-demand offerings, mobile products and business development along the way. In 2008, Heller was promoted to his current title of vice chairman of Turner Broadcasting System, where he is specifically tasked with implementing TV Everywhere across the cable industry, as well as seeking out and planning other strategic initiatives.
"In my former job, I was spending an enormous amount of my time trying to figure out how we were going to transition to the digital environment and looking at what content we needed to buy and make," says Heller. "As vice chairman, I have the flexibility of doing that without the burden of having to make the budget on the linear side. I have the opportunity to spend a great deal more time thinking and strategizing."
In a way, working with the cable industry on TV Everywhere isn't too different from negotiating retransmission consent agreements for Time Warner Cable. Both jobs require Heller to listen to other industry leaders while getting his own point across. And both sides have to be convinced that their decisions will lead to what's best for everyone.
"I think he's the only person inside of Turner Broadcasting who could do this job," says Coleman Breland, chief operating officer of Turner Network Sales, who once reported to Heller. "Sometimes the business moves very tactically, but Andy moves quickly beyond the tactical and deep into the strategic."
"He's flying around like a guy who has 15 plates spinning on sticks," says Patrick Esser, president of Cox Communications, which is also located in Atlanta. "In many cases, while he's trying to do what's best for Turner, he's also trying to get the industry to understand one business strategy. He's using every incredible skill set that he has."
"Andy fights like hell in the conference room and then laughs like hell at dinner that night," says Zaslav. "We all know he's taken a big piece of hide out of all of us, but everyone also knows he's a great guy." -- Paige Albiniak