Plenty of people like to say that they “grew up in the broadcast business.” For Hilton Howell, it was quite literally the case. His grandfather started KWTX in Waco, Texas, where Howell was born and spent his childhood forming a connection with the business that would shape his life and career.
Howell, 53, likes to tell the story of Roy Disney coming to town to buy the ABC station. He remembers hearing over the dinner table about how intimidated everyone was by Disney and his team from Beverly Hills and how concerned they were about competing with “Hollywood.” Yet despite going up against “the most sophisticated media people on the planet,” Howell says, KWTX remained the dominant station in the area.
“It proved to me the stickiness of the broadcast brand and the value to the community,” he says.
Howell never actually worked in a station, per se. He hung around the Waco station growing up and then went off to college, law school and business school. He practiced commercial litigation law initially and eventually came to be involved in dozens of businesses, from lumber mills to insurance companies, always looking for the next great opportunity. He says Gray was the first.
“It’s a great business,” Howell says. “It serves a vital purpose, which is even more true today.”
Getting Face Time
When Howell and his father-in-law purchased control of Gray Communications Systems from the Gray family in 1993, the company had just three stations (and some other assets Howell divested). Today, Gray Television owns and operates network-affiliated stations in 50 markets (upon completion of all announced deals), up from 30 in fall 2013.
The company is focused on the kind of station Howell grew up with—devoted to the community and journalism. As Gray grows, it looks only for stations that fit its specific profile and mold.
“I see how terribly needed [TV] is today,” Howell says. “The attention to local community makes all the difference.”
Howell acts as a “boots on the ground” type of leader as president and CEO, says Jason Effinger, Gray senior VP, media and technology.
Howell goes out of his way to talk to people in the company in person. He does not hesitate to show up at stations in multiple markets on the same day just to look people in the eye, welcome them to Gray and tell them in a “very calm yet passionate demeanor” what Gray stands for and how it operates, Effinger says. “He’s really easy to talk to for someone with his experience and in his position.”
For instance, Howell went to Twin Falls, Idaho a few months ago after Gray had acquired KMVT and KSVT to take part in an event welcoming Gray into the community. The next day, he traveled to small-market North Platte, Neb., to thank staff and celebrate the station’s move to a new facility. He then flew to Madison, Wis., to meet with staff to unveil plans for a new building. Later that same day, he went to Wausau, Wis., where Gray had established a new low-power station to become the market’s Fox affiliate and sister station to Gray’s CBS affiliate WSAW.
“Every business is only as good as the people you have in the business,” Howell says. “I like to get out because people just need to have face-to-face exposure. I love it.”
Growing From the Bottom Up
The onset of the M&A push two years ago coincided with Howell’s decentralization of Gray’s management team to give local stations and their managers more autonomy and responsibility. Gray became leaner at the top and more cohesive and streamlined throughout. Howell trusts his team, knowing that transparency internally goes a long way to improve and increase Gray’s growth.
“Everyone in our company knows what our goals are and what they need to do to achieve them,” he says.
Despite having a busy schedule as CEO, Howell is selfless with his time, Effinger says, recalling an evening when Howell presided at three simultaneous company events. Last fall, Gray held its first news director meeting in some time. Effinger says Howell felt it was important to take everyone out for a nice meal, but there were too many people for one restaurant. So they split up the news directors into three groups and had three separate gatherings. A different senior VP was at each; Howell attended all of them. Instead of sitting down and actually eating dinner, Howell made a toast and shook everyone’s hand at all three locations.
Howell and his team work hard—even on weekends, if need be—because he has instilled a sense of duty and devotion for their work. He is not a “stereotypical CEO,” Effinger says. “He’s having fun because he believes in what he’s doing.”
“I’ve always loved television,” Howell says. “This is where I want to be. I can’t imagine doing other things.”