Jim Samples has range. As the executive vice president and general manager of Cartoon Network Worldwide, he calls himself "the bridge between business and creative. I can discuss a long-range plan in the morning and sit in on a creative pitch in the afternoon." This eclecticism contributed to a speedy career trajectory fueled, in part, by his passion for learning.
Although he once toyed with becoming a doctor, he pursued his interest in foreign languages, economics and history at college. During semester breaks in grad school, he volunteered to put together recreation programs for local orphanages in Brazil.
After graduating from the University of South Carolina, armed with an MBA, he headed for corporate America, quickly landing as vice president of international credit at NationsBank (now Bank of America).
He spent four years with the bank until 1993, when the Olympics intervened. As Georgia prepared for the games, Nations Bank promised to lend an executive to the Atlanta Committee on Olympic Games (ACOG). Samples convinced the bank president he was the man to safeguard the institution's interests.
A year later, Samples learned that former colleague Bill Barry was leaving his post at Turner Latin America in Atlanta to work in its Rio de Janeiro office. Barry recommended Samples to replace him as assistant to Carlos Diaz, then head of Turner International. Diaz' first impression of Samples was "clearly a very bright guy who had a winning personality." Says Diaz, "I hired him right away."
As the business evolved, Turner decided to put a "homegrown" talent in Buenos Aires to run Cartoon Network Latin America.
Diaz gave Samples a chance, and the two alternated two-week stays in Argentina for four months.
Soon, Diaz knew he had found the man to take the reins full-time and, in 1994, named Samples president and managing director, Turner International Argentina. At that time, the Latin American cable industry largely consisted of family-run businesses. "The ability to relate to entrepreneurs," says Diaz, "was essential."
After Ted Turner purchased a personal estate in Buenos Aires, Samples spent weeks preparing for the mogul's visit. When they met, Turner was clearly pleased to have an Atlanta native leading the Argentine organization.
Then fate intervened, again. In 2000, Time Warner allotted Turner funds to beef up Cartoon Network Online but insisted that an experienced exec oversee the enterprise. Enter Samples. Sam Register, a member of the fledgling division and now senior vice president of original animation at Cartoon, went to New York to meet with his would-be boss. "It was sort of like an arranged marriage," Register recalls.
Under Samples' leadership, the project flourished. New visitors flocked to Cartoon Network Online, which showed a 230% increase in traffic. Plus, Cartoon Orbit, an online trading community, was launched, and a marketing partnership with Nintendo was forged.
Register describes Samples as a manager who succeeds because he recognizes ability in staffers and turns them loose. "It takes a lot of guts to do that," he says. Turner was equally pleased; it tapped Samples to helm Cartoon Network Worldwide in 2001.
The reason? Mark Lazarus, president of the Turner Entertainment Group, says Samples has intelligence and experience in a role that requires dual finesse: managing the creative and business sides. "It's not an easy talent," he admits.
"I wouldn't know how to do it any other way," says Samples. "I can't stand boredom or mediocrity. I don't have either here.
[My staff] never lets up. I feel constantly challenged."