RIP: Frank Batten Sr – The Billionaire You Never Heard Of
Most people have never heard of Frank Batten Sr outside of Hampton Roads, Virginia. When I first left the US Navy and went to work at The Virginian-Pilot, I heard nothing but great things from the Pressmen that worked for the newspaper when they spoke of Frank Sr. He was known to come out to the presses and chat it up with all the employees – most of which he knew by name until his companies grew too large.
For many years, Landmark employees got their birthday off and received 2 week bonuses at Christmas. When times got tough or departments folded, we didn’t layoff – employees voluntarily retired or were moved to other positions in the company. It was always about the employees with Frank.
When Landmark Communications adopted total quality management, targeted selection hiring, and continuous improvement programs, all managers got to go through all the training they wanted. In my late-twenties, I even attended executive leadership training and met Frank in person. In a few short years, I gained more leadership and management experience than most people have their entire careers. Frank believed that the better employees were educated and treated, the better the company performed. It worked.
By that time, Frank had taught himself to speak by burping after he lost his voice to throat cancer. You could clearly hear his voice. One person asked, “How much is enough, Frank?” and his answer was that it wasn’t about the money – it was about securing the company’s future and thinking about all the families that had roofs over their head.
The most exciting story that Frank told was the launching of The Weather Channel. As tame as it sounds, the company was hemorrhaging money and Frank said he literally had everyone’s pink slips in his trunk. He took a chance, though, and negotiated a per household fee with the cable companies that changed the entire industry! It launched one of the most successful channels in cable television. Had he not been fighting throat cancer, we may have had the Landmark News Network instead of Ted Turner’s CNN.
People don’t know about Frank Batten because he was a quiet, modest philanthropist. I remember when corporate forced Frank to refurnish his offices and get rid of the battered sofa and desk he had for so many years. He was a true champion to the company, to the community and even humanity. During segregation, he put his own life in danger and continued to speak out for integration because it was the right thing to do.
It’s a sad day for me and my condolences go out to his family, especially Frank Batten Jr. I’m proud that I got to meet Frank Batten, Sr. When I measure people’s success, it’s often against what I remember of Frank. He was modest, hard working, appreciative, treated his employees incredibly well, and still was able to grow his businesses exponentially. No one has ever measured up and I’m not sure anyone ever will!
Read more about Frank Batten’s fascinating life as written by Earl Swift at The Virginian-Pilot. Frank Batten Sr was the billionaire you probably never heard of – but you may learn a lot from the life he led.
Photo from The Virginian-Pilot
Doug, what a wonderful tribute to someone that obviously helped shape you. We should all be so lucky as to have a "Frank" to look up to in our careers!