I first met Julia Sprunt a decade ago, when she headed Turner Broadcasting System Inc.'s corporate communications department. Last week, she announced she would retire from her more-expanded role as corporate vice president of public relations, human resources and corporate resources.
She had been with TBS for 20 years and remains a trusted ally and friend of AOL Time Warner Inc. vice chairman Ted Turner. Today, his role is largely as an adviser to the once wild-eyed, kick-ass company that he built from scratch-now just another operating line on the spreadsheet of the largest U.S. media conglomerate.
My first meeting with Sprunt was about a page-one story Multichannel News
had run that criticized the "brain drain" at TBS. The story, which analyzed the departure of several of Turner's chief lieutenants, was not a flattering account.
Today, one could say that a similar story-albeit with a different plot and a whole new cast of characters-is being written. But as time marches on, Turner is sitting on the sidelines, and now Terry McGuirk is also stepping aside.
In McGuirk's case, he relinquished the scepter to a cable outsider: Jamie Kellner, now the chairman and chief executive officer of TBS Inc. Kellner has made some rapid moves, bringing in Garth Ancier, a trusted executive, to help him oversee an empire that neither man built.
Things are sure different down in Atlanta, but heck, that's just business.
Now Sprunt, who is married to former Turner executive Bill Grumbles (who retired a year and a half ago), is also taking her leave, though Kellner asked her to stay on.
"Hey, you know when to hold them and when to fold them," she said of her own departure.
I will miss her institutional knowledge of the company and the industry, but mostly I'll miss her integrity. At our first meeting 10 years ago-which had all the earmarks of a big bust, given that my publisher and I had flown down to Atlanta because Ted was fuming over the piece-just didn't go that way at all.
We barely spoke about the perceived or real problems in the "brain drain" article, but instead Sprunt set up meetings for us with other key Turner executives to give us a sense of the lay of the new land.
That's the mark of a true pro. When I caught up with Sprunt last week, we couldn't even remember what the decade-old snit was all about. Of course, my publisher refreshed my memory.
From that time on, Sprunt has always provided access to her executives and made sure that we had all the background that we needed to not embarrass ourselves. Over the years, I learned how much power she really wielded with Turner himself and within the company and the cable industry. I also found her to be a staunch advocate of women's issues.
Sprunt says she's not looking for another gig in cable, but she is available to the industry "if they want me to do something substantive"-that means championing women's causes. While at Turner she created a child-care center. She also began "Turner Women Today," a mentoring program for women in middle management.
In 1996, Women in Cable and Telecommunications named her "Woman of the Year."
Sprunt leaves Turner at the end of April, and the industry will be losing one of a handful of pioneering women. I hope she can find a place for cable on her busy dance card: She sits on the board of directors of Atlanta Landmarks Inc., the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, The Trust for Public Land, Study Hall, Atlanta Girls School and the International Women's Forum.
Finally, you have to take your hat off to Sprunt: At age 47, she's worked her tail off and is now secure enough financially to retire from a company she once loved. Now that's a role model for women.
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