Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Leadership

Remembering Frank Batten Sr.

By admin-

Last Thursday I attended the memorial service for Frank Batten Sr., who died on September 10th at age 82. His obituary describes a life of impact and leadership. His business accomplishments included growing Landmark Communications into one of the largest privately-held media and entertainment companies and founding the Weather Channel. He also had a strong social commitment evidenced by his opposition to racial segregation and by his generous support for numerous not-for-profit organizations, including the Darden School.

I saw him for the first time in December 1999, when he announced a $60 million gift to Darden to found the Batten Institute. His vision was to marry entrepreneurship and innovation; focus on both large companies and small; and combine a mission of research with a mission of education. By virtue of its size and multi-dimensional charter, the new institute would be a novelty; fulfilling its aspirations would be ambitious. But the moment for such an institute had certainly arrived: the U.S. economy had experienced an exceptional growth spurt in the 1990s, fueled by innovations in information technology, corporate restructuring, and globalization. Capitalist economies tend to go through waves of economic advancement; Frank Batten sought to capture the lessons of entrepreneurship and innovation for the benefit of future generations.

Ten months later, I was selected to be the founding Executive Director. Thereafter, I met with Frank Batten and members of his family several times each year. He was a good steward of his own gift: watchful, encouraging, and practical regarding the progress of the institute. He was also a trusting philanthropist. In the past decade, some high-profile disputes at some other leading universities have erupted over the apparent divergence of faculty practice from the donors’ intent. But in Frank’s case, he seemed perfectly at ease with letting the team of faculty and staff at the Institute run as far and as fast as they could, with the resources at hand—assuming, of course, that we adhered to his expression of intent. This expression may stand as one of the shortest statements for any gift its size: “…to enable and challenge the Darden School to become the preeminent educator and thought leader of entrepreneurship and innovation.” That was it. The brevity of his statement makes eminent sense when you consider that the terrain of entrepreneurship and innovation changes rapidly; to specify detailed marching orders would doom such an enterprise to obsolescence before long. For this to work, he had to trust the team in place. He and his family asked plenty of questions; they were steadily interested in the progress and activities of the institute. But he wanted us to invent the details. He was an enthusiast and trusted us to do what was not only right, but also optimal.

I leave it for others to judge the results, though there is plenty of objective evidence to suggest that today the Batten Institute is a leader in its field. Jeanne Liedtka followed me as Executive Director of the Institute; and just over a year ago, Mike Lenox stepped into that position. Each new leader has necessarily brought fresh ideas and new capabilities. The future is a moving target. But each year, the Institute staff, some Trustees of the Darden School Foundation, and I review the direction and progress of the Batten Institute against the expression in Frank’s letter. We are still on-course.

My ten years’ acquaintance with Frank Batten helped greatly to inform my ideal of the business leader: social awareness, audacity, trust, patience for the academic process, and encouragement. These are but a subset of the notable qualities of an extraordinary friend of UVA, Darden, and mine. We will miss him but will remember him through his legacy.