The Herald Times

Emmis CEO: To really succeed, entrepreneur must love to learn

4th annual Cook Institute luncheon speaker talks about need for passion

Posted: Wednesday, October 23, 2013 12:00 am

By Bob Zaltsberg
331-4364  |

Many traits drive successful entrepreneurs, but none more powerfully than the desire to keep learning, Jeff Smulyan, founder and CEO of Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications Corp., said Tuesday.

“The key to your success will be your love of learning,” Smulyan said during his keynote speech at the 4th Annual Cook Institute for Entrepreneurship luncheon. “You have to be dedicated about learning (about making your business successful) every day.”

Smulyan said it takes a special commitment to launch an enterprise and encouraged potential entrepreneurs to start with one question:

“Is this what I really want to do?”

“Usually the entrepreneur is the person rolling up his sleeves late at night, the one thinking while on vacation — if you take vacations — about how to fix something at work,” he said. The entrepreneur has “a tremendous passion for something” and can’t imagine working for someone else to fulfill that passion, he said.

He said successful entrepreneurs surround themselves with good people and aren’t afraid of failure. He praised Cook Group founders Gayle and Bill Cook, for whom the Gayle and Bill Cook Center for Entrepreneurship at Ivy Tech Community College is named, for seeing opportunities others overlooked.

“Conventional wisdom is conventional wisdom. You win with dreamers,” he said. “Nobody could say when they (the Cooks) were starting their company, ‘This is going to be a home run.’”

He told the audience, which included high school students from the Academy for Science and Entrepreneurship, that success includes fighting through hard times.

“Adversity is the greatest teacher in the world,” he said. “You’re going to have adversity, and if you can deal with adversity … that will be the measure of your success.”

He noted Emmis, which owns and operates 18 FM and three AM mostly large-market stations, and magazines such as Texas Monthly and Los Angeles, was challenged severely during the recession. The downturn in the U.S. economy hurt, but so did having a station the company owned in Hungary, Slager, taken by the government and given to a political party (a year later, a court in Hungary reversed the government’s action). He said Emmis lost 65 percent of its cash flow and had to make a lot of changes to how it did business, including reducing its workforce.

“We made it through and the key was persistence,” he said. “The key was never quitting. We called ourselves the cockroaches of global media because we refused to die.”

Smulyan said Emmis is developing technology he hopes will revolutionize radio as a medium. It involves a partnership with Sprint, activation of an FM tuner already in smart phones, and making radio interactive.

“If we’re right, we can change the radio business,” he said, adding: “In an entrepreneurial culture, you have to be willing to take risks.”

Darby McCarty honored

Darby McCarty, CEO of the communications company Smithville, has been awarded the second annual Excellence in Entrepreneurship award. The award was presented Monday by Ivy Tech-Bloomington’s Gayle and Bill Cook Center for Entrepreneurship as kickoff to its 4th Annual Cook Institute for Entrepreneurship.

“The Cook Center established the ‘Excellence in Entrepreneurship’ award to recognize individuals in the community who become leaders, job creators and entrepreneurs in their field and their community,” Ivy Tech Chancellor John Whikehart said in a news release. “When Darby assumed leadership of Smithville 10 years ago, she began directing the company into a new era of technology and change.”

Smithville was established in 1922. In the past decade, the company has converted all residential and business customers to a full fiber optic network and now offers products and services in cellular, Internet, television, voice and security markets.

No MLB for Indianapolis

Jeff Smulyan has looked hard at whether Indianapolis could support a Major League Baseball team and concluded it can not.

The CEO of Indianapolis-based Emmis Communications led a group that owned the Seattle Mariners from 1989 to 1992. He said he was proud of the progress the Mariners made while he was involved but the economics did not work and ownership lost money.

He said the same thing would happen to anyone who tried to put a team in Indianapolis, which is surrounded by Reds, Cubs, White Sox and Cardinals territories. He said even if a longtime block by the Cincinnati Reds to a Major League team in Indy could be overcome — he said he thought it could — there isn’t enough disposable income and not enough television households or major companies to support necessary suite sales at a ballpark to promise any chance of success.

“You’d be in a business that would be sure to fail,” he said. “My goal is keeping the Pacers and Colts there.”

About Ivy Tech Community College

Ivy Tech Community College is Indiana's largest public postsecondary institution and the nation's largest singly accredited statewide community college system, accredited by the Higher Learning Commission. Ivy Tech has campuses throughout Indiana and also serves thousands of students annually online. It serves as the state's engine of workforce development, offering associate degrees, long- and short-term certificate programs, industry certifications, and training that aligns with the needs of the community. The College provides a seamless transfer to other colleges and universities in Indiana, as well as out of state, for a more affordable route to a bachelor's degree.