Brent Turner, MBA’99, charts a new course for alumni leadershipby Jennifer Johnston | Cover, Features, Spring 2012 | Comments | Print |
For a guy from Middle Tennessee, Brent Turner, MBA’99, sure uses a lot of nautical terms. That may be the impact of having lived near the Puget Sound in Seattle for the past 12 years, but his choice of words is fitting nonetheless. Turner is helping steer the future of Owen as chair of the school’s Alumni Board, and his enthusiasm, drive and leadership are just the types of invaluable assets you’d want in someone at the helm.
When Jim Bradford, Dean of the Owen School, asked him to lead the board last year, Turner was both honored and surprised. Even Turner’s assistant good-naturedly asked him if he was absolutely sure Bradford was serious. (Those are the kinds of self-effacing stories Turner likes to tell about himself.)
“I didn’t immediately tell [Bradford] yes, but I didn’t have to think about it long,” says Turner, Executive Vice President of Call Products for Marchex, a Seattle-based digital call advertising company.
That’s because of his deep-running zeal for all things Vanderbilt. Turner is one of the youngest members of Owen’s Board of Visitors, composed of corporate leaders from some of the world’s most prominent companies, who advise the dean on curriculum, the needs of the business community and the overall strategic direction of the school. He also serves as a class representative on the school’s Alumni Council, which encourages alumni participation and promotes philanthropic support. He even keynoted last year’s Discover Weekend for prospective students and has helped hire Owen graduates. And as if that isn’t enough, this marks his third year on the Alumni Board and second as its chair.
“He’s a passionate guy,” says Dave DiFranco, MBA’99, a Principal at private equity firm Blue Point Capital Partners. “Whatever he decides to spend his time on, it’s 100 percent. That’s true about SEC football, the Titans, the Owen School. That’s how he is, and he inspires others, like me, to get involved, too.”
Having a well-respected classmate lead the Alumni Board gives DiFranco a sense of confidence. “He’s not afraid to deal with tough stuff,” he says of Turner. “You might not always like what Brent has to say, and he doesn’t shy away from the tough issues. But that’s what a leader does.”
Turner’s decision to immerse himself in board activity at the school was fueled in part by Bradford’s all-hands-on-deck approach to bringing Owen closer to its goals. “He understands,” Turner says, “just how important it is to have as many people in the boat as possible if you’re trying to turn it.”
Part of the Returns
Turner was inspired to accept a leadership role because he saw that Bradford valued alumni input and sought answers to difficult questions. “I was impressed,” Turner says, “that he was willing to tackle what had been the central issue at Owen, which was: ‘What is the school’s strategy going to be? What’s going to be the role of rankings in determining our success?’ That’s a very hairy conversation to have, but I noticed him having it at both the Alumni Board level and Board of Visitors level as well as with faculty and staff.”
“The period in my life when my perspectives on the business world, and the world in general, opened the most was the two years I spent at Owen.”
“Brent is a doer, a no-nonsense guy who is passionate about Owen and committed to its success,” Bradford says. “These qualities are the reason I picked him for this job.”
Turner bears in mind that many of his fellow board members travel thousands of miles for meetings because of a strong desire to “move things forward,” as he says. He has redesigned the Alumni Board into a working board, with teams to help support the school in targeted areas, such as alumni connectivity, student recruitment, career placement and fundraising.
Members have assignments and goals and report their progress regularly. “The idea is to make it meaty enough that it’s appealing but not so bad that it smacks of volunteer labor,” Turner says.
Fellow Alumni Board member Russ Fleischer, MBA’91, who is CEO of HighJump Software, a supply chain management software company, offers his own take on Turner’s style. “He’s not shy about reaching out and getting people involved,” Fleischer says. “Like so many of us, he has a strong passion for the school. That’s the attribute we both share—a deep passion for the school and a deep willingness to do whatever will help the school succeed and thrive in the future.”
Turner’s personal focus as a board member—improving alumni engagement—is approached with his usual fervor. His challenge for his fellow alumni: “I’m going to invest now with my time, talent and treasure because I want to be part of the returns.”
Turner’s board experience has helped him see the value of every contribution. With classmate Alli Zaro Fitzgerald, MBA’99, he hosted a well-attended webinar in 2011, in which he presented his thoughts about the school’s strategy. He followed with a live presentation to Seattle alumni.
“I think that everyone who attended left the call with a renewed enthusiasm for Owen,” says Fitzgerald, Director of Finance and Marketing at SecuriCheck LLC, a background research company. The positive vibe was created in part, she says, by Turner’s characteristically frank discourse, particularly about the elephant in the room—the perception by some alumni that the Owen School is undervalued in rankings. His message was clear: Any advancement will come about in large part from increased alumni involvement on many levels.
Turner is quick to say that no one considers rankings the only end goal, knowing that a school’s position can ebb and flow for no apparent reason. However, he says most people acknowledge that some of the rankings contain legitimate, objective measures of success and have to be heavily considered when planning and building strategy. In particular, they matter to prospective students and recruiters, who often perceive rankings as a litmus test of a school’s performance.
“The philosophy for a long time has been to build a world-class business school and the rankings will follow,” he says. “There’s a lot of that that’s true, and a big part that’s not true. There are some tough choices that have to be forced by the market. The dean’s big contribution is the message that we ought to take these more seriously, but we shouldn’t sell out.”
Alumni support is “the real chicken or the egg issue,” Turner likes to say. He believes that, if Owen is to make significant strides forward, alumni need to engage and support the school now instead of waiting to see if the new strategy works. It won’t be successful, he says, without their participation.
After receiving some lackluster class alumni giving numbers via email in January, Fitzgerald recalled that it took about 30 seconds for another email to hit her inbox. This one, from Turner, simply said, “Let’s talk.” Within minutes, a five-point plan was in place to stimulate class participation.
“He’s not afraid of difficult truths and approaches them head-on,” Fitzgerald says. “Yet he’s very approachable. He doesn’t lead by intimidation or try to impress everyone.”
Getting Somewhere Together
When analyzing problems, Turner relies on his training as an engineer to help him remain dispassionate. “That’s a gigantic asset in the business world,” he says. In the same breath, though, he admits to being not as strong in other areas. “On the other end, I struggle a lot with ideation and creativity,” he says. “I’m completely lost in a marketing meeting or going over advertising copy.”
Turner majored in electrical engineering at the University of Memphis and went to work for Porter-Cable, a power tool company in Jackson, Tenn., after graduation. He was with Porter-Cable for nearly four years as parent company Pentair positioned the brand for sales in big-box stores.
“As an engineer, I had a chance to be in a lot of the management meetings,” he says. “But I also walked the shop floor a lot and got to understand the differences between what the management team was trying to accomplish and what was actually happening on the front lines. It was very valuable. I learned how important it is to care about the people you are working with and who work for you. I learned the importance of clarifying their roles and making them feel safe if you wanted their best performance.”
That perspective led him to think seriously about entering management. “I can do this,” he thought.
Turner got to know an MBA intern from Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern who was sent by Pentair to evaluate Porter-Cable’s progress. The intern encouraged his interest in business, and Turner enrolled in some accounting classes locally. Surviving those, he then decided to take the GMAT, apply to “the big MBA schools,” as he says, and see what happened.
“The best fit, easily, was Owen,” Turner says. His interview was affirming and straightforward. Everyone he met “was being real with each other,” he says, “and I did not forget that.”
His Vanderbilt degree gives him a great deal of pride these days. “I will say that easily the period in my life when my perspectives on the business world, and the world in general, opened the most was the two years I spent at Owen,” he says.
His classmates were “phenomenal,” he says, and his training matched that of his peers in the industry, adding, “I can’t imagine it being much better.”
While there was pressure on Turner and his classmates to do good work, “what emerged was a collaborative, participatory environment,” he says. “It was a culture where everybody kind of understood we were all trying to get somewhere together. That’s not necessarily true in a lot of schools.”
Ray Friedman, the Brownlee O. Currey Professor of Management and Associate Dean of Faculty and Research, remembers Turner as a stellar student, respected by his classmates. “He was focused on managing people and had a sense of the importance of relationships,” Friedman says.
“Brent’s got a level head about him and a way of building relationships. He’s focused on what we have to do and the need to get beyond planning and brainstorming to saying, ‘Let’s make things happen.’”
He’s been equally impressed by Turner’s work as an active alumnus. “He’s got a level head about him and a way of building relationships,” he says. “He’s focused on what we have to do and the need to get beyond planning and brainstorming to saying, ‘Let’s make things happen.’”
After graduating from Owen, Turner did a short stint with a private equity group in Dallas before moving to Seattle and a company called Avenue A, a startup focused on Internet advertising. Over the next nine years, Avenue A became aQuantive, which in turn became the biggest acquisition in Microsoft’s history at a reported $6 billion in 2007.
Turner, who had been Vice President of Operations for aQuantive, moved into the role of General Manager for Search and Media Network Businesses for Microsoft. He was part of the 2008 global rollout of Microsoft Media Network, Microsoft’s online display media business. Then, in 2009, he helped lead the global launch of Bing, a Microsoft Web search engine that now also powers Yahoo! Search.
From Microsoft, Turner headed to Marchex, a publicly traded company that is experiencing rebirth through a focus on digital call advertising. Marchex helps companies reach the right prospective customers using mobile media.
Instead of advertisers calling customers, smartphones provide the opportunities for consumers to place calls through the digital ads that they encounter while searching and browsing the Internet. “Most advertisers are intimidated by the complexity of figuring out how to place all those ads effectively,” Turner says. “That creates a role for an intermediary. We develop relationships with publishers of mobile advertising and make placing ads with them easy. Our job is to drive phone calls for our advertiser partners in a way that works for them economically and is not overly complex.”
Turner enjoys being on the front end of this new frontier in advertising. “There are a lot more opportunities than most people realize in these early stages,” he says.
Understanding the Conversation
Not surprising, Turner directs his energy into volunteer work in Seattle as well, chairing the board of REST, or Real Escape from the Sex Trade, a faith-based organization that seeks to divert at-risk minors from being trafficked into prostitution. There are a surprisingly large number of minors working as prostitutes in the Seattle area: REST puts current estimates at 450.
“In the garden variety case, a girl has a broken relationship with her parents and becomes a runaway,” Turner says. He explains that she might take a job in a strip club or a bikini barista stand where she is then befriended by a pimp who makes her feel special, at least initially.
Turner channels his business acumen into understanding, as he says, “the demand side of the equation so we can come up with strategies for reducing the number of ‘johns’ hiring the girls.” REST also works to proactively identify girls who are at risk and give them alternatives.
“We want to find choke points where we can prevent them from entering the life. We want to help them find work and understand their identity—that they are children of God,” he says.
The work is difficult and emotionally demanding—“This ain’t for everybody,” he explains—but it’s ultimately rewarding when girls come out of life on the streets.
Although Turner loves Seattle and is connected to the city in many ways, he relishes each opportunity to return to Nashville. When not in meetings at Vanderbilt, he often hops in his car for a visit to Columbia, Tenn., where his mother lives.
“I probably see her more often than most parents with local children,” he says with a laugh.
That filial devotion is not unlike the commitment he feels toward Owen. Turner believes that the school and its focus on an intimate community should not be taken any more for granted than a parent. It’s a message he hammered home in a speech to last year’s graduating class. “Make sure you appreciate just how special our culture is at Owen. Don’t forget just how awesome your classmates, faculty and fellow alumni are because you have had the opportunity to get to know them so well,” he said in the speech.
Turner is frequently reminded of the high caliber of people associated with the school, particularly in his work with the Board of Visitors. “This is an impressive stakeholder group,” he says. “These people are used to board seats and understand the conversation. They’re very good at getting their fingers right on some of the key issues or root drivers of problems and then stating their views on how to solve them. It’s pretty amazing in that crowd how quickly you go from stating an issue to some fairly clear and prescriptive input at a tangible level.”
As deserving as Turner is to be among those Board of Visitors members, he can’t help but inject some self-effacing humor into the discussion of his own place on the board. “They’re lowering their standards to have me on this thing,” he says. And then, he pauses to reflect on the scope of his alumni work at Vanderbilt.
“In my life, I’ve had the opportunity to do lots of things that are pretty amazing,” he says. “This is one of them.”
photo credit: Kerry Dahlen