Chris Walters | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
Changing the Weather
By Robert Green
If you have a well trusted brand you probably won’t tamper with it unless you have a very good reason. Based in Atlanta for over 30 years, The Weather Channel, now the Weather Company, had been a huge success story but was searching for new ways to grow. To bring new energy and purpose to the remarkable media segment leader, owners NBC Universal, Bain Capital and Blackstone Group brought in new executive leadership in early 2012. This move included COO Chris Walters, who joined in March of last year. A new business strategy, which Chris helped develop and implement, has led to an expansion of digital and professional businesses and the formation of an international division that will all drive new revenue growth and bright prospects. “I have always enjoyed being in the media business,” says Chris, “but it’s certainly a lot more fun when what you do is working.”
Born in Stanford, Connecticut, Chris moved to Portsmouth, Rhode Island when very young. His father was a yacht designer and builder and Chris worked for his Dad every summer. “It was a combination of very hard work and a lot of fun,” says Chris. “The hard work was learning the basics of building like sanding and varnishing – the fun work was the trial sails for customers and yacht club races. It was a great combined experience,” he says. Indeed, one can see the potential for both hard work and a great deal of fun when looking at the types of boats Chris’s father built and sold. “They were almost all 28 to 50 feet long and cost between $100,000 and $500,000 back then. Only the wealthy could buy them.”
Chris went to the University of Vermont after high school and at first majored in the liberal arts. Later he became a business major with a minor in economics while also working his way through school. “I was fortunate to get a job in the corporate office of a fast growing quick service restaurant chain – Bruegger’s Bagels. It was gratifying to see how what I was learning in my business classes actually worked in the real world,” he says. His favorite memory of that time relates to a company promotion for cream cheese sales. Chris and the corporate marketing team launched a contest to maximize cream cheese sales and the location winner would be rewarded by having the top executives of Bruegger’s Bagels come in to run their store for a day – so that all of that store’s workers could have a day off. Incredibly, the store at the corporate headquarters in the town of Burlington, Vermont won. Coincidentally, a Grateful Dead concert had been held nearby the night before. “From the morning opening until closing that day, the store did record volume because of an unending hoard of Deadheads coming in for much needed coffee and bagels. You can imagine the inexperienced executive counter-servers trying to cope with that,” he said, smiling.
After graduation from Vermont, Chris joined Hallmark Cards in Kansas City, Missouri, primarily because he wanted to learn marketing in an organization with a leading brand and Hallmark was one of the few companies in the US that would allow young employees to come into brand management roles without having an MBA. While at the company, Chris worked on brand strategy, brand management and helped to turn around struggling product lines by building out more effective distribution channels. ”I helped them generate their first sales in club stores – Sam’s Club, Costco – and we had a pretty healthy upside right away,” says Chris.
Despite his success, Chris wanted to pursue an MBA. Thinking that his specialty area of marketing was viewed by some as “soft,” he wanted to get an MBA from a school with a strong finance reputation – which is why he picked the University of Chicago. All courses in the business school were heavily grounded in economics and, indeed, a surprisingly high number of the University of Chicago faculty and students have won the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences – 26 in all. Chris enjoyed the tough MBA program and especially felt that he had gained a great deal from a leadership development program which allowed him to teach first year MBA students in his second year.
Chris worked as a summer associate for McKinsey & Company while in the MBA program and joined the company in their Boston office after graduation. He lived in Boston from 2001 to 2006, when he moved to New York City. “I was working almost entirely with media companies,” he said, “and was pretty much always in New York as a consequence.” Chris became a McKinsey partner and during his tenure with the firm built an impressive body of work. Over an eight year period, he worked with a large number of leading media companies, a healthy portion of the top private equity firms, two of the top four major sports leagues and a few of the largest information service companies.. “I started in print media, which some didn’t find interesting,” says Chris, “but it was a great place to start working on the BIG, challenging media business issues. After all, the first question then was ‘will there even be a print business in five years and if so, what will it look like,’” he says. Game changing issues in the media business became his forte.
Chris was enjoying his work as a partner at McKinsey & Company but nevertheless listened when he got a call from the CEO of Bloomberg about another opportunity. He wanted Chris to join Bloomberg L.P. The company was an incredibly successful provider of news, data and analytic tools to major Wall Street and financial services, firms via its terminal. They were seeking additional ways to grow and thought that Chris could help them do it. “Initially I worked with the CEO of their media business to craft a new growth strategy, build a team and begin to execute the plan. Following that I worked on acquisitions and business building focused on creating terminal like products for non-financial professionals” says Chris. They built products to serve businesses who engaged extensively with the government, had interest in the renewable energy market or were lawyers. The government business was a fresh start-up that integrated the latest news, data and analysis on what congressional committees or federal regulatory agencies were doing as well as what the government was spending. During Chris’ time at Bloomberg performance of the media business improved dramatically and the industry vertical offerings grew rapidly.
In early 2012, Chris was contacted about joining the Weather Channel. He wasn’t looking for a new challenge – in fact he was enjoying his success at Bloomberg – but he was nonetheless intrigued. “I knew a fair amount about the Weather Channel because I served Bain and Blackstone to help them evaluate the business prior to acquiring it when I was at McKinsey,” he said. Bain Capital and the Blackstone Group, together with NBC Universal purchased the Weather Channel in 2008. Chris met with the new CEO, David Kenny, and joined as COO in March of 2012. “The fact that the Weather Channel had built one of the most trusted media brands in the US – the largest and most sophisticated market – combined with limited business outside the US suggested to me a whole world of business potential,” says Chris.
Chris and the team started by developing a growth strategy by building on the strong weather foundation that already existed. They divided the company into divisions including – television, digital, professional and international – and changed the company name to the Weather Company, of which the Weather Channel is the television division. “Our CEO David Kenny and the leadership team felt that the name change was necessary to make the world – and even ourselves – realize that we were about more than television,” says Chris. “We wanted it understood that our mission and purpose was broader.”
Two companies were acquired:
Weather Underground , known for having a fanatical weather community, was purchased in July 2012. It boosted The Weather Company’s digital business and brought with it a very entrepreneurial cultural mindset. The San Francisco company also brought over 25,000 Personal Weather Stations ( PWS ) – and growing – from a program it had developed to allow people around the world to share the weather data they collect via Weather Underground. Stations cost from $1,000 to over $3,000 for more sophisticated stations.
Weather Central was acquired in August of 2012 to help the Weather Company in the business-to-business space. This includes sales to other media outlets, major airlines, energy trades and insurers. Weather Central has about 400 broadcast television clients in 21 countries worldwide.
How has the “fast start” been greeted at the company? “Our owners are very supportive of the strategic direction,” says Chris, “they want to win. Our employees are also starting to feel like we’re winning with each new innovation and success. This is critical because our employees really are our biggest asset – more than half of our cost base is people.”
The international division is off to a fast start. They are focused on growing and monetizing digital audiences in addition to building relationships with leading media outlets and governments around the world to provide weather information services.
Chris has been married to his wife Kati for 15 years and has two kids ages 7 and 9. The move to Atlanta was quite a change for a family that lived in Manhattan until one year ago, but they are happy about it. “We love all the sports and family activities that are available. And it’s a very welcoming place. Just the other day my kids were talking about how nice everyone is. We really like it here,” says Chris, “and the climate isn’t bad either…”
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