2015 | Dine

Ted Turner Reflects on Land, Bison at Gaithersburg Restaurant Opening

The former media mogul said he fell in love with bison at a young age and later committed to a restaurant concept to help grow herds in the U.S.

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George McKerrow, left, and Ted Turner, right, inside their new Ted's Montana Grill, which opened Monday in Gaithersburg

Andrew Metcalf

Ted Turner may no longer own the Atlanta Braves, CNN or World Championship Wrestling, but the former media mogul still has his land and his bison.

The 76-year-old billionaire was in Gaithersburg Monday to celebrate the opening of the latest Ted’s Montana Grill. Turner launched the restaurant company in 2002 with LongHorn Steakhouse founder George McKerrow. There are now 46 locations. The Gaithersburg restaurant at Downtown Crown officially opened Monday.

The partnership between the two moguls happened by chance in 2001, Turner says, at a restaurant owned by McKerrow.

“I met George and I was impressed with him and we became friends right off the bat,” Turner said.

At the time, Turner, who is the country’s largest bison rancher, was looking for a market for the bison he was raising and thought that a restaurant showcasing the bison meat could help create that market. McKerrow, who had recently stepped down as chairman of the company that operated LongHorn, The Capital Grille and Bugaboo Creek, thought it was an interesting idea.

“Ted and I decided to build a chain of restaurants to introduce bison to the table and then that would create a demand for more and more bison,” McKerrow said.

McKerrow said more than 50 percent of the bison served at Ted’s Montana Grill can be traced to one of the 15 ranches in the western U.S. where Turner raises the animals. The restaurant chain, which offers a wide range of American dishes, serves its bison in hamburgers, nachos and meatloaf and as a filet or ribeye steak.

For Turner, it has long been a goal to restore the bison population in America.

“When I was a little boy, I was interested in the natural world,” Turner said. “We had a book about wildlife and it had the story of bison—how when the white men, [Christopher] Columbus landed, there were 30 million bison roaming the great plains of North America. Then, 200 years later there were 200 left. They came that close to extinction and I said, ‘What a terrible, sad thing.’ They were so cool-looking and I had never seen one, except in pictures.

“I was 10 years old when I first read about them. I said then I was going to work hard, see if I can make some money, and then I’m going to buy some land and raise bison and see if I can get the herd back away from the door of extinction.”

Turner later became one of the most well-known businessmen in the U.S. by growing a small TV station he owned in Atlanta into CNN and TBS. At his richest point, Turner’s net worth was estimated at more than $10 billion. He owned the Atlanta Braves, MGM and TNT. He was also the largest land owner in the United States.

But it wouldn’t last. Turner lost a huge portion of his fortune when Time Warner’s stock collapsed after it merged with AOL in 2001. During that period Turner was Time Warner’s biggest individual shareholder.

Despite this financial downturn, Turner still has his land. Modern Farmer reports he’s the second-largest landowner in the United States, behind John Malone, the chairman of Liberty Media—the telecom company that spun off giant media businesses including DirecTV and Discovery Communications over the previous 10 years.

Turner owns approximately 2 million acres of land in 12 states and Argentina, according to the Turner Enterprises website. He said he started raising bison in the ’80s when he purchased a bull and two cows. The next year the cows produced two calves.

“I said, ‘Look, a 40 percent increase in one year,’ ” Turner joked. Now he has a herd of 55,000. “That’s more than there were in the world when I started raising them.”

The businessman who was once married to Jane Fonda said he plans to leave his land in a foundation to be run by his five children, who he hopes will continue to raise bison.

As part of his trip to Washington, D.C., Turner planned to attend meetings of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, the nonprofit he founded with former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn to prevent the spread of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, he says he enjoys being a part of the restaurant industry.

“I like it,” Turner said. “One of the most pleasant things that the average person does is go out to eat. I like to be a part of a happy experience. People watch TV, too, so while I was previously feeding their desire for knowledge and information, now I’m giving them something to eat.”