We continue our Lunch at Michael's® interview series, introducing you to industry leaders and excellent restaurants that are popular among media, advertising and entertainment industry executives. This week, Ed Martin (who wrote this column) and I met with Jim Samples, president of HGTV, at A Voce at Madison Avenue and 26th Street, where chef Andrew Carmellini is generating great "word of mouth.". - Jack Myers
"I hated it as a kid, but then really appreciated it later as an adult," Samples told Jack Myers and me over a recent Lunch at A Voce. "I can wire a house, plumb a house, things like that," he proudly added.
Samples' interest in home improvement didn't stop there. As a young man fresh out of graduate school and newly married, he purchased a home that was the very definition of a fixer-upper. "The only house we could really afford that we liked was in a neighborhood in Atlanta called Grant Park," he recalled. "You could literally see through the walls from the inside to the outside without looking through a window. We renovated the house during the first three years of our marriage."
"I think it's the best test of a marriage," he continued with a laugh. "Everybody should do that when they are going to get married, because if you make it through that you're going to make it!"
For Jim and his wife Margaret, several more homes and home renovation projects (five in total) in the Atlanta area would follow in the years to come. That's why he is fond of saying that, since arriving at HGTV in September, 2007, "I'm now doing during the week what we spent all our time on the weekends doing." Currently commuting between Knoxville, where Scripps Networks is based, and Atlanta, where Margaret and their two daughters still reside, Samples said once his family joins him full time they will eventually seek out another home and give it their personal touch.
Samples' career path to HGTV would seem not to have been in alignment with his obvious fondness for home-based projects. Rather, he spent many years traveling to and working in other countries, indulging in a passion for travel that, like his flair for home repair, has its roots in his childhood. He learned Spanish as a kid and was "fascinated" by it. "I loved the language, the music, everything about the culture," he explained. His mother's father, an engineer who worked in other countries, also influenced Samples' interest in foreign lands. "My grandfather was an engineer," he said. "He lived in many places around the world. I always admired the man. As I was growing up he was never in Georgia, but he'd come home for a few weeks in the summer. Before I was born he lived in Iran and Lebanon. He was always working on big projects."
In 1982, when Samples was an undergraduate biology major in the pre-med program at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina, he volunteered for a summer work program in Honduras. "My grandfather lived in Colombia at the time," he said. "I think that was maybe part of the interest. All the Central America war conflict was going on and I wanted to volunteer in the refugee camps. I was probably a little nuts but I was very committed. I was opposed to our involvement there and wanted to go down to help. But just before I left, the volunteer program I was going to go with stopped accepting college students because it had become too dangerous. They had another opportunity in Brazil. I didn't speak Portuguese but the languages are pretty close. I ended up going to a small town in central Brazil for three months where nobody spoke English, so I got a total immersion. Then I came back and studied Portuguese." He met Margaret during the first day of classes.
After deciding that medicine "wasn't his passion," Samples went to graduate school at the University of South Carolina at Columbia and studied international business. Upon graduating he worked in international banking for a few years, traveling to South America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. When the bank he was with announced that it was going to be involved in funding the Olympics, Samples was assigned to work with the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games, structuring broadcast contracts for the Atlanta Games.
"That was my introduction to the entertainment business," he recalled. "I loved it."
Jack Myers, Jim Samples and Ed Martin
He moved on to Turner, working in international business development, and ended up running its Argentina operation for five years. "I did affiliate sales and marketing," he noted. "You're kind of the regional representative so you end up doing all sorts of things. My favorite part of the job always was the marketing. And since it was all affiliate marketing, going in and working with cable operators, I did a lot of event marketing around Cartoon Network and CNN."
Samples paused. "You're wondering, how did this guy ever end up at HGTV?" he said with a laugh.
When Samples returned to Atlanta he became General Manager of TNT and Cartoon Network Latin America. That led to oversight of cartoonnetwork.com during its early years, which appealed to Samples' inner technophile. From there he became General Manager of Cartoon Network – a position that came to a high profile end in February 2007 when a marketing stunt in Boston on behalf of the series Aqua Teen Hunger Force led to a terrorism scare. Samples stepped down in the aftermath.
Looking back, Samples said, "It was an out of body experience. I can't describe it. When people ask me about it, my take-away from it is that it was a huge reminder that when you are in a situation where you are managing a large group of people in a large organization, the things that you do you're often touching in a very superficial way. But you're responsible for everything anyway; that just kind of goes with the territory.
"What happened there was extreme in my case in terms of the consequences but it's something that all of us in media are faced with, the potential that [such things] can happen," he continued. "I wish it had never happened. It was traumatic. It was the most intense couple of weeks of my life. But I'm very happy with where I am career wise after that. Maybe I was the unluckiest guy in the world that day. Now I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. I think about that year as being the best and worst year of my life."
Following that crisis, Samples decided to take a year off and indulge his longtime dream of hiking through Europe. "I went around and talked to a lot of friends in the industry and told them I was going to take some time off, that I was not falling off the face of the earth. I hiked in Europe for about three months over the summer. Alone. I hiked from a place near Arles in France to the western coast of Spain. I followed the Camino de Santiago. It's an ancient European pilgrimage route that's a little over 1000 miles. Originally people walked it for religious reasons. It takes you over some of the most beautiful countryside in Europe. All along the route there are places set up for people to stay. They're like guest houses. A lot of them are in historic buildings. I stayed in an old English prison tower, in an abbey, in farmhouses. There were days when I would walk six or eight hours alone through the woods or fields. That is one of the most relaxing, centering experiences that a person can have.
"Of the bad things that happened to me, this was the unexpected flip side gift of it," Samples said. "Fortunately, I had the support of my wife. It was rough for my family. It was rough for me, too, because I missed them a lot. But I blogged about it the whole time I was gone, posted pictures every time I got to a village that was big enough to have an Internet cafe or something. I had a cell phone with me and we spoke every day. Europe has outstanding cell coverage." His family met him at the end and they spent three weeks together.
During his journey Samples also spoke with Scripps Networks President John Lansing and Executive Vice President Burton Jablin and outgoing HGTV President Judy Girard every three or four weeks. "I met them before I left," he recalled. "Frankly, it was the only job interview that I went on. They continued their search, but we had a great meeting in New York just before my trip and we stayed in touch over the summer. Burton had done a long hike, too. We had that in common." Samples started at HGTV shortly after his return from Europe.
"There is probably not a more perfect job for me in the industry," Samples smiled. "I said at the upfront, when I was at Cartoon Network I was a rock star among my kids' friends. Now that I'm at HGTV I'm a rock star among my wife's friends."