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Don Cornwell

Broadcast executive and businessman W. Don Cornwell was born in Cushing, Oklahoma on January 17, 1948. Cornwell moved with his family to Tacoma, Washington, where he attended Stadium High School. After graduating from Stadium, Cornwell enrolled at Occidental College in Los Angeles in 1965. Four years later, he graduated with his B.A. degree in political science. Cornwell then graduated from Harvard Business School with his M.B.A. degree in 1971.

Cornwell was first hired by Goldman, Sachs & Co. in New York in 1971. By 1980, he was promoted to chief operating officer of the Goldman Sachs’ corporate finance department of the investment banking division. In 1988, Cornwell left the securities firm to found Granite Broadcasting Corporation. In his twenty-one years as the company’s chairman and chief executive officer, the corporation purchased fifteen television stations to become the largest African American-controlled television broadcast company in America. At its peak, Granite Broadcasting generated $169 million in revenue. From 1991 through 2006, Granite was publicly owned with common stock listed on NASDAQ and several issues of debt registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). Granite Broadcasting Corporation filed for voluntary reorganization under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code in December 2006 and emerged from its restructuring in June 2007. Cornwell stepped down as the company chairman and CEO in 2009.

Cornwell has received numerous honors and corporation directorships throughout his career including serving on the boards of Pfizer, Inc., Avon Products, Inc., American International Group, Inc. and CVS-Caremark Corporation. He is a trustee of Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York. Cornwell was formerly on the board of directors of the Wallace Foundation, the Hershey Trust Company and Milton Hershey School, the New York University Medical Center and the Telecommunications Development Fund. Cornwell’s company, Granite Broadcasting, was named Company of the Year by Black Enterprise. In 1996, he was honored as the Alumnus of the Year by Occidental College; and in 1999, he was the recipient of the Alumni Achievement Award from Harvard Business School. Cornwell is married to Sandra Williams-Cornwell and has two adult children, K. Don Cornwell and Samantha Cornwell.

W. Don Cornwell was interviewed by the The HistoryMakers on May 17, 2012.

Accession Number

A2012.077

Sex

Male

Interview Date

5/17/2012

Last Name

Cornwell

Maker Category
Marital Status

Married

Schools

Harvard Business School

Occidental College

Stadium High School

Search Occupation Category
First Name

W. Don

Birth City, State, Country

Cushing

HM ID

COR03

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Oklahoma

Favorite Vacation Destination

Amagansett, New York

Favorite Quote

It is what it is.

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

1/17/1948

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Salad (Kale)

Short Description

Broadcast chief executive and financial executive Don Cornwell (1948 - ) was the founder of the largest African American controlled television broadcast group in America.

Employment

Granite Broadcasting

Goldman, Sachs & Co.

Favorite Color

Blue

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Don Cornwell's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Don Cornwell lists his favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Don Cornwell talks about his mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Don Cornwell talks about his grandparents' occupations

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Don Cornwell describes the town where he was born, Cushing, Oklahoma

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Don Cornwell talks about his mother's history

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Don Cornwell talks about his mother's education

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Don Cornwell discusses Oklahoma's role in the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Don Cornwell talks about his father

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Don Cornwell talks about his father's experiences in World War II and his father's PTSD

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Don Cornwell talks about his father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Don Cornwell talks about his father's aspirations and occupation as a barber

Tape: 1 Story: 13 - Don Cornwell talks about how his parents met

Tape: 1 Story: 14 - Don Cornwell shares the story of how his family moved from Oklahoma to the state of Washington

Tape: 1 Story: 15 - Don Cornwell talks about his maternal grandparents' education

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Don Cornwell talks about his parents' separation and his father's high standards for education

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Don Cornwell talks about his siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Don Cornwell describes his likeness to his parents

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Don Cornwell describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Don Cornwell talks about growing up in Tacoma, Washington

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Don Cornwell describes the sights, sounds, and smells of growing up

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Don Cornwell describes the social life of Tacoma, Washington

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Don Cornwell talks about his friends in Tacoma, including Bob Moore

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Don Cornwell talks about not being able to participate in sports as a child due to a heart defect

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Don Cornwell talks about his grandmother's belief in the importance of naps

Tape: 2 Story: 11 - Don Cornwell talks about sports in high school

Tape: 2 Story: 12 - Don Cornwell talks about elementary school and high school

Tape: 2 Story: 13 - Don Cornwell talks about Stadium High School and Puget Sound

Tape: 2 Story: 14 - Don Cornwell remembers learning to read at an early age and an influential high school teacher

Tape: 2 Story: 15 - Don Cornwell talks about watching TV when he was growing up

Tape: 2 Story: 16 - Don Cornwell discusses the role of church in his childhood

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Don Cornwell talks about segregation in Tacoma, Washington

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Don Cornwell discusses the African American community in Tacoma, Washington

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Don Cornwell talks about his mentors in middle school

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Don Cornwell talks about his aspirations and heroes in high school

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Don Cornwell talks about the Civil Rights Movement and Malcolm X's assassination

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Don Cornwell talks about his mother's civic activities

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Don Cornwell talks about the 1962 Seattle World's Fair

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Don Cornwell remembers the 1963 March on Washington

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Don Cornwell talks about African American newspapers in Tacoma

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Don Cornwell talks about his favorite subjects in high school

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Don Cornwell talks about his favorite teachers in high school

Tape: 3 Story: 12 - Don Cornwell talks about choosing a college

Tape: 3 Story: 13 - Don Cornwell talks about some of his activities in high school

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Don Cornwell talks about being senior class president and his decision to attend Occidental College

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Don Cornwell talks about Occidental College

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Don Cornwell describes Occidental College as moderately conservative

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Don Cornwell talks about the African American student organizations at Occidental College

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Don Cornwell talks about the Black Student Association and the African American community in LA

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Don Cornwell talks about his role in the Black Student Association and in student government

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Don Cornwell talks about the professors who influenced him at Occidental College, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Don Cornwell talks about the professors who influenced him at Occidental College, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Don Cornwell talks about changing his focus from law to business

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Don Cornwell talks about the Black Panthers and Ron Karenga's US Organization in Los Angeles

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Don Cornwell talks about meeting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his assassination

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Don Cornwell discusses Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination and the Watts riots

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Don Cornwell talks about his experiences with the Los Angeles police force

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Don Cornwell talks about black empowerment and the Black Panther shootings in 1969

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Don Cornwell talks about going to Harvard Business School, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Don Cornwell talks about going to Harvard Business School, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Don Cornwell talks about the discrimination faced by his class at Harvard Business School

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Don Cornwell talks about the professors at Harvard Business School, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Don Cornwell talks about the professors at Harvard Business School, pt. 2

Tape: 5 Story: 9 - Don Cornwell talks about his classmates at Harvard Business School

Tape: 5 Story: 10 - Don Cornwell talks about the role that Occidental College played in his preparation for Harvard

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Don Cornwell describes how integrated environments can foster skills development

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Don Cornwell talks about working at Goldman Sachs

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Don Cornwell talks about the dissolution of his marriage and his subsequent promotion at Goldman Sachs

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Don Cornwell discusses his tenure at Goldman Sachs as well as his boss and mentor at the firm, Peter Sacerdote

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Don Cornwell talks about leaving Goldman Sachs and pursuing a new venture in broadcasting and television station ownership

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Don Cornwell talks about how minority tax certificates encouraged his start in television station ownership

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Don Cornwell talks about buying his first two TV stations

Tape: 6 Story: 8 - Don Cornwell talks about the successful start of his TV stations

Tape: 6 Story: 9 - Don Cornwell discusses his management approach in broadcasting

Tape: 6 Story: 10 - Don Cornwell discusses taking his company, Granite Broadcasting, public in 1991

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Don Cornwell talks about the stations Granite Broadcasting purchased after going public in 1991

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Don Cornwell talks about competing with Rupert Murdoch for a station in Austin, Texas

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Don Cornwell talks about rebuilding a local station in Austin, Texas

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Don Cornwell reflects on one of the biggest mistakes of his career and its impact on Granite Broadcasting

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Don Cornwell discusses how his company's inexperience and financial situation affected its growth

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Don Cornwell talks about partnering with NBC

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Don Cornwell talks about selling a station to NBC and the sale's negative impact on Granite Broadcasting

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Don Cornwell talks about what he did to try to ameliorate Granite Broadcasting's financial situation

Tape: 7 Story: 9 - Don Cornwell recalls filing for bankruptcy and the impact of the financial crisis

Tape: 7 Story: 10 - Don Cornwell talks about what he would do differently about Granite Broadcasting

Tape: 7 Story: 11 - Don Cornwell shares advice for young entrepreneurs

Tape: 7 Story: 12 - Don Cornwell describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community today

Tape: 7 Story: 13 - Don Cornwell reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 7 Story: 14 - Don Cornwell talks about how he would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

7$5

DAStory

6$5

DATitle
Don Cornwell talks about partnering with NBC
Don Cornwell talks about going to Harvard Business School, pt. 2
Transcript
Okay. So we're like almost at two thousand?$$Yes, yes. So 2000 was an important year for us because we got the bright idea that our ABC [American Broadcasting Company] affiliate in San Jose [California]--that even though it only served in a historic sense the San Jose portion of the Bay Area [California]. If you are familiar with the bay area there is San Jose, there is kind of the peninsula, people call that Silicon Valley [California] then there is San Francisco [California] then there is the east bay with Oakland [California], Berkeley [California] and what have you. We were technically the San Jose affiliate for ABC but our signal covered the entire market all the way up to Napa [Napa Valley, California]. We didn't have as great a signal in some of the nooks and crannies of San Francisco though but people in Oakland, Berkeley whatever they could get a signal perfectly well. So because NBC was having a fight with its then affiliate KRON, K-R-O-N and this was public, we went to NBC [National Broadcasting Company] and said you know if you guys really are unhappy with your affiliate before you go and affiliate yourself with one of the lesser stations in town because there was a couple of other options but they didn't have nearly what we had, we said you ought to consider working with us. And so the first thing they had to satisfy themselves was on the engineering in other words are these guys correct about what they say about the signal. And so they did a lot of work on that and after the work they came to us and said you are right, we had no idea and so we would like to work together. Long and short of it all a lot of different anecdotes that I could go on for way too long in that incident or that story. But at the end of the day they ultimately decided to switch the affiliation to us and that took place in 2000 but they couldn't actually switch until 2002 because their deal with the other affiliate lasted until 2002. That gave us we thought a wonderful amount of time where we could comfortably rebuild the station. It needed to have a much bigger news presence than a news presence that only covered San Jose because we now have to satisfy the other communities and that would be expensive and time consuming and we didn't want to do what we did in--if we could avoid it in Austin [Texas] again which was to cram this in about seven months. So we had 2001 to start this process but unfortunately 2001 as you may recall was a rather interesting year with 9-11 and with war breaking out and what have you. And once again we found ourselves in a real recession from an advertiser perspective and so we were spending a very significant amount of money. Probably over twenty million dollars to build out both with new equipment and with new people, reporters and what have you what we felt a first class news operation in the bay area. We were doing it against a backdrop of declining revenue throughout the rest of our business and so we sort of struggled our way through 2001 and by the end of 2001 where we're ready to go in 2000 but I guess it's fair to say that NBC wanted the station.$What I quickly discovered at Harvard Business School was that I was in no way prepared. That all I had was somewhat of an analytical skill; that I had the ability to work very hard but that I had been dropped into an environment where if people were speaking Arabic or Greek or Korean or what have you I wouldn't have known because they were speaking a language that I knew nothing about. So my--it's a two year program. My first year after classes I would go to the library, Baker Library and simply immerse myself in the stacks of magazines, Fortune and Forbes and what have you and basically read articles about people whose names would come up in class. Because if they would mention a corporate raider by the name of Jimmy Ling (ph. splg.) in class and what he had done and why this was smart and what have you. Well I had no idea who Jimmy Ling was and so I had to very quickly get myself acculturated to the environment and spent my first year basically just using whatever aptitude I had and fortitude and what have you to survive the place. Which, you know, I didn't do too badly in that environment. Harvard Business School was if I could just add a quick comment--so now I'm in the East and for the first time I find myself with I would describe it as people who are ostensibly liberal and who are ostensibly on my side but who unlike my friends on the West Coast white who seemed to accept my premise of whatever I thought the path should be, at Harvard it was exactly the opposite. That it was we know best somewhat paternalistic and we're going to tell you what you should do. And my class of African Americans was by far the largest group that had ever been allowed in the Harvard Business School. I think there were about seventy of us out of class of about eight hundred. It was the first time in my memory where I was expected to fail as opposed to succeed. The Harvest News which is the campus newspaper, I think it still exists, had an article the first week of school that indicated that faculty members-unnamed faculty members felt that the flunk out rate they called it hitting the screen at Harvard would be much higher than had historically been the case because the implication was that the school had allowed in a much larger percentage of people who probably were not qualified to be there. And so if there was ever any doubt that the African American students would coalesce and become reasonably cohesive, it was in that environment. And so the freshman, the first year was quite an interesting experience for me and it I could tell you anecdotes forever we would end up with a nineteen hour interview. But there were lots of times during that year that ended up being very interesting and helped formed probably my personality as I went further into my adult business career.