Former Oprah executive stresses integrity at Tribune awards luncheon

Tim Bennett, former president of Oprah Winfrey’s production company, Harpo Productions Inc., has one motto in business: “Integrity.”

Bennett, who in his more than 38 years of television production helped to launch talk show talents such as Rachel Ray, Dr. Oz and Winfrey, stressed the important role integrity played in his accomplishments while speaking at The Tribune’s ninth annual Top 20 under 40 awards luncheon Thursday at the Madonna Inn.

“I say to all of you today to continue to make a difference,” Bennett encouraged the group of nearly 130. “Use your gifts, follow your dreams, embrace life, recognize reality and always, always check your compass.”

The Tribune Top 20 under 40 competition honors the accomplishments of men and women younger than 40 who have demonstrated excellence in their professions and commitment to community service. To be eligible, nominees must have lived and worked in the county year-round.

In the four years since his retirement, Bennett joked, he has had time to learn a great deal — but very few people ask him for advice anymore.

He did have some “food for thought” for the lunchgoers, though, detailed through three important meals with some of the world’s most influential people.

The first was a late-night snack with Winfrey when he was program manager for her daytime talk show, “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Following a particularly rough day on location, Winfrey began placing bets on how faithful she thought those people would be to their spouses, Bennett said.

The bets ranged from a couple dollars to some in the thousands, but when she looked at him, Winfrey said, “I’d bet $15 million on you.”

“It was such a powerful statement,” said Bennett, who will have been married to his wife for 44 years this year. “In that moment, I knew why I was there. Yes, I think I knew a fair amount about the broadcast business, but the truth is, she valued the trust. And she put a price on personal integrity.”

Bennett’s next revelation was at a Phoenix breakfast with business magnate Warren Buffett some years later, where he asked Buffett what he looked for when hiring new people.

“He immediately said three things,” Bennett said. “ ‘I look for brains, energy and integrity. And if you’ve got the first two right, but you missed the last one, you’ve just hired a really big problem.’ ”

Bennett’s final meal-time revelation came after a dinner he and Winfrey had with Nelson Mandela, where he said he was astounded by the depth of integrity the former South African president displayed after nearly three decades in prison.

Bennett quoted Mandela: “ ‘If there are dreams about a beautiful South Africa, then there are roads that also lead to that goal — two of these roads would be named goodness and forgiveness.’ ”

Bennett encouraged The Tribune’s Top 20 under 40 winners to take the three stories to heart and understand that integrity is an integral part to business success.

“Your successes will come and go, but integrity is forever,” he said.

Bennett closed with a challenge to the winners: “I didn’t come here to praise you; I came here to challenge you to do the right thing.”

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