Jeff Mokotoff, Ford & Harrison, Atlanta.
Jeff Mokotoff, Ford & Harrison, Atlanta. (John Disney/ ALM)

Jeff Mokotoff has rejoined Ford & Harrison as a partner after leaving four years ago for a unique opportunity as chief administrative officer for a longtime client, Turner Enterprises, which is Ted Turner’s private company.

In addition to serving as employment counsel for Turner’s 46-restaurant chain, Ted’s Montana Grill, Mokotoff helped start an ecotourism business, Ted Turner Expeditions, for the media mogul and philanthropist’s vast landholdings in the West. Turner, the second-largest landowner in the nation, owns more than two million acres, including 15 bison ranches, in Montana, New Mexico and South Dakota.

Turner was “one of my favorite clients, so I took a big jump and risk,” Mokotoff said. “In many ways, it was 180 degrees different than the practice of law.”

Mokotoff had been an employment lawyer at Ford & Harrison for 16 years and served as Turner Enterprises’ outside employment counsel for about a decade when he joined the company at the start of 2013. In the new chief administrative officer position, Mokotoff, 48, oversaw legal, human resources, risk management and IT issues.

Only a few months later, Turner bought a small hotel, the Sierra Grande Lodge and Spa, in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and decided to start an ecotourism business on his three New Mexico ranches. Totaling one million acres, they make Turner New Mexico’s largest landowner.

Mokotoff added overseeing the hotel to his various responsibilities. Turner employed a property manager to oversee the ranches, he said, but no one at Turner Enterprises had any experience managing hotels. “Neither did I, by the way,” he added.

In 2015, Turner launched Ted Turner Expeditions, which offers visitors a chance to stay at the New Mexico ranches and take guided adventure tours–fishing, photographing wildlife, climbing, snowshoeing, skiing and hot-air ballooning on the properties—and put Mokotoff in charge of developing the venture.”It was certainly not what the typical lawyer might do,” he added. “It was something that Ted was very passionate about.”

The ecotourism business was a way for Turner to “open up the ranches to the public so they could explore these massive landholdings,” Mokotoff said. “The best way to describe it is you have access to your own national park.”

Accommodations range from a room at the Sierra Grande Lodge starting at $155 a night to staying in Turner’s home at the Ladder Ranch for about $3,000 a night. No camping is offered.

“These are massive, beautiful landholdings,” Mokotoff said, adding that they are the same size as some national parks and far more unspoiled. The smallest of Turner’s New Mexico ranches, the Ladder Ranch, is about the size of Zion National Park in Utah at 150,000 acres—but without the four million annual visitors. The largest ranch, Vermejo, which borders Colorado, is 600,000 acres—about the same size as Rhode Island.

Mokotoff spent a lot of time in New Mexico helping with the ecotourism venture, which he said was another new experience. “I’m not an indoor person, but you would not find me in a cowboy hat and boots comfortably,” he said. “For the most part, it was wildly different from the practice of law.”

But he missed private practice. After helping to get the ecotourism business up and running, Mokotoff said, “I felt it was an appropriate time to re-enter what I’ve spent my career building—my legal practice.”

“The timing was right to return to the fold,” he said. “I’m very entrenched in the firm.”

He added that he’ll continue to handle work for Turner Enterprises and Ted’s Montana Grill, but now from Ford & Harrison.

BRIEFLY

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