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Cable Lifetime Achievement Award
Judge Daniel Brenner
Anyone who has spent some time in cable knows Daniel Brenner. He spent nearly 20 years as SVP for Law and Regulatory Policy at NCTA, serving as chief legal and policy counsel, after spending years in private practice and as Senior Advisor and later Legal Advisor to the FCC Chairman. “Intellectually, he’s the real McCoy,” says Rob Stoddard, NCTA’s SVP for Communications & Public Affairs. “From pole attachment to music licensing to network neutrality—and everything in between—his mastery of telecom law and regulation is unmatched.” But it’s Brenner’s ability to bring wit and levity to any situation that always stood out. “His sense of humor is so fast and sophisticated that a lot of people just don’t get it,” says Steve Villano, the former Cable Positive chief who might be the only cable person who experienced the Brenner legal brilliance as a student: Brenner guest lectured at Hofstra Law on Long Island when Villano matriculated there.
Shortly after Brenner left NCTA we again were reminded that behind his sardonic wit was a tremendous legal resource. Hogan Lovells, arguably D.C.’s top law firm, quickly made Dan a partner, a testament to the tremendous reputation he had forged with cable operators, guiding them through the regulatory thicket of Washington, D.C. His latest iteration, though, puts Brenner on an even higher level: The Stanford Law grad is now a Superior Court Judge in Los Angeles, appointed by Governor Edmund “Jerry” Brown (D).
We spotted Brenner years ago at one of those super-early industry breakfasts we’re all so fond of, especially after a long night. Despite the hour, Brenner, emceeing the breakfast, had the crowd in stitches. Later, we discovered Brenner was a ringer—he’d done stand-up for years.
Dan Trigiboff, a lawyer and comic who paid his bills writing for cable trade pubs. “I’d see him on stage at night at the Comedy Cafe or Crystal City Comedy Club, and sometimes call him in the daytime on a story,” Trigiboff says. “He was very frank and very funny in either situation.” Later, when Brenner directed the communications law program at UCLA, Trigiboff and he were part of a show composed entirely of lawyer-comics. Now a professor at Methodist University in North Carolina, Trigiboff, indeed everyone we spoke to about this profile, had the same question: Has Brenner been able to maintain his sense of humor on the bench?
This was more than a softball question. While this Lifetime Achievement award honors Brenner’s accomplishments, humor played a part. “Dan was the Ben Franklin of NCTA,” Stoddard says. “At one moment, brilliantly insightful and innovative, steeped in telecom history; then cutting tension with an impromptu quip or rapid-fire one liner. His humor was a great tool to put people at ease as they were working on intractable problems.”
It had to be our first question: Can you tell jokes in court? “Well, it is a different job,” Brenner said by phone without a trace of humor. We pressed ahead. Establishing that he had to don robes daily, we asked if L.A. picks up the dry cleaning bill. “No,” he responded seriously. This was becoming a disaster.
You must be ruling on an interesting point of communications law today, right? “No. I’m in traffic court, dealing with people who’ve run red lights.” A joke? “I’m serious,” Brenner said. “They don’t start you on the Supreme Court of the United States. You have to work your way up.” At last, a glimmer of levity; then, a larger crack in the armor. “Sometimes, when I think of something funny, I’ll turn to the court reporter and make a joke.” We had our answer.
Then the stories flowed. From getting to know Jane Fonda during Ted Turner’s cable days to working with Dr. John Malone to board meetings at Brian Roberts’ home in the Berkshires to leading important cases for NCTA—Gulf Power and Brand X—“they insured the long-term future of a highly deregulated, innovative product like residential broadband,” Brenner said.
“I miss cable, especially the people,” Brenner admitted. They miss you, too, Dan. And that’s not a joke.
Among many awards, Brenner received NCTA’s President’s Award (2008) and Cablefax’s Community Service Award (2009) for his work on behalf of Cable Positive.
Brenner has served on the Board of Trustees of Stanford University and the National Law Committee of the Anti-Defamation League.
Cable Technology Award
OK, so Viamedia isn't a technology firm per se. But its savvy application of technology to step up the traditional advertising game would make anyone in Silicon Valley proud. With a 24/7 operations center in Lexington, KY, Viamedia’s real-time monitoring boasts a 99.9% run rate and includes headend testing every single minute. That monitoring covers 130 zones in 57 markets, representing a whopping 5,848 networks. And its multiplatform ad insertion capabilities (in partnership with Invidi) continue to set the bar. Viamedia works with 41 distributors, big and small. So, yeah… we feel pretty good about a tech award for these guys.
“The biggest thing is our flexibility and technical integration,” says Viamedia CEO Jeff Carter. “The level of sophistication runs from the hardest market in the country—New York—to some extremely small markets in some extremely small DMAs.”
And while Viamedia has many small op clients, it works with some pretty large MSOs as well, including Time Warner Cable and Verizon—and it also plays in the digital pre-roll universe with clients like Google. With second screen devices proliferating, Viamedia’s got its hands in everything. “As the industry becomes more fragmented and more agnostic about the device that an advertiser can be seen on, we’re going to have to be able to accommodate all those devices, and we’re going to have to be device agnostic as well,” says Carter.
Carter cautions, however, that when it comes to multiplatform, the learning curve continues for the industry and for advertisers. “Technology changes so fast, I’m not sure we could ever say that we’re ready to go,” he says. “But we’re in a position to make ready to go. All of these changes in technology require a tremendous amount of work on our parts, our vendors’ parts, advertisers’ parts.” The bottom line: Viamedia bases all its decision on what advertisers want. Period. “You have to figure out how best to serve the advertiser, and once you get that going, then the other pieces kind of start falling into place,” he says.
Viamedia’s advertiser focus has helped it to hone its technology and fine-tune its entire technology strategy. And the company pitches its close ties to Madison Avenue as a factor that benefits clients of any size. “We have the same fundamental research and marketing and technical capabilities in Jackson, Tennessee, as we do in New York,” says Carter. “And when we turn on a system, that happens from day one. There’s not a ramp up period or a learning period. There’s a plug and play. We have that expertise.” Viamedia was actually the first ad rep firm to insert an ad over an IP stream (with SureWest in Sacramento) and the first to sell ads on a set-top box level on a DMA basis (with Verizon in Providence, R.I.).
Operators we contacted sang Viamedia’s praises, especially when it comes to offloading the complicated ad business so they can focus on their own day-to-day operations. “With Viamedia’s company-wide commitment to advertising-client research, in-depth experience of the industry and centralized traffic approach, we feel our advertising clients are getting a well-rounded solution to help their businesses grow,” says Peter C. Smith, WOW!’s svp, programming & advertising sales. Viamedia handles WOW!’s advertising in 15 different markets. Jaime Montes, SureWest's senior manager, content acquisition & digital TV, says Viamedia just “makes sense” and “inserts seamlessly in both our analog and IPTV networks.”
Of course, Carter says challenges remain in hot areas like VOD dynamic ad insertion. “There’s a lot of talk on VOD pre-roll,” he says. “There’s a lot of interest there. But there are significant challenges because a lot of the programmers haven’t made those pre-rolls available… That situation has to be worked out.” Once that happens, Carter predicts audience expansion as VOD evolves into more of an “incremental value play.” As for the future, Carter points to all the new players trying to invade cable’s turf, including Apple and its rumored multichannel service, Microsoft as the Xbox shifts to a media hub and, of course, Google as it rolls out fiber in various cities. “I think we’re in for a pretty fun ride over the next five or six years,” says Carter. We don’t doubt it.
Viamedia’s 41 video partners include Verizon FiOS, WOW!, SureWest, CenturyLink, Cincinatti Bell, Eatel, Frontier Communications, Blue Ridge Communications, Jackson Energy, MI Connection, Service Electric, Grande Communications, RCN, EPB, BTES, BVU, among others.
Viamedia is the largest non-MVPD 100% independent company offering full turnkey advertising sales representation.
The company employs approx 500 across 32 states.
Independent Community Service Award
Chesnee Communications first landed on our radar when we heard about its Community Page, a Website where folks can find out about what’s going on in the former mill town of Chesnee, SC, population 900. There are listings of school events, including sports, links to activities, classified ads, weather, Chesnee’s channel lineup and pictures of town events, among other things. Yet when we dug a little deeper, we found that the site is just one of many ways family-owned Chesnee serves its community.
Spend time in Chesnee’s lobby—its office is smack in the middle of Main Street, you can’t miss it—and you’ll see another way customers are connected. ACA VP/COO Rob Shema did. “I was there for an hour,” he says. “About 50 people came in. Some paid their bill, others came to chat. The woman behind the desk knew every person’s name. It was great,” he says.
Wait—there’s a place in America where customers pay their bill in person? “That’s how it’s done in small-town America,” Chesnee Cable TV Manager Paige Venczel says with pride. It’s a town only 3 blocks long and there’s no hotel. “We’re so small we don’t even have a bar in town,” she says.
An engaging lady who likes to laugh, Venczel is a lifer; she’s been in the family business since she was a schoolgirl. Her maternal grandparents founded the company 81 years ago as an independent telephone provider. She and her parents are among its 26 employees. Cable TV was added in 1996. That’s when Venczel’s mother asked her to run the cable business. “My mother said she knew nothing about cable, so I begged people for information and here we are 17 years later, still learning.”
But let’s get back to bill paying. “Our lobby on the first of the month is like a meet and greet,” Venczel says with glee. “People come in every month… they pay their bill and stand and talk… it’s neat, they become our friends. Look, half the people [who come in] you go to church with so you gotta talk about Sunday sermon or who fell asleep during it.” And when people know they will be late with their payment? “They’ll come up to me at the grocery store and tell me.” For the record, Chesnee offers online bill paying.
Then there is the connection to the community through doing good. “I could spend all day telling you about things we do in this town,” Venczel says. Beyond sponsoring “anything that goes on in the schools,” she’s especially proud of The Santa House, where kids can come before Christmas and get their picture taken with Santa. “People told us we could never offer this for free, but we’ve never taken a penny.” Then there’s the pre-K Head Start School that Chesnee Communications adopted. “We do something for these kids every month.” At Christmas, “it’s very sad because our kids at the school need socks and underwear. So we bought for 56 kids socks and underwear and a toy,” she tells us. And don't forget the summer motorcycle festival...
While Chesnee is a small town, there’s nothing minimal about Chesnee Communications' community efforts. For its local channel, “we have a man who takes a video camera with him everywhere he goes around town… you name it, we tape it,” Venczel says, “from the Christmas parade to every high school football game, basketball game and baseball game.” This past season the camera even left town, following the high school baseball team as it became the 2-A State Champion. When the team arrived in Chesnee at 2am, trophy in hand, the camera was there. “It had nothing to do with the fact that my son is on the team,” Venczel laughs. Seriously, though, it's these local connections that keep Chesnee subscribers loyal.
Chesnee Communications serves 2,500 cable subs and 3,500 phone subs. Chesnee Cable provides digital cable and HD. By the fall it will offer TV Everywhere and a much larger selection of HD channels.
When the town’s two textile mills closed in the 1980s, Chesnee became a bedroom community to people commuting to the Greenville-Spartanburg area of South Carolina. One of the main employers in the area is a BMW plant.
Independent Customer Service Award
Go beyond the subscriber numbers, and only one thing distinguishes small and medium-size cable providers from large MSOs: customer service. For small ops, good customer care is a matter of survival, and that’s certainly the case with Atlantic Telephone Membership Cooperative. “As a small cable TV operator, we face a difficult challenge of keeping up with the bells and whistles offered by the national companies,” says ATMC CEO Allen Russ, citing that as ATMC’s biggest hurdle in the years ahead. “We also face tough challenges in offering the deep discount promotions because we pay more for our programming and equipment,” he adds. “But where we can excel is service. We stress to our employees that our local service advantage is the most important one. No other provider lives here. No other provider can do more for the people who live in our community. We live here, we are friends and neighbors with our customers, and we’re going to treat them like friends and neighbors. That is our difference.”
ATMC does customer service well, and we’re not the only ones to notice. The Brunswick Beacon, the county’s largest newspaper, solicits its readers to compile an annual Best of Brunswick Awards. Since the Best of program began in 2008, ATMC has topped the list for customer service every single year. Far more impressive, the customer service award is not limited to cable and telephone providers. ATMC’s customer service has been named best in the county against businesses in all sectors. Want more? ATMC revamped its customer service in 2005, so it was just three years old when it claimed its first top ranking in the Beacon. “That’s incredible; to win it once is great, but six times in a row is unbelievable,” says ACA VP/COO Rob Shema. “And we’re not talking about a little, hidden place.”
Founded in 1955 as a telephone cooperative, ATMC added cable in 1983 and now faces off against huge entities Time Warner Cable, DirecTV and DISH. With just fewer than 200 full-time employees, it serves 27,000 cable subs in southeastern North Carolina, midway between Wilmington, NC, and Myrtle Beach, SC. ATMC’s service area is both a bedroom community for Wilmington and Myrtle Beach as well as a hot spot for retirees and golf and beach enthusiasts. “We have overbuilt Time Warner Cable in some communities already,” Russ says. “We believe our success in those areas has been due to our quality local service.” Time Warner Cable has yet to build significantly in ATMC’s territory, but Russ expects that to occur when the housing market recovers.
Excellent customer service was not always the case, however. “In the early part of the decade, our customer service was lacking,” Russ admits. “Customers had a difficult time reaching us, and we didn’t have some of the processes in place to efficiently support their needs.” Things changed in 2005 when ATMC started revamping its management team, developing its own CRM system—those on the market didn’t fit our needs, Russ says—and “most importantly, challenged every employee to make satisfying our customers their number one priority.” To make it easier for customers, ATMC also opened several retail locations. “The nearest local office for one of our competitors is 50 miles away,” he says.
More recent developments include regular CSR training that stresses greeting customers “with a smile on our face or in our voice.” There’s also training to hone listening skills. “We also make sure that our customers don’t have to wade through a myriad of obstacles to speak with a live person or wait on hold for more than 30 seconds,” Russ says.
In addition, an ATMC customer can easily take a complaint to any level of management, even CEO Russ. “If we mess up, we admit it, we apologize and we mean it,” he says. And if a customer reports a problem by 4 pm, ATMC responds to the problem that day. “This has been very big in setting us apart from the national providers who normally schedule repair calls 3 to 4 days out,” Russ says.
85% of ATMC’s nearly 200 full-time employees live within its cable TV footprint, underlining the provider’s claim to be a local company. Its advertising tagline says it well: “Local Company. Local Priorities.”
ATMC offers more than 80 HD channels and VOD. It is moving into the TV Everywhere space, offering 30 TVE channels.
Keeping CSRs and Field Techs updated on new products and technology “is the most difficult challenge we face today,” Russ says. ATMC offers weekly training and incents them through individual and team exercises that “challenge them and add an element of friendly competition.” Outstanding achievers each month are recognized in an employee newsletter, and several awards are made yearly.
Independent Financial Executive of the Year
Should Bryan Cipoletti find himself in Washington, D.C.—nearly 300 miles from Butler, PA, where his employer the Armstrong Group of Companies is based—perhaps he could stop in at the Treasury Department. His advice might be helpful. While he would be the first to admit that budgets in government and business are vastly different, Cipoletti has kept privately held Armstrong Cable & Telephone debt free. “Bryan’s foresight and financial analysis are what ensures Armstrong, a former Independent Cable Operator of the Year, always has the financial resources to meet any challenge,” says ACA chief Matt Polka. At Armstrong since 1987, Cipoletti talked with us about the flexibility that comes with a strong balance sheet and why small and mid-size cable remains financially viable.
How have you been able to stay debt-free despite acquisitions, upgrades and significant capital expenses?
We have a long history of being the cable operator in our territories. In many of our systems, we are the original franchisor and have been the operator for more than 50 years. Also, we have not made significant acquisitions over the years that might have leveraged our capital structure. A positive aspect of being debt free is that our operating decisions are not limited by capital availability, bank covenants, interest rates or other related financial issues.
Are you doing something on the financial side to prepare for the next five years?
With a strong balance sheet, there’s not much that needs to be done on the financial side to prepare for the next five years. Our objective, however, is and will continue to be providing excellent service to our customers at reasonable prices.
What about acquisitions?
We still love the cable business. We really only are interested in pursuing acquisition opportunities adjacent to or near our existing systems. We think it’s important for us to be able to leverage our interconnected network, workforce, and management team to be most efficient in the ever-growing competitive environment.
How do you assess the long-term financial future of the medium-size and small-cable industry?
Small and medium-size cable operators don’t have the cost efficiencies of larger operators, and they never will. What they have, though, is the opportunity to be a more meaningful force in their communities and thus to provide the personal touch service that sometimes gets lost by the big companies. The smaller players need to find other ways to differentiate themselves. Quality service is attractive and can command a higher price.
Some say cable will need significant additional capitalization to continue to modernize. True?
Well, I guess that depends on the condition of the infrastructure for each operator. But I don’t see the next 20 years of infrastructure enhancements to be like the last 20 years. I think most network modernization will come in the form of electronic upgrades for the distribution infrastructure, and less expensive customer premise equipment as certain processing that currently takes place in the home set top box will move to centralized (cloud) applications.
In what ways can small and medium-size cable operators improve their financial health?
One of the most significant elements of our philosophy is that we keep the long-term perspective in all that we do. As a privately held company, we do not have the pressures of Wall Street expectations. Accordingly, we can make what we believe are the best long-term decisions regarding capital expenditures, operating expense initiatives and pricing without emphasis on the short-term impact on reported earnings or cash flow. Our experience is that if we keep investing in our network and providing quality service to our customers, then we are putting ourselves in the best position to be successful for the long term.
Cipoletti is a graduate of West Virginia University, with a B.S./B.A. in finance. He received an MBA in accounting from the University of Pittsburgh in 1983.
The Armstrong Group includes Armstrong Cable & Telephone; Guardian Protection Services, which is one of the top 10 residential home security companies in the country; Armstrong Development (real estate); and AccuSpec Electronics, which manufactures electronic circuit boards. Cipoletti is the Group’s CFO.
Active in his community and church, Cipoletti is on the board of the Lighthouse Foundation, a non-profit organization in Butler, PA, which provides food, transitional housing and emergency shelter to those in need.
Independent Lifetime Achievement
Martin "Marty"" Brophy
Talk about reality TV. It doesn’t get any more real than a cold February evening in Shenandoah, a former coal-mining town about 112 miles northeast of Philadelphia, PA.
It was Super Bowl Sunday in Feb 2010, and Marty Brophy, the affable President/CEO of Shen-Heights Cable, took his customary position: “Watching the game at home, worrying that nothing would happen” to the TV reception, he recalls. “It was the beginning of the third quarter [of Super Bowl XLIV, Colts vs Saints] and boom, it went off the air. Before I could even get my coat on to run to check on the problem, I heard my neighbors yelling right through my back yard: ‘Brophy, you better get this thing back on!’ We ask if that was the printable version of what they screamed. “Yes,” he laughs.
But that was Brophy’s world heading Shen-Heights, one of cable’s oldest systems. When you live in an area with about 6,500 residents, “you walk down the street and people know you,” he says. Add to this the fact that the Brophy family has owned and run the cable system for some 60 years, and well… you’re going to hear from people.
Born and bred in the area, where today Mrs. T’s Pierogies is the biggest employer, Brophy worked at Shen-Heights during high school vacations. He’s got cable in his veins. “I’ve been here like forever,” he jokes. Says Dan Tunnell, President of Broadband Cable Association of PA: “No one is more deserving of a cable lifetime achievement award than Marty.” And ACA VP/COO Rob Shema only half jokes when he describes ACA’s Treasurer as “legacy cable personified… His father was in the room when the first cable systems started; Marty was there soon after.” Perfect: Cablefax’s Lifetime Achievement Award goes to someone who’s been in cable his entire lifetime.
Brophy’s father Frank hooked up Shen-Heights’ first customer in 1951. When Marty sold the system to Electric Services Co. just a few months ago, Shen-Heights served 3,000 customers. Brophy, 66, is helping with the transition until the golf course beckons. He works from an office with two field techs and three CSRs; Marty’s brother Anthony is the engineer, and brother Frank Jr. is the construction supervisor. Customer care is a point of pride for the staff of 9. “When we get a call in the morning, we’re usually there that day, if not right after we get the call,” he says. “The big boys don’t care as much about customers as individuals… they don’t know you, or where you live. You’re a number.”
“Our office is just a plain storefront, nothing fancy,” he insists. Perhaps, but the services he provided his customers were. Well before many small systems offered Internet and digital cable, Shen-Heights provided them. HD came later; telephone came on line a bit more than 2 years ago.
A modest man, Brophy sometimes downplays his accomplishments. “Our engineer, George Yudisky, kept us on the cutting edge,” he says. “We knew we had to modernize, but we waited until others had experience. We learned from them and noted which vendor’s products performed best in the field.” Brophy also took notes at cable shows and ACA meetings. “I heard [Buford Cable’s] Ben Hooks talk at a convention about expanding channel capacity… and that’s what we did.”
But this story of homespun cable is bittersweet and all too predictable. “The retransmission consent fees, programming costs and technology upgrades got to be too much for us,” Brophy says, explaining the main financial reasons for selling. “The day you install a piece of technology, it’s out of date,” he laments. When Brophy initially expanded channel capacity from three stations to six in the late 60s, the family financed it.
Still, he’s upbeat about cable’s future. “If you have the right people and the right system, it’s still a good business,” he says.
Oh, and Brophy also handled that Super Bowl blackout. “We were on it instantly. We had it fixed before the end of the quarter,” he says proudly.
WWII veteran and Bronze Star recipient Frank Brophy Sr and Albert Kersewicz began building Shen-Heights in 1950, mainly so they could pull NY stations to watch NY Yankees games. It took years until microwave technology arrived to grab the signals. By that time, Frank Brophy had died and son Marty was running Shen-Heights.
The buyer of Shen-Heights is Service Electric Cablevision, an affiliate of Service Electric Co, the country’s oldest cable operator, founded in 1948 by John and Margaret Walson. Service Electric Cablevision remains family owned, serving 100K customers in 100 PA communities.
Marty Brophy was chairman and board member of Broadband Cable Association of PA (BCAP), the country’s first state cable association. He’s now Treasurer of ACA.
Independent Marketer of the Year
Blue Ridge Communications
Joe Lorah’s a hybrid of sorts. We’re lauding him for his marketing work, but his creative thinking and savvy in breaking down silos really put him over the top.
Six years ago, ex-Comcaster Lorah approached then-VP of Operations Mark Masenheimer with what many would consider a radical idea. Then-Director of Marketing Lorah wanted control of call centers. Blue Ridge serves 168,000 subscribers in northeastern Pennsylvania, including the Poconos, and the towns of Hershey and Jim Thorpe. Masenheimer thought about Lorah’s proposal and made a decision quickly. That’s a good idea, he said.
“Ultimately my job [as a marketer] is to make the phones ring,” Lorah says. "Marketing could create the best piece in the world, but if the potential customer calls and has to wait for 20 minutes on hold or the CSR responds with ‘I don’t know what postcard you are talking about,’ you lose the sale,” he says. “My position was that there has always been internal fighting in companies between marketing and call centers. ‘Marketing didn’t tell us’ or the ‘call center representatives should know that,’ etc. I wanted to create a culture where the two work together and break down the communication silos. A good CSR can be a marketer’s best friend.” And to be sure, Lorah knew it wouldn’t be easy to integrate marketing into customer service—and vice versa. “I knew it would be a lot more work and I realized most marketers don’t want to touch customer service,” he said. “You’re getting 5,000 to 6,000 transactions per day. If 1% of them go wrong, that’s 50 to 60 per day that have to be handled on the backend. Still, I felt for some reason it would make the company work better.”
It has. Blue Ridge’s churn is down and installs are up.
Many marketers say they “touch” their customers. Lorah, now Corporate Director of Marketing and Customer Service, actually talks to them. Last year, he took a call from a female customer threatening to go with a cheaper DSL offer. “We don’t get into price wars,” Lorah says, “so I emphasized our local edge. I asked her if she’d ever had to call for service in her 7 years with us. She hadn’t. I reminded her that if she ever needed service, we would be there the same day, within a 2-hour window. The satellite companies can’t do that. I told her I thought that was worth $9 more per month. She agreed and stayed with us.”
Yet the challenges remain as Blue Ridge faces off against much larger competitors. “It’s not a secret that [DISH and DirecTV] are heavily advertising their great introductory offers, and so price is a big challenge for us,” he says. “We do our best to continue to educate customers so they see there is value in our service.” Great service also helps. “Customers really appreciate our same-day trouble calls and 2-hour appointment windows.” Another hurdle is technology. “The satellite companies advertise their latest technologies, so we need to make sure we are offering the latest and greatest.”
Blue Ridge Communications’ service area in northeastern PA is about 90 minutes’ drive from Philadelphia. It’s among the oldest cable systems in the country.
Pencor, which owns Blue Ridge, is the largest employer in Carbon County (population 65K). It also owns an Internet radio station, a daily newspaper, a concert venue, a printing business, a restaurant and an ice cream store, among other things.
Blue Ridge was one of the first to offer HBO GO, VOD and Internet.
Independent Operator of the Year
Business success often hinges on employee commitment, quick thinking by management and—more often than not—luck. The story of our MSO of the Year certainly shares those elements, but it also includes some deliberate pacing, several course corrections and more than a bit of bad luck. That Cable ONE exists at all is a story in itself. It began when The Washington Post Company entered cable in 1986, with about 350,000 customers from the purchase of Cap Cities Cable. At the time, Post-Newsweek Cable was cable’s 26th largest. Just five of the 36 largest cable company owners in 1986 stayed in the business: Cox (1.4 million subs at that time), Comcast (1.1 million), Newhouse (1 million), Cablevision (627,000) and Cable ONE (369,000).
Then Cable ONE went against the conventional wisdom. In late 1990, as many operators were scaling up or getting out of cable, the MSO implemented its Safe Harbor Strategy. It exited tiny rural areas and metropolitan markets (Chicago, SF, Indianapolis and others). Instead, it bet heavily on large towns and small cities. As President/CEO Tom Might says, “We built a smaller market strategy a decade before it was cool.”
At about the same time, Post-Newsweek Cable rebranded as Cable ONE and shifted focus to customer and employee (or associate) care. Customer satisfaction surged and Cable ONE ranked #1 in J.D. Power’s 2000 Cable Customer Survey. While Cable ONE’s sample size now is too small to be included in the J.D. Power annual survey, customer service excellence continues. In bundle surveys done by Consumer Reports (2010 and 2013), only Bright House and DISH topped Cable ONE in video in the 2013 survey, and only Bright House and Cox bested it on Internet.
Because Might and his team believe that customer satisfaction and cost containment are based on high employee morale and long tenure, in 1997 Might embarked on a personal mission to boost employee satisfaction. Might personally has led 9 biannual employee surveys since 1997. In 2006, when Cablefax: The Magazine predecessor CableWorld began its yearly Best Places to Work in Cable survey, Cable ONE was among just 3 operators on its list. Company-wide, average tenure is 10 years; 14% of employees have remained for more than 20 years. The average tenure of its 16 senior executives is 20 years.
In 2008, Cable ONE adopted the strategy advocated by former Amazon.com chief of global customer service Bill Price in his book The Best Service Is No Service. Essentially, Cable ONE vowed to reduce costs by eliminating unnecessary customer contact based on Price’s belief that the fewer times customers need a company, the happier they are.
As a result, truck rolls and phone traffic were down 23% in the 1st quarter of 2013 compared to the same period last year. Phone calls have dropped from 6 million to almost 3 million. Teams in the field and some in Cable ONE’s Phoenix, AZ, headquarters work toward daily targets, dubbed Wildly Important Goals (WIGS). Most are linked to reducing avoidable customer contact. While less customer contact could lead to reduced body count, Might says “we have never laid off associates… they see the reduced work load as a benefit for meeting their WIGS.”
Last year, Cable ONE made a huge shift, moving from a Market Share Strategy to a Lifetime Value Strategy (LTV). MSS was based on a $75 triple-play. The aim was to offset the low, $75 price with volume gains. As Might says, “We put all our eggs in the triple-play basket just as it collapsed.” Essentially LTV calls for Cable ONE to target quality customers, eschewing short-termers. Might says LTV has meant gains in the quality of customers, cost savings and cash flow.
Skip to today and Cable ONE again is moving at its own pace, investing nearly $60mln into an infrastructure upgrade. It also is enhancing its TV Everywhere offering after famously moving slowly on VOD. As ACA COO/VP Rob Shema says, “They’re followers, not leaders, but they’ve proved you don’t need to be first to be best.”
Cable ONE is the 10th largest MSO, with 2,100 employees and some 730,000 customers in 42 markets in 19 states, although 75% are concentrated in five states: Idaho (24%), Mississippi (20%), Texas (12%), Arizona (9%), and Oklahoma (9%).
Cable ONE has been the bull’s eye for the worst hurricane and tornado in U.S. history. Katrina did some $60mln in damage to Cable ONE. Almost 25% of Cable ONE employees suffered major damage from the Joplin Tornado. In both cases, its corporate culture of taking care of associates helped all to come through with flying colors.
Independent Regional Executive of the Year
Mary Tyler Moore came to the big city and made it after all. Doug Frank did the reverse, leaving the crowded conurbations of his native east coast and finding a home for himself in Mediacom’s Cedar Rapids, IA, offices. For our Independent Regional Executive of the Year, who runs Mediacom’s Central Region in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Kentucky covering some 250K customers, his happiness derives from several things. First, his son and wife love Iowa. “The schools have been great,” the native of New Jersey says, “although I miss going to the beach and delis, of course.”
In addition, coming to Mediacom has allowed Frank to reunite with former boss, Ed Pardini, whom he met when the two were at Comcast. Most important from a business standpoint, he believes in the product. “The head office in Middletown, NY, gives us great direction and terrific business opportunities,” he says. “We’re a relatively small company, but some of the things we’ve been able to do, in terms of being on the edge with technology, really help us” against competitors.
And while Frank’s territory includes Ottumwa, IA, the rural home of laid-back Radar O’ Reilly of “M*A*S*H*” fame, Mediacom faces plenty of competition now, at least on the video, HSD and voice front. “We have 35 competitors, ranging in size from major telcos to municipal overbuilders,” he says. And instead of using short-wave radio as he did during the Korean Conflict, the Radar of today could go online and enjoy a download speed of 105 Mbps and 10Mbps upload, thanks to Mediacom doubling the speed of its fastest Internet service in Ottumwa earlier this year.
A key to success, Frank believes, is treating each market individually. “You have to examine each market’s characteristics and see where your sweet spot is,” he says. Often it is Mediacom’s speedy Internet offering. And while Frank advocates this differentiated approach, he believes cable customers throughout the country are united on a several things. “They all want value for their money, convenience and plenty of choice,” he says. And Frank knows of what he speaks. He’s been in cable for nearly 30 years, worked in various regions of the country for small, medium and large operators, and in a variety of positions from sales and customer care to operations and senior management.
Frank also likes that Mediacom provides some of the advantages of a large operator but with many of the intangibles of a small company. “A lot of companies talk about their employees being members of their family,” he says. “At Mediacom, I really feel like it’s a family.” That’s because Mediacom is small enough to be nimble operationally and able to reach out, in good and bad times. Frank recalls that after a loss in his family he had received a note of condolence from Mediacom’s senior brass. Frank also appreciates how Mediacom responded so generously to the Iowa City flooding in June 2008. “Ed Pardini told me to get water. I told him we have way too much water, there’s flooding here. But he knew what he was doing. We later took trucks with water to shelters and families who had lost their homes.” In addition, the company, through [EVP] Italia Commisso and [EVP] John Pascarelli, raised about $200K for the Red Cross and small businesses.
For Frank, “being visible” to his 600+ employees is key. He travels throughout his region periodically. “It’s a jaunt,” he says. “Everybody says they have an open-door policy, but I realized that very few people take advantage of that. I find you sometimes learn more during breaks than during staff meetings.”
Related to being visible, Frank's also on the board of the Community Resiliency Project, which responded to three teen suicides a few years ago by attempting to build strong communities and creating an environment that deters teen suicide. “[Mediacom] is a natural vehicle for spreading the word. I’ve been on boards in the past, but none touches me like this one does,” he says.
Mediacom Chairman/CEO Rocco Commisso puts it well: “Whether managing Mediacom’s first DOCSIS 3.0 market launch or forging innovative and long-lasting partnerships with institutional customers, Doug has always upheld Mediacom’s commitment to bringing advanced services and superior customer care to our local markets.”
One of Frank’s college buddies at Dennison University in Ohio was former ESPN chief George Bodenheimer. Despite his success, Bodenheimer never changed, Frank says of his close friend. “He’s always been a nice guy.”
Mediacom teamed with Cedar Rapids native son Ashton Kutcher to raise funds for flood victims in 2008.
Independent Strategic Thinker of the Year
BendBroadband pres/CEO and chmn Amy Tykeson has more reasons than most to be proud. In addition to receiving this year’s Independent Strategic Thinker honor, Tykeson in June was inducted into The Cable Center’s Hall of Fame and named a Cable Pioneer. Previously, she’s been a Vanguard Award recipient, served as president of WICT and was recently named Cablefax’s Independent Executive of the Year.
Despite these and numerous other accolades, Tykeson quickly deflects the spotlight to BendBroadband’s team. The company, like Tykeson, quietly seems to be several steps ahead of everyone else, particularly when it comes to technology. Its list of firsts include the 1997 launch of high-speed Internet, the 2008 conversion to all-digital and the 2011 roll out of LTE 4G wireless broadband over licensed spectrum to rural areas. In 2011, the company opened the first colocation data center in the U.S. to receive the Uptime Institute’s Tier III certification for design and construction. The carbon-neutral facility also is LEED Gold certified. “Amy’s record of strategic accomplishments at BendBroadband is unmatched,” says ACA chief Matt Polka. “It doesn’t get any more innovative than Amy and BendBroadband.”
You seem to leapfrog the competition on technology.
I’m not sure we are leapfrogging the competition, but rather making the best long-term investment decisions we can and working hard to implement against those investments to drive results. The talented team of BendBroadband associates has been able to transform those decisions into business models that benefit customers.
What technologies excite you the most?
There are two directions that we are going that get me charged up. The first is our work to tie many solutions together to drive more benefit for our customers—particularly in the commercial services realm. With fiber, hosted services, phone products, advertising capability, backup services, and colocation facilities, we are able to put together comprehensive technology solutions that help our customers be more efficient and solve problems. Second, our work with managed services using our Vault Data Center as the platform is gaining traction. We are offering physical, dedicated colocation with high-density capability and virtual colocation, making our world-class facility affordable for smaller businesses.
What will BendBroadband offer tomorrow?
It’s really about applications and experiences across platforms, not devices going forward. BendBroadband will be offering more intuitive integration of applications that lead to great customer experiences, such as the transformation of traditional video with apps, search and discovery for content on any device. For business customers we are working up the value chain to capture more of the IT spend with services like physical or virtual colocation and managed services. For both customer groups it’s about bringing more benefits to customers, such as cost savings, simplicity, time and peace of mind.
What can cable do better to survive in the very competitive environment in which it lives?
There are three things I hope we can improve on to influence our success as an industry. First, we all know that scale matters. But it will take more than that to stay strong as an industry—to deliver the best services, delight our customers and share innovation to leverage our incredible platform. The NCTC and CableLabs bring standards and scale; but, we are all small operators in the big picture, and we have to stick together. Second, we need to continue to grow gender diversity and make cable a career choice for today’s college students. We all know the benefits of different perspectives for better decisions. Third, the cable industry is about more than programming. Our high-performance broadband means economic vitality and sustainability in communities small and large. It’s time we harnessed the message that our technology is the catalyst for huge innovation. We are the community connection, the innovation hub and we have been for the past 20 years.
Tykeson began her career in 1980 with HBO, rising to VP of Area Marketing in NYC.
Active in both ACA and NCTA, Tykeson chairs the Rural Systems and Small Operators’ Committee as a member of the NCTA board and serves on the board for CableLabs and CSPAN.
The Governor of Oregon appointed Tykeson to serve on the Oregon Health Sciences University board. Her previous board positions include Vice Chairman of the Catlin Gabel School Board of Trustees; the University of Oregon Alumni Association board; and The Nature Conservancy board for Oregon.
Independent Technology Award
Vermont Telephone Co
On the surface, this Cablefax honor appears to be driven by the story of two small, proud companies—one rural, the other surrounded by rural communities—bringing big-time data speeds to customers, aping Google’s much-discussed but only partially-deployed fiber venture in Kansas City and Austin, TX.
Go deeper and you realize it’s much more than that. Yes, Vermont Telephone Co and Cedar Falls Utility of Iowa provide tremendous data speeds to their customers. But it’s also possible they are handing these communities a lifeline for the future. Although company representatives won’t acknowledge it, 1-Gig service could turn out to be a vital economic driver, retaining and attracting businesses, academics and citizens to areas that too often are overlooked, particularly when it comes to infrastructure.
Serving roughly 17,000 households in rural Vermont, the family-owned Vermont Telephone Co's visionary CEO, Michel Guite, pledged several years ago to bring VTel’s service into the modern age. Fiber to the home was one of the ways he pledged to do so. “I want Vermonters to be happy with the service they will be getting,” Guite said.
When Guite made his announcement, it was thought that a hybrid fiber coaxial plant would be the solution. Then Guite and VTel had a revelation. For the same cost as upgrading to HFC, VTel could go directly to fiber.
Here’s where it gets tricky. When Cablefax decided on this honor, VTel was not yet offering video. That was taken care of in July 2013, when VTel launched a 500-channel product. Another tricky bit: Guite found the resources to upgrade to fiber via federal subsidies, including a $129mln package in 2010. Government subsidies are like Kryptonite to cable operators. They pay lobbyists to shout down subsidies in Washington, D.C. But VTel gets a pass here since it is using the federal money as intended, building in remote rural areas of Vermont.
Speaking of money, VTel offers its speedy service to subscribers for $35 per month, half the price Google is charging in Kansas City. An article and blog in The Wall Street Journal in late April touting the price difference between Google in Kansas City and VTel that began “Look Out, Google Fiber” attracted worldwide attention.
When we spoke in June with VTel’s marketing manager, the affable John Caceres, he said about 1500 customers were using the 1-Gig service. “Take rates have been pretty high… we’ve been going whole hog getting customers cut over,” Caceres added. About 60% of its customers take Internet. “We expect the take rate [for Internet] to improve when video is introduced,” he said. The goal is to have VTel’s entire footprint converted to fiber by 2014. Vermonters have been “blown away” by the 1-Gig service, Caceres said.
Most Vermonters have little need for 1-Gig service today; still, a conversation we had with a VTel customer, who spoke anonymously, was instructive for today and what might be tomorrow. The customer works from his rural Vermont home for a major tech company. “My boss is jealous that I have more bandwidth [to do work] than he does in Manhattan,” he said. And all this is in a small rural state, the nation’s second oldest—a place where more people leave than move in. It’s conceivable that VTel’s 1-Gig service will do far more than amass good reviews. It could be saving Vermont.
Purchased in 1994 from GTE, VTel has 60 full-time employees serving 14 exchanges in 21 communities and was first in Vermont to offer DSL service.
The population density in VTel’s service area is 55 people/square mile. By contrast, in Kansas City, where Google is offering 1 Gig service, the population density is nearly 30 times that (1,471 people/sq mile).
Cedar Falls Utility
CFU’s story is similar to but a bit different from VTel’s. Like VTel, it’s a small company, but it’s a city-owned cooperative, whose broadband/cable utility was organized in the early 90s, after a vote of Cedar Falls’ citizens.
Earlier this year, after completing a 3-year network upgrade that brought fiber optics to every home and business in Cedar Falls, it’s offering 1-Gig data service. Unlike Google, which continues to build out in Kansas City, “if you call us today, we can turn on [our 1-Gig] service today,” says CFU’s Communications Manager Betty Zeman. She makes a point to emphasize that CFU didn’t announce 1-Gig service until the upgrade was completed. And unlike Google, whose deep pockets can finance a fiber experiment, CFU is self-sustaining; its upgrade was funded with cash reserves and revenue bonds. Another difference between behemoth Google and CFU: by Iowa law, cooperatives like CFU can’t serve customers much beyond the city limits, “so we must protect the customers we have and provide great products and service at reasonable prices,” Zeman says. About 400 rural Cedar Falls properties can access CFU’s 1-Gig offering.
By Iowa standards, Cedar Falls is a good-sized town, population 39K, home of the University of Northern Iowa, contiguous with Waterloo. Together, the Cedar Falls-Waterloo area has a population of about 100K. Unlike VTel’s service area, it’s not rural, but Cedar Rapids is surrounded by farmland, typical for towns in Iowa. CFU’s strategy with its 1-Gig service is a bit different from VTel’s. While take rates for its $275 consumer product are moderate today, it believes demand will be there tomorrow. Several consumers are using the service as are businesses. In fact, the top-tier business customers were automatically upgraded to the 1 Gig service at the same price they were paying previously.
“We know not too many homeowners have a need for 1 Gig speed today, but needs change quickly in this business, and it’s important to be out in front of it,” Zeman says. “We want to make sure we are not a limiting factor for our customers or any businesses or consumers who might want to relocate here," she says. "If you wait for half your customers to want it, it’s too late.”
CFU has 160 employees, providing four services: water, electricity, natural gas and broadband/cable. While it had been offering water and electricity for more than 100 years, it began offering cable in 1996 and home Internet service the next year. It has about 85% of the cable market; Mediacom, DISH and DirecTV have the remaining 15%, according to CFU.
CFU and VTel are far from alone. Earlier this year The Wall Street Journal reported that more than 700 rural telephone companies had replaced older systems with speedy fiber to the home, according to the Fiber to the Home Council, a trade group and Calix, a broadband equipment vendor.
MSO of the Year
Cox Communications as the MSO of the Year? What a conundrum… Do we praise its customer service, which consistently ranks the best among all cable based on multiple J.D. Power surveys? Or laud its commitment to diversity, with a president who heads the Diversity Council and recently made a senior exec the highest ranking woman in cable operations by some measures? Do we single out its innovative products and technology, such as this year’s bold launch of a new “personal video experience” with Cisco? Or do we point to executive leadership so consistently good that much of the same senior team remains in place from before Cox went private nearly a decade ago?
We’re still not sure how to break it all down. We just know that Cox means quiet competence, a commitment to customers and unwavering support to the larger cable community. This is a company that knows what’s important. “We really like to treat customers as we would want to be treated” says Cox President Pat Esser (pictured). “It’s really that fundamentally simple.” And that sense of responsibility to the people who pay those bills and keep Cox in business flows directly through the company’s 20,000 employees, who make it all happen in the trenches at every customer touch point in 18 states. “If you could see how well people are working together behind the curtain, turning out the products and services, the performance, the execution,” says Esser, trailing off as if almost in awe of the workforce. “From the chair I sit in, it’s been magical watching it come together.”
And come together it has. Not only does Cox thrive without access to public markets, but it’s a medium-sized operator in a business that increasingly favors scale. With 6 million residential and business customers across the country, Cox is about half the size of Time Warner Cable and dwarfed by cable kingpin Comcast. In addition, national competitors DirecTV and DISH loom over Cox in every market. AT&T is a constant threat as well.
Of course, Esser doesn’t exactly wake up in a cold sweat every night. Instead he focuses on employee training, customer service and innovation. “I think in a lot of ways it’s not any more complex than that,” he says. “You hire good people, develop good people and empower your people, invest in your network, keep working with and listening to your customers to hear what they want. No matter what your size, you will have business. Now that doesn’t make up for scale… But those have been the pillars of our success.” Cox’s efforts over the last two years to overhaul its entire video product stem from customer requests for more personalization, a better user interface, a better DVR and a more integrated 2nd-screen experience. “Four themes that just screamed out of research for us and said if you invest in these four areas, your acquisition will improve and your retention will improve,” recalls Esser.
Cox also takes an almost surgical approach to the competition, depending on small teams of employees who specialize on specific foes. Says Cox COO Jill Campbell: “We have a team that for the company that creates the playbook for how we’re going to market and how we’re competing from a centralized perspective. We have another team that focuses on FiOS. We have another team on AT&T. One on DBS. And we’re finding that the collaboration between the field folks and corporate strategic folks here really helps us to be a lot more nimble in market… than if we did a one-size-fits-all.”
Once Cox’s frontline employees have the info, it’s all about giving them the tools. “We are big-time believers in first-call resolution,” notes Campbell. “That’s the ownership. You own the customer. Don’t hand that off to somebody else. It’s so ingrained in our culture, I think it’s second nature to us.” In addition, Cox emphasizes a diverse and upwardly mobile workforce with extensive mentoring programs and other ways to spot up and comers. Campbell constantly travels to Cox systems around the country looking for new talent, with each general manager graded on diversity efforts and responsible for finding “emerging leaders” of all races, genders and ages. “And we have plans for each and every one of them,” she says. “I ask let’s find the two or three people who we should start grooming to be COO. We look that far ahead. It could even be a director in the organization somewhere. But we’re very committed to that.”
For Esser, all of Cox’s efforts revolve around understanding customers. “You almost need to be an anthropologist to understand what makes them happy and what gives them joy,” he says. “But it is spreading throughout the company. People are getting it. It’s part of our DNA.”
Cox is a founding member of Cable in the Classroom, providing commercial-free content and online resources to 81,000 public and private schools.
Pres Pat Esser co-chaired the 2013 Cable Show in D.C.
Based on subs, COO Jill Campbell is widely considered the highest ranking female MSO executive in cable.
Not only was Cox the first cable operator to recognize the potential of commercial services more than a decade ago, but in June Cox Business received the highest ranking in J.D. Power’s 2013 U.S. Business Wireline Satisfaction Study in the small/medium business segment.
Independent Technology Executive of the Year
Check the notes on WOW! CTO Cash Hagen, and he seems to be a prototypical CTO. According to his corporate bio, he oversees “network engineering and operations, including the engineering, architecture and integration of WOW!’s digital video, high- speed data and telephone services.” What the bio misses is that few technology executives are more interested in people—both customers and employees—than Cash Hagen. And that makes him a perfect fit for WOW!, whose emphasis on caring for customers and staff have helped make it a success story.
Regarding Hagen’s respect for the intersection of humanity with technology, WOW! chief Colleen Abdoulah puts it well: “Cash is a master of technology with an operational focus… since he understands the broader implications of technology, his bottom line is always how it will serve customers and employees.” Adds WOW! Chief Marketing Officer Cathy Kuo: “Cash is a true partner. I love that whatever the conversation—be it about strategy, teams, or hairstyles—that Cash always is honest and thoughtfully engaged. He’s thinking about technology, but always with an operations viewpoint so that we can deliver the best possible customer experience.”
Hagen’s viewpoint becomes apparent within a few minutes of meeting him. Asked about integrating the Knology systems WOW! acquired in late-April 2012, and his initial thoughts are about corporate cultures. Only later does he mention technology. “While Knology had many similarities to us in terms of how we treat customers and employees, there were some differences,” he says. “We didn’t want to assume that ours was the right way in every case, but we knew there were issues we needed to address. So there was a very purposeful and mindful cultural integration strategy we put together… it was a blending of all the good of two companies.”
To ease cultural blending, Hagen facilitated a Denison Survey to evaluate employee attitudes. ”We did this across the entire employee base, WOW! and Knology,” he says. “The intent was to hear from employees, not the CEO, what Knology, a very successful company, did well.” When the survey suggested that WOW! employees were more positive about their company than Knology workers, “it gave us the playbook on [cultural] things that we needed to address,” Hagen says, adding that the plan is to do the survey again at the one-year mark.
He says the initial 3 to 6 months focused on “big-ticket things we knew we had to do,” like integration of finance systems, HR systems, payroll and email systems. Then there were “true network-integration things being done, to bring our networks together.” Still, the human side was critical. “I was very focused—and this is not always easy—on being patient, and really understanding the operation; what’s there at the people level, the process level and the infrastructure level before we made any radical moves.” Over the last year, “we’ve been pealing back the onion, finding things we couldn’t have seen in due diligence,” he says. From there Hagen and his team assembled an extensive plan on reaching parity across the board on Internet, video and voice products. This plan is still underway.
As for the technology itself, “I find the true convergence of technologies to IP exciting,” Hagen says. “It gives us the view that we can and will compete for many years… It’s not only about the physical medium by which we deliver products; it’s about the man behind the curtain. This industry has incredible minds. It’s exciting to think where we go from here.”
But back to basics: operations, people, customers. “Some weeks go by when I barely think about technology,” he laughs. Still, “everything we do and I do is through the lenses of customer experience. It’s not about what’s cool or trendy, it’s about what our customer wants and needs.” Hear, hear.
WOW! operates in Michigan, Illinois, Ohio and Indiana, while Knology serves the southeastern and midwestern U.S. The combined entity has some 800,000 customers, passing 3mln homes in 13 states.
Hagen joined WOW! in 2008 after working on the supplier side for Nortel. He also held senior positions at BigBand Networks, Arris and Cox Communications, among others. “I’m a cable guy,” he says, “always been.”
MSO Community Service Award
They say that character emanates from the top. In the case of Suddenlink’s community activities, nothing could be truer. For the past seven years on the eve of The Cable Show, a hearty group of cable employees join staff from The Sportsman Channel to feed the homeless during the net’s “Hunt. Fish. Feed.” initiative. And every year, without fail or fanfare, you’ll find Suddenlink Chairman/CEO Jerry Kent and his team, doing what’s needed to transform large quantities of meat donated by area hunters into meals and later serving hundreds at a soup kitchen. “We invited Suddenlink to join us a few years ago,” Sportsman head Gavin Harvey said during this year’s event in Washington, D.C., “and they’ve come back every year. They’ve been great.” Although Kent’s prowess with a serving spoon is apparent, we’ve yet to see him in the kitchen. “There’s a reason they don’t let me prepare the food,” he once joked with us.
But Suddenlink’s commitment to community activities is far from a joking matter to Kent or his employees. We’ve consistently been impressed with the number and variety of projects the MSO engages in and the seriousness with which employees from all parts of the business carry out their tasks. Here are just a few activities from Suddenlink’s Texas systems that impressed us this year:
Drop by Drop: While employment has been booming in Midland, Texas, this growth has also brought traffic, overcrowded schools and strain on the city’s scarce water supply, depleted by years of drought conditions. Water rates have increased, sometimes quintupling monthly. As a result, in Midland brown is the new green as lawns and trees have suffered badly.
In 2010, Suddenlink responded with its Drop by Drop (DBD) water conservation effort. Led by Marketing Manager Cindy Martin, Director of Operations Dan Kelley, Plant Manager Jr. Torres and Account Executive Bryan Shores, the program emphasizes year-round conservation awareness via PSAs, water conservation kits, free seminars and a show for K-6 students.
The effort has grown each year as Suddenlink has added partners. Its reach in 2012 was truly impressive with nearly 3,000 plays of the PSAs, 64 seminars presented, reaching more than 5,000 residents, and 4,000 conservation kits distributed, including during customer interactions with Suddenlink employees. The latest reports show Midland has reduced water consumption by nearly one third, or 8 million gallons/day.
Suddenlink Open Tony Gibson Memorial Bass Tournament: In San Angelo, Texas, Suddenlink combined doing good with bass fishing, the area’s major pastime, and came up with an event that’s become a whopper. Begun in 2009 to benefit Hospice of San Angelo, the Open raises needed funds and cements Suddenlink’s reputation in the community. Speaking of whoppers, the winner in the March 2013 pulled in a record 10-lb bass and pocketed $850 in cash. In fact, several things about this year’s Open were record breakers, including the number of participants (184) and funds raised ($24,000). In 2013, 44 businesses or individuals sponsored the event and an additional 22 donated auction and raffle items. The sponsorships funded all tournament costs, including $10,000 in cash and prizes.
The Amarillo Family YMCA-Suddenlink Corporate Cup Challenge: Created in 2010, the Corporate Challenge pits corporations against each other in a four-week series of fitness challenges. After that, corporate teams compete in various sporting events. While the Amarillo Y is one of the city’s largest non-profits, it lacked a consistent business sponsor until Suddenlink came along. The 2012 Suddenlink Y Cup drew nearly 1,000 employees representing 20 local companies, a huge increase vs. 2011. Nine teams of 54 Suddenlink employees, also put in an estimated 200 volunteer hours. Besides improving the health of participants, who received free Y passes for 30 days, the event raised a record-setting $30,500, a 23% increase over 2011 and 48% over 2010. More than that, the Y reported an increase in membership and a major Amarillo employer is considering a bulk contract so its employees can get free Y memberships.
To accommodate Drop by Drop’s growth, in 2011 Suddenlink secured a partnership with Midland College, which included a grant that allowed the DBD team to distribute a record number of indoor and outdoor conservation kits (3,800).
Since 2010, The Suddenlink Open Tony Gibson Memorial Bass Tournament has raised more than $71,000 for Hospice of San Angelo.
Largely due to its work with the YMCA, Suddenlink was given the Association of Fundraising Professionals 2012 Outstanding Media Award at the AFP’s National Philanthropy Day luncheon.
MSO Customer Service Award
When people in cable speak about customer care and experience, inevitably they acknowledge Cox Communications as the leader. “Cox has been a customer care pioneer… dating back to [its late President/CEO] Jim Robbins,” says Jana Henthorn, The Cable Center’s SVP for Academic and Industry Outreach. Instrumental in The Center’s effort to make customer care an academic pursuit, Henthorn notes Cox’s endowment of a customer care chair at The Center and the University of Denver in 2006. As a prescient Robbins told us in 2006, “At the end of the day we’re all going to have the same programming, the same hardware. The differentiator will be how you treat your customer.” Today, that pursuit is led by Paul Cronin, Cox’s SVP of Customer Experience. We asked him about Cox’s culture and new customer experience strategies.
Many companies talk about customer care. Cox not only talks but delivers. What makes Cox different?
For Cox, it’s all about the voice of the customer. We understand the need to have a clear customer experience strategy that directly reflects the needs and expectations of our customers. It’s critical that we’re listening to the customers, not building our strategy in a vacuum or based on what we simply ‘think’ the customer expects. For example, we are making significant investments in our video product experience this year. We are doing this based on extensive customer research and applying these findings to product development.
It’s also important that our customer experience strategy aligns with our brand strategy—it’s our customer experience strategy that brings our brand strategy to life. And last, we compare ourselves to best-in-class companies, not the industry. Customers are comparing their experience with Cox against experiences they have with other companies, whether that’s their cable company, grocery store, or online retail outlet.
Our commitment is in our DNA—it goes far back in our history and reflects the Cox family’s overall commitment to the communities we serve. Customer service is a component of that commitment. It’s a core value at Cox and very much a part of our culture. You regularly hear our President and COO speak to it, which reinforces the message and value with our employees.
The bevy of new products must have increased the burden on customer care tremendously. How does Cox keep CSRs and field techs up to speed?
You’re correct; we do ask a lot of our care agents and technicians. Customers continue to get more value from their Cox service in part because they can connect more devices within their home to our network and their service. But we also recognize that it’s adding new things for our employees to understand and support. We have a very comprehensive new-employee training program.
Through Cox University we have a robust set of online training materials that enables employees to access information. In addition we continue to provide traditional classroom training as needed, often for larger product initiatives. Traditional weekly team meetings are critical to make sure we’re getting timely information to employees and hearing their feedback.
We also engage employees in the developing products and services, as many are on the front lines. Through focus groups and employee testers, we capture what they’re hearing from customers and engage them as a critical piece of our product and service delivery model.
What are some new customer care/experience techniques, strategies and technologies that Cox is using?
In addition to having a clearly defined customer experience strategy, we also have a robust customer listening engine to ensure we always use the customer lens in our decision making. This happens in many ways, including what our customer reps are hearing on the phones, and in social media. We’re also looking differently at how we should measure the customer experience. Historically we have looked at “customer service” performance along a narrower dimension and with specific customer touch points. It’s important that our measurement of the customer experience be done more broadly to reflect the overall customer experience with us from the brand message in the market all the way through the interaction with our products. Having a customer experience measurement system that every employee throughout the organization, not just in Care and Field, can understand is critical.
Cox has been receiving honors each year for a decade from J.D. Power & Associates, beginning with Power’s Highest Honor in Residential Local Telephone Customer Satisfaction award in 2003 and its highest overall rating in customer satisfaction in the Western Region.
Cox’s outreach centers on youth and education. It is a founding member of Cable in the Classroom, providing commercial-free television programming and online resources to 81,000 public and private schools. In 2003 alone Cox donated more than $105mln in cash and in-kind services.
MSO Lifetime Achievement Award
Time Warner Cable
Emmy-winning series “Undercover Boss” puts senior executives in the field to do the work their rank-and-file employees carry out daily. One reason Carol Hevey never appeared on the show: she’d already done it all. And that was before she ran Time Warner Cable’s East Region as EVP from 2009, until she retired in February.
Hevey’s storied career at TWC began humbly. When the Ohio native entered the work world more than 30 years ago, most sectors, including cable, were dominated by men. So Hevey started as an administrative assistant, eventually working in a bevy of positions and locations. Before entering TWC’s senior management ranks, Hevey’s resume included positions at call centers and in the field.
Hevey absorbed as much as she could at each stop, and her extensive experience taught her to make difficult decisions swiftly. Having been in her employees’ shoes, she understood their concerns, needs and desires. As WICT chief Maria Brennan says, “Carol Hevey walked the walk.”
When Hevey entered senior management, she knew that staying close to employees, customers and local leaders would be critical. In a February 2011 Cablefax interview, Hevey said she made sure to be visible at TWC offices and in the community. Communicating with her 17,000 employees was paramount. “I've always tried to do that as a leader…. know what's going on with employees. What they're thinking, what their questions are, what their challenges are. I need to know and understand those things so I can do my job, which is to support them to be successful.”
Beyond her experience, other things helped Hevey become one of the most powerful women in cable. The first was apparent after talking cable with her for a few minutes or hearing her give a speech. She spoke directly and honestly. And her variation on Horatio Alger touched and inspired women during countless WICT events—men too. Indeed, throughout her career Hevey gave back, mentoring colleagues inside TWC and outside, through WICT. Within TWC, she was a stalwart of the company’s Diversity Council.
Perhaps key to her success in all these areas, though, was her passion. “It is wonderful to be recognized for doing what you love,” she said last Fall during ceremonies honoring her as WICT’s Woman of the Year. “And the simple truth is that I genuinely love the cable business. A number of things have kept me excited to come to work every day for the last 30 years—the dynamic nature of our industry, the learning opportunities and challenges that provides, and the pleasure of working with colleagues and partners who are passionate about what they do. I love all of it, and I admittedly thrive in a world of never-ending change and challenge.”
TWC Chairman/CEO Glenn Britt put it well: “It is rare to find a leader who possesses that perfect blend of business savvy, the courage to make bold decisions for the right results, and the ability to mentor and grow talent. Carol is such a leader.” WICT’s Brennan calls her “the consummate leader.” Perhaps no tribute is more fitting, Brennan says, than what WICT Carolinas, Hevey’s home chapter, did when it named its highest honor the Carol A. Hevey Leadership Award.
While it’s hard to imagine Hevey slowing down, she tells us “I’m enjoying a much more relaxed lifestyle” in retirement. In addition to decorating, gardening and golfing, “I’m reconnecting with family, extended family and friends.” Besides cable’s fast pace, Hevey misses “the friendship, camaraderie and shared accomplishments that I enjoyed … with wonderful, talented colleagues at TWC and in the industry… I will always think of myself, in part, as a cable person.” Agreed.
Prior to running TWC’s East Region, Hevey ran TWC’s Milwaukee; Portland, Maine; and Boston divisions.
In addition to WICT’s Woman of the Year honors in 2012, Hevey received a Vanguard Award for Cable Operations Management in 2011; was named to USAir’s 2010 Charlotte USA 20: Celebrating Dynamic Women honors list; and recognized by Queens University of Charlotte as the 2010 Charlotte Business Woman of the Year.
Hevey was the 2011 chairperson of the American Heart Association’s Go Red for Women Campaign in Charlotte and was on the board of advisors for the Charlotte Area YWCA and the North Carolina Governor’s Conference for Women.
MSO Product Launch of the Year
Launching any new technology can be risky, which is why companies tend to do it so quietly. Not Cox Communications. With several years of consumer research and two years of collaboration with Cisco under its belt, the third largest MSO picked the biggest consumer electronics gathering in the world as the launch pad for its “Personal Video Experience.” The PVE, announced in Cox’s Las Vegas market at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, integrates a slew of new features into its Trio Program Guide and melds it all with an immersive second-screen app and better DVR functionality. And rather than soft pedal with background briefings and booth product demos, Cox execs announced the wares at a ballroom in The Wynn (a Cox Business client, of course) where Cox pres Pat Esser (pictured, right) and Cisco CEO John Chambers (left) put it all out there for a room full of press and VIPs, including the mayors of Las Vegas, North Las Vegas and Henderson, NCTA pres/CEO Michael Powell, Clark County Commissioner Susan Brager and high-level distribution execs at most of the major programming networks. No pressure right? “It was a very special moment,” recalls Esser. “It’s important to us, it’s important to the industry and it’s important to our technology partners who support us.” At the event, Chambers turned to Esser at one point and vowed “we will not let you down. I think what we’ve done together is amazing, and I think it’s just the start.”
Indeed, Cox hasn’t even finished rolling out the entire PVE suite yet. It launched the IP Gateway in the first quarter, with 2 terabytes of storage, 6 tuners and the ability to record multiple HD shows simultaneously, but Cox won’t launch its new second-screen app until later this summer. It will replace current app Cox TV Connect and increase from 35 to 90 the number of live streaming channels available for in-home viewing, add access to VOD content and enable use of the device as a remote control. But it’s really the ultimate integration of a personalized experience across devices that has the techies at Cox and Cisco so excited, especially as they put the research phase behind them and roll out to the real world. “The battle cry was to improve our speed to market and improve our ability to innovate,” says Esser of Cox’s management and employees. “They have worked so hard on it the last three years, and now we’re starting to see the benefit coming out of that.”
Cox COO Jill Campbell says the companywide PVE push has also spurred other operational benefits, such as improved communication and collaboration across Cox divisions. “I’ve been with the company 32 years, and I have never been more excited about the process that we have put into place in order to get products out to market very quickly,” she says, noting that the PVE “has rejuvenated people like I’ve never seen.” And that excitement will need to sustain over even more product cycles in the future. “Competitors are going to come out of the woodwork with new things that we’re either going to have to match or [beat],” she says. “But I think that’s tremendous if you’re a consumer. Because clearly we’re in a highly competitive market, and that makes everyone better.”
Perhaps Chambers said it best at the CES event when he looked out into the room and predicted the start of a new age for cable. “It’s interesting to watch when you catch a market transition,” he told attendees. “You’ll look back two years from now, and you’ll probably say this was a tipping point for the whole TV experience.” No matter what happens, Cox execs know one thing for sure: Its PVE rollout has been a long time coming. And it’s finally here.
According to Cox, the average U.S. household has more than 5 Internet-connected devices.
Cox held its January PVE event at The Wynn, which is a Cox Business client.
Cox’s IP Gateway includes a whopping 2 terabytes of storage for recording shows.
MSO Regional Executive of the Year
For business leaders, one measure of success is how effectively they use available tools. Another measure is staff morale. On both counts, Steve Hackley has proven himself successful by any measure. Of course, don’t tell him that. “This honor really is more of a we thing, than a me thing,” he says, pushing the spotlight on the “hard-working employees of the Greater Boston Region.”
While many executives look solely at the bottom line, Comcast’s SVP for the Greater Boston Region knows employees are key to a company’s performance, particularly in highly competitive New England. “We have great products,” he says, “but at the end of the day, they’re delivered by people… [and] I want ours to feel energized… like individuals, not just part of a big machine… When they arrive at work each morning, I want them to feel psyched and say, ‘Hey, this is cool’.”
“Steve is equally as passionate about the customer experience as he is about the employee experience,” says Kevin Casey, Comcast’s NE Division President, who has worked with Hackley for more than 20 years. What makes him unique “is that he understands the business we are in, as well as the business of people,” he says. Adds Hackley: “I recognize our business is complicated and getting more so. I think I have to spend twice as much time communicating with employees as I did even just a few years ago.”
Customers are also happy. Just look at the marks his region receives on “Voice of the Customer” survey scores, where the area’s sales teams, service center and call center rank among the best in Comcast’s 20 regions. Indeed, Comcast EVP, COO Dave Watson calls Hackley “a remarkable leader at every level” and notes his and his team’s “keen focus on operations and customer care.” And Cablefax is just one among many honoring the way Hackley treats employees. His region has been recognized as one of the best places to work in Massachusetts by the Boston Business Journal every year since 2004. The Boston Globe has given Comcast’s regional operations similar kudos from 2008-2011.
Another indicator: Philadelphia's trust in the Greater Boston Region, which often is chosen as the trial and launch area for Comcast’s newest products. “Our employees take that as a point of pride, we like being first,” Hackley says. Twice yearly Hackley leads a live, all-employee broadcast where he provides updates on the company and region. While such exercises can be moribund affairs in the hands of less charismatic leaders, Hackley makes it a point to inspire and invigorate employees during these broadcasts.
He also distributes short, YouTube-like videos roughly twice each month so he can keep employees updated. The live broadcasts and videos have been a best practice that several of his peers have adopted throughout the country. His monthly, hour-long leadership calls begin with 20 minutes dedicated to recognizing outstanding employees.
While Hackley respects the power of social media, he views it as a complement and not a substitute for pressing the flesh. This year, his goal is to travel to every major Comcast office under his purview and conduct Town Hall meetings to gather feedback from employees on the customer and employee experiences. He also relishes dropping in, “seeing employees in their natural state… without it being a scripted command performance. It’s got to be organic. I know employees appreciate this.”
Comcast customers in Hackley’s area should indeed be enjoying their cable experience more now that aptly named The World of More, a four-year undertaking, is complete. One of Hackley and his team’s major accomplishments this year, the initiative provides customers from Brunswick, ME, to Brewster, MA, with all-digital channels and additional HD programming. On average, 65 additional HD channels were added in each of the 315 towns in the Greater Boston footprint, bringing all towns to 100+ HD channels. The project also opened up significant bandwidth, which the region will use for product improvements such as Video On Demand. Hackley’s division was the first in the country to complete this massive project.
None of this is surprising given Hackley’s brand of leadership. As Casey puts it, “He truly understands the role of a leader. And he knows that to have loyal and engaged customers, you must have committed and engaged employees.”
The 4,100 employees of Comcast’s Greater Boston Region serve nearly 2 million customers in Massachusetts, Maine and New Hampshire.
Sales and customer service are in Hackley’s blood. He started with AT&T in sales in the late 1980s and later moved to Fidelity Investments during the go-go era of the 1990s, where he helped design the firm’s customer care operations.
Hackley serves on the City Year Boston Board of Directors and participates in the City Year organization. He also is a board member for the Granite, NH, United Way and The Partnership, Inc., which is committed to the advancement of professionals of color in the Boston area.
MSO Technology Executive of the Year
When it comes to technology leadership, no one disputes Comcast’s role as cable’s biggest innovator and trendsetter. And leading that charge is CTO Tony Werner, who manages a staff of 2,000 dedicated techies constantly pushing the envelope and coaxing the industry into the 21st century. “Although there’s a lot of challenges ahead of us, I really like our hand,” says Werner. “I think we’re sitting in a great position.” Indeed, everyone knows that whatever the challenge, Werner and his team will figure it out, bringing the benefits of scale and market leadership to other MSOs and eventually even small operators. To understand Werner’s breakneck speed to market, one need only consider that the company is already talking up the next generation of its bleeding edge, cloud-based service dubbed X2 even before it has completed the rollout of X1. “We’ve got a lot of momentum," he says. “We’ve got a lot of the right pieces.”
How do you define your management style?
I try to do everything I can to attract and retain the best people I can find. You have them mutually create the vision with you. And then I create an environment in which they can execute and try and keep the minutiae out of their hair, try to keep the politics out of the game and try to make sure it’s a fun environment in which people can come in and do what they love doing, which here is developing great technology and delivering great products.
You’ve hired people from startups. Do you need to create a startup feel to attract the best talent?
You have to create the lean environment the same way it is at a startup, so you have to try to make sure that you don’t have bureaucracy, that there aren’t forms to fill out and meetings, and try to keep that to an absolute minimum so people can come in, work on the big projects that they want. Good people beget good people. If you get a culture going that’s good, you attract other good people. We’re competing against great companies for great people, so it has to be a great environment.
What’s Comcast's biggest technology challenge?
Although there are a lot of challenges ahead of us, I really like our hand. I think we’re sitting in a great position. We’ve got a lot of momentum. We’ve got a lot of the right pieces. That said, the challenge in general is just the world’s moving a lot faster, and our competitors are moving a lot faster. The customers are moving faster. And the changes—their expectations and how things work and how they interact with us—all that is moving so rapidly, so we’ve been moving faster than we ever have. We’re getting some great products out, and we’re doing some great things. The world is picking up the pace right with us. So even though we keep traveling faster and faster, so do the footsteps of our competitors and the requirements of our customers.
What’s the role of the set-top box going forward?
I think that the set top is going to live a long life. There’s going to be a continual need for a device that goes as a companion to the TV because the glass has got a longer lifetime than the processor. So I see devices becoming more relevant, not less. Now that doesn’t mean that the functionality doesn’t happen in the cloud and that it doesn’t change the type of set-top box that you use, but I just think there’s a lot of functionality that people want. So I think you’re going to see a pretty robust device ecosystem for devices that consumers want.
What makes you most proud about your staff and the recent work they’ve done?
Whether I’m in our Silicon Valley office, or Seattle, Denver or Philadelphia—just the talent and enthusiasm that we have in people is just fantastic. When things go wrong, when you’re in there trying to fix things, you’re having major issues, you’re facing deadlines, something isn’t working—that’s when you really see the medal of these people. They’re just great folks. They’re just committed and willing to work through the night on those times when they have to get the product out and get the product right. And it makes me proud every time to see them, and every time I see the accomplishments that come out of these bright and dedicated and enthusiastic people who I get to work with.
Werner oversees Comcast Labs, the company’s main innovation hub that has spurred everything from VOD to the Xfinity app to the X1/X2 platform.
Prior to joining Comcast in 2006, Werner served as SVP and Chief Technology Officer for Liberty Global where he led the company’s global strategy for video, voice and data services.
Werner served as President and Chairman of the SCTE Foundation Board (2011-2012 term).
Cablefax 100 – 2019 Nominations Due
January 25, 2019
Cablefax Leaders Retreat 2019
April 29, 2019