“The differentiator is how you treat your customer. It sounds like motherhood and apple pie. Easy to say, hard to do,” says Jim Robbins. The cable industry woke up this morning to the sad news that former Cox Communications president and CEO Jim Robbins had died overnight after battling cancer. He was 65.

Robbins headed the country’s 3rd largest cable telecommunications company for 20 years, quadrupling its size and leading the industry on many issues, including sports rights.

He served twice as chairman of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and won multiple awards, including the industry’s prestigious Vanguard Award for Distinguished Leadership.

He was also a veteran, serving as a destroyer line officer and a gunboat flotilla public affairs officer during two tours of duty with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam from 1965 to 1967.

Robbins joined Cox in 1983 and was named president in 1985. He added CEO to his title when Cox Communications went public in 1995.

He retired from Cox at the end of 2005, turning the reins over to Pat Esser. Following his retirement, in April 2006, he was elected a member of the Cox Enterprises board of directors. He also served on the board of Humana, a health benefits company, since August 2005.

Word of Robbins’ battle with cancer surfaced earlier this week, as cable industry executives prepared for tonight’s Cable Hall of Fame annual ceremonies in Denver.

He is survived by his wife, Debby Robbins; their daughters Jane Brooks Robbins, Payson Robbins Murray, and Hilary Robbins Thomas; his brother, E. Brooks Robbins; and his sister, Barbara R. Anderson.

Memorial services will be held at 3 p.m. on October 20th at Boston’s Trinity Church in Copley Square, and at 11 a.m. on October 27th at All Saints Episcopal Church in Atlanta.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation or The Melanoma Research Foundation. Interment private. Arrangements in the care of Waring-Sullivan Home of Memorial Tribute, Fall River, Mass. 

"An Industry Pioneer"

Tributes to Robbins poured in today from colleagues at Cox and around the industry.

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of Jim Robbins,” said Pat Esser, president, Cox Communications. “He was a friend, leader and mentor to countless people, including me, and is widely regarded as an industry pioneer who led our company with brilliant vision, courage and heart. Jim’s influence on Cox and everyone who had the honor of working with him will live on.”

"The passing of our dear friend and valued colleague is a sad event for me, my family and all the employees of Cox," said Jim Kennedy, chairman and CEO of Cox Enterprises. "Jim embodied the spirit of our company — to do the right thing by the people the company touches — employees, customers, vendors, partners and the communities Cox serves.  We will miss him terribly."

"I had the privilege to work with Jim for 16 years during my tenure as CFO for Cox Communications," said Jimmy Hayes, president and COO of Cox Enterprises. "He was a legendary leader, and his singular dedication to the company and our employees taught us all priceless lessons on creating a culture of superior customer service that lives on at all Cox companies and throughout the communications industry.  He will be sorely missed as a friend, confidant and leader."

“Jim was a relentlessly positive force in the cable industry for nearly four decades and touched the lives of tens of thousands of cable employees,” said Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO, National Cable and Telecommunications Association. “His commitment to excellence benefited every Cox customer and community and served as an inspiration to the entire industry. He served with distinction as one of the industry’s great ambassadors to policymakers at all levels of government. We will deeply miss his humor, compassion, and guidance.”

“Jim defined everything that is good about business and friendships,” said Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO, Comcast. “Best of all, he always had a twinkle in his eye that was warm and engaging. He was a great competitor and has left a legacy of integrity. I will miss him.”

“Jim was a friend and respected industry colleague to me,” said Glenn Britt, president and CEO, Time Warner Cable. “I have great respect for how he ran Cox and the values that he brought to the organization. When I first became CEO of Time Warner Cable and started going to NCTA Board meetings, Jim reached out and provided guidance about how things worked. We will all miss him.”

“When I joined the cable industry, Jim was the first CEO to welcome me into the business and offer his help in answering any questions I had," said Neil Smit, president and CEO, Charter Communications. "He provided me with thoughtful insights that I continue to apply – especially those about customer and employee focus. Jim was genuine and he cared. He will be greatly missed.”

“Like Neil I viewed Jim as the model leader that all of us could look to for guidance as well as inspiration," said Charter Communications COO Mike Lovett.

"He was one of our great associates and one of the best operating people we knew," said Cablevision chairman Charles Dolan. "He had such wonderful success at Cox and we learned a great deal from watching him. He has a beautiful family and we are all going to miss him very much." 

“Jim wasn’t just our leader and dear friend; he was the conscience of an entire industry," said Rocco Commisso, founder, chairman and CEO of Mediacom Communications. "He led by example, never afraid to take on unpopular causes or costly initiatives. His organization, his employees, his customers and the rest of all of us in cable benefited immensely from his unique contributions as he single-handedly led the charge on customer service standards, the triple-play, diversity in the workplace, and escalating programming costs. His deep convictions, his great sense of right and wrong, and his infinite charisma always put a shine on Jim whether in the hall of Congress, among his peers, or on the golf course. He taught all of us well and for that I will miss him dearly.  My heart goes out to Debby and his daughters. Boy, was he proud of his family – this quintessential family man.”

“Jim’s longtime leadership of Cox Communications, his personal commitment to customer service and diversity, and his devoted service to our industry in so many ways, serve as an example of excellence for all of us in cable today, and for all those who follow in the future,” said Bill Bresnan, chairman of the Cable Center and president and CEO of Bresnan Communications. “Last year, as part of The Cable Center’s Cox Customer Experience Management MBA Program at the University of Denver, Jim shared his insights with the students of the inaugural class. It is this generosity of spirit that we’ll always remember and appreciate.”

"We will miss Jim’s candor, sense of humor and friendship," said George Bodenheimer, President, ESPN, Inc. and ABC Sports, and Chairman, ESPN Board of Directors. "In addition to his pioneering leadership in our industry, his commitment to philanthropy is a most fitting legacy."

"When I first started at Court TV, we got the news that Cox had dropped the network," said Crown Media president and CEO Henry Schleiff, who was formerly president and CEO of Court TV. "At the time, we were only in about 33 million homes. This was a drop of about 1 million to 1.5 million subs. We had a meeting with Jim and a couple other people. He said, ‘Listen Henry, I like you, but there is no reason to carry your network,’ pointing to Court TV’s 0.1 rating. Jim told me to come back in a year or less and if he saw real progress in ratings, he’d put it back on. ‘You have my word,’ he said, and shook my hand. No contract, nothing. Eight to nine months later, I called on Jim. Our ratings had improved to a 0.5, and I asked him if he’d put us back on. He said, ‘I gave you my word,’ and he did it. When he shook hands with you, he stood up."

“The thing that stands out is the intense personal interest he took in people," said Decker Anstrom, president and CEO of Landmark Communications. "Always struck me how he built such a wonderful culture at Cox. I think Cox is probably the only company with a chief people office. He knew the names of everyone’s kids and spouses. He had that remarkable personable touch. I think that created that fierce loyalty people had for him.”

“Jim served on Discovery’s board almost from our very beginning," said John Hendricks, founder and chairman, Discovery Communications. "He loved this company, and he always let me know how impressed he was with our staff after every meeting. Since the time he gave his approval for the vital investment by Cox in Discovery in 1986, Jim was a tireless advocate for all of us. Discovery would just not be the company we are today without Jim’s vision, passion and acumen over the past 20 years.”

“Jim was one of my favorite people," says former Lifetime CEO Carole Black. "He was such a great and supportive friend in the cable industry and remained my wonderful friend after we both retired. He was so smart, so honest and so much fun! He was absolutely crazy about his family…his fabulous wife, Debby, and his amazingly talented and beautiful three daughters. Perhaps because of his great love and appreciation of them, he was an extraordinary cheerleader for Lifetime and for all of our initiatives on behalf of women and girls. I always knew I could count on his endorsement and support. I admired him and loved him, and I shall miss him so much, just like everyone who knew him. He was rare and wonderful, and I feel very blessed to have had him as my friend.”

“Having him on our board these past two years allowed us to know and appreciate his warmth, character and dedication, all of which will be greatly missed,” said David Jones, Jr., chairman of the board of directors for Humana. “During the short time we knew Jim we benefited greatly from his knowledge and insight. Our heartfelt sympathies are extended to his family.”

A "First Name" CEO

Robbins’ long-time employees at Cox Communications are also mourning his loss.

"Jim was known as a cable-industry pioneer who drove Cox, and in many ways the whole industry, into a new competitive era by launching telephone and high-speed Internet services over the cable TV infrastructure," Cox posted on its Digital Straight Talk blog this morning (Cox’s corporate tribute is here).

"He was also among the first to insist on customer care standards in the industry, stressing long before cable was a multi-service business that customer loyalty would be key to the industry’s future ability to meet customer demands."

Cox employees looked up to Robbins, the blog continues, "for not only his professional accomplishments, but his personal traits – his devotion to his wife, Debby, and their three daughters… his sometimes-gruff-on-the-outside (but-always-warm-and-compassionate-on-the-inside) demeanor… his affinity for wearing rumpled hats and fleece vests… and his frequent use of Naval terms, even decades after serving in Vietnam."

What’s more, "As the company grew rapidly in number of customers and employees, Jim still insisted on knowing employees’ first names, and he related with all of us in a refreshingly rare sincere way. He will be sorely missed."

In His Own Words

Robbins, no doubt, would have little time for such heartfelt tributes.

"I’m not wholly concerned about legacy or any of that kind of stuff," Robbins told Paul Maxwell in CableWorld‘s cover story on the eve of his retirement, The Reluctant Executive (CableWorld, 12/5/05). "I had great fun and a great ride and enjoyed the hell out of everything I’ve done and especially the people I’ve worked with. I learned early on what being with good people is all about."

He will be remembered, not just within cable, as an outstanding operator and fierce competitor with not just an eye on the bottom line, but — most of all — on his employees and customers.

"What worries me more than anything is that we, for some reason, let down our execution guard and don’t do a good job executing the three-product bundle," Robbins told CableWorld in 2004. "We have the best opportunity to continue to take market share by offering three products and variations on the products. That’s our huge advantage—it just takes good execution and good customer service."

"At the end of the day we’re all going to have the same programming, the same hardware," Robbins told CableWorld editor Seth Arenstein last year on the eve of his induction into the Cable Hall of Fame. "The differentiator is how you treat your customer. It sounds like motherhood and apple pie. Easy to say, hard to do."

We reprint that memorable interview below, along with a few words from Seth — who’s in Denver for tonight’s annual Cable Hall of Fame ceremony. We invite you to post your comments below, and help us remember the man Cox Communications today described as "our much beloved leader."



Denver — It’s sad and ironic to be sitting here this morning, learning as many in cable have, that Jim Robbins has passed, way too early at 65. It was just one year ago when Robbins, rugged and seemingly healthy, was inducted into Cable’s Hall of Fame here.
 
Talk at tonight’s induction ceremonies for the class of 2007 will likely be dominated by remembrances of Robbins. While I didn’t know him nearly as well as our own Hall of Fame member and columnist, Paul Maxwell, did, I had the privilege of interviewing Robbins for CableWorld‘s 2006 Hall of Fame issue.
 
I recall it was hard to get him on the phone. Despite his retirement he was busier than ever, he told me, and I believed him. We finally were able to connect in New York, during Diversity Week. He apologized for being tough to track down. Apology accepted. Ah, but the best was to come. The man who publicly, at least, disdained recognition, honors and interviews, was, and there’s no other way to describe him during that conversation, a hoot.
 
The Q&A that appears below is only a fraction of what Robbins said to me that day. Most of it was far too salty to print. But as you can see from the heavily edited transcript, the man was insightul and entertaining. Truth be told, he had me in stitches.
 
Not only was his sense of humor about his golf game bone dry, but his tongue and mind were still New England sharp, blasting this, praising that ("Brian Roberts and I have been pulling each other’s chains for years…"). And the way he phrased things was priceless. A use of the language that dies with him. In a career filled with hundreds of interviews of cable execs, that’s one I’ve not forgotten.
 
In the end I think Robbins secretly enjoyed the praise that he received that night in Denver during his Hall of Fame induction, even though he told me he wanted to pick up his trophy under the cover of darkness and fly away unnoticed. The cable industry wouldn’t let him get away with that. I’m glad they didn’t. — Seth Arenstein



SA: Is there anything you’ve seen in retirement that you’ve said to yourself, “Gee, I wish I’d noticed that when I was running Cox”?

JR: The only admonition that I would leave is this: I think we have a good thing with the bundle, and we’d better damn well make sure we’ve got a wireless product in that bundle because that’s where the consumer is taking us. If we’re not there, I think we’re vulnerable to the big, bad phone companies. All due speed on the joint venture initiative with Sprint. Look, just because the other guys don’t have their full arsenal going at us yet doesn’t mean we can slack off. We need to get the wireless product fully integrated into our bundle. That is going to help us remain competitive.

You have a lot of experience competing against the phone companies. Any words of advice for cable?

I think cable’s doing great. The formula that we executed at Cox is increasingly looking like what everyone else is doing. My only admonition is stay at it, with terrific underscoring on customer service. At the end of the day we’re all going to have the same programming, the same hardware. The differentiator is how you treat your customer. It sounds like motherhood and apple pie. Easy to say, hard to do.

Speaking of your customer service mantra, Paul Maxwell reminded me to ask how’s customer service at your house?

Well, there are no plans where I live now to have high-definition television. I don’t need to mention the name of the company, but I’ve gone to the head of it and asked this question and there are no plans for it. And I don’t live on a foreign planet. That speaks for itself.

Was taking Cox private the right way to go?

I think it looks better every day as you see Brian Roberts’ stock price go back over where Cox Enterprises took their company private.

For someone who avoids honors, since you’ve retired you’ve been brought back to accept awards more than a few times. Is this positively your last hurrah on the awards circuit?

Never say never, but I sure hope so.

[Laughter] Seriously, you must be honored by your induction.

I’m absolutely honored by it and delighted. I wish I could just fly out there in the middle of the night and slide away.

[Laughter] Brian Roberts says he’s most proud of joining you in the Hall.

You know Brian and I have been pulling each other’s chain for a long time. I would say the same thing back to him. We’ve had a friendly rivalry for years. We’ll continue to pull each other’s chain until we’re in the ground.

There’s a nasty rumor going around that despite your retirement your handicap is not improving.

It’s getting worse. And that’s the honest to God truth.

[Laughter] Why is that?

I have no idea. If I knew that I wouldn’t be spending my time talking to you, I’d be out on a golf course making money.

Seriously, you seem pretty busy with all the boards you serve on. [Mr. Robbins is president of the board of trustees, St. Paul’s School, his alma mater; he also serves on the board of Humana Inc., STI Classic Funds, Bessemer Securities Inc. and Cox Enterprises and is senior advisor, Providence Equity.]

I’m a little bit busy.

So, are you enjoying retirement or does it feel like you haven’t retired?

No, I’m enjoying retirement. I’m trying to get a rhythm on what retirement is all about, and I think that may be an oxymoron.

Why is that?

Because I don’t think there is such a thing as a rhythm in retirement. The best part of it is that I have a great deal more control over my own time. I can work as much or as little as I want, and I can come and go as I want. I’m not constrained by the daily treadmill.

Any thoughts on your induction class?

In a lot of ways it’s a wonderful class. I saw Bob Zitter the other day. There’s a guy who’s been toiling away in the vineyards behind the scenes to keep HBO in the forefront. Ralph Baruch I worked for before I went to Cox; I have very fond memories of him as a human being and it’s ironic we’re both going in together. Decker Anstrom is just a dear friend and a mentor, certainly in the political world. He’s a great human being; humble, effective, smart, just all those adjectives that you like to think you can emulate. I don’t know Judy McGrath as well, but she’s certainly been a force behind Tom Freston. Now she’ll have to operate under the klieg lights. She’s done that before, but now they’ll really be on her.

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