BY MAVIS SCANLON Before Comcast could impress its new customers in south Florida, it needed to wow its employees, most of whom until recently worked under the AT&T Broadband banner. To that end, in late February Comcast hosted what one division manager called the “internal unveiling” of the newly named south Florida system to its employees. In essence it was a splendid party at the fabled Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa in Hollywood. The nearly 3,000 attendees — including spouses, families and significant others — were invited to play a version of Family Feud (courtesy of the Game Show Network), check out an alligator and other wild animals (courtesy of Animal Planet, partially owned by Comcast) and participate in a variety of games (courtesy of Comcast’s sports programming partners). Groups of employees from Vero Beach and Fort Pierce, the northernmost parts of Comcast’s south Florida division, traveled two hours by bus to the recently rebuilt, art deco Diplomat, which in its 1960s heyday was a magnet for movie stars, gangsters and gamblers. Employees came from as far away as Key West — more than 100 miles southwest of Miami — for the meet-and-greet event. “The intent was to signify our commitment to the market and to the employees,” says Tom Autry, area VP/GM for Miami-Dade and the Florida Keys. Comcast wanted to “show its commitment from a company standpoint and to set the tone for how we’re going to be moving forward in communities in south Florida,” he adds. “We believe getting employees on board is critical and the first step in being successful in any market.” Comcast threw the event in part to get employees excited about the latest in a long line of the area’s cable systems’ corporate owners and fired up for what promises to be a very intense couple of years as the MSO undertakes an aggressive upgrade. For some of the system’s more than 1,800 employees in south Florida, the bash was a homecoming — Comcast owned systems throughout Broward County before swapping them to AT&T Broadband in December 2000. To former AT&T Broadband and TCI employees, it was a fresh start with the largest MSO in the country. The night also included a tribute to former AT&T broadband cable technician Felix Singletary, who, along with five other passers-by, on Feb. 3 saved an elderly woman from drowning in a Pompano Beach canal near her home. Of course, it hasn’t all been fun and games and toasts. Comcast is dead serious about meeting its upgrade schedule for all the systems it acquired from AT&T within two years. Comcast budgeted about $200 million for its south Florida upgrade, which Craig Snedeker, area VP/GM of Broward County and the area known as the Treasure Coast, says is ahead of schedule in many areas. Snedeker, who followed his father, Wally Snedeker, a cable pioneer, into the business, has in his 20 years in the industry become known for his expertise in overseeing upgrades and rebuilds. All of his career stops have been upgrades and rebuilds, he says. “We have our foot on the accelerator” in Broward County, which is about 30% upgraded, he says. The Fort Lauderdale area will be completed well ahead of schedule, he adds. South Florida is one of Comcast’s largest regions, with about 800,000 customers. The division stretches from Vero Beach, far north of Miami, to Key West, although both Adelphia and Charter serve chunks of Florida’s eastern coast. Snedeker’s first task is to get the entire system working on the same architecture; south Florida’s series of operators left Comcast a number of varying architectures to deal with, with different towns in varying stages of completion. In the weeks leading up to the employee party, Comcast senior management in south Florida holed up for daylong meetings, prepping for the changeover to the Comcast name, which became official last week. Comcast’s branding campaign is not likely to have been missed by south Florida residents, who are either beating the humidity and storms in air-conditioned living rooms or enjoying the spells of sunshine at the beach. In addition to its commercials featuring Lance Armstrong and aerial banners, Comcast commissioned local artist Henry Johnson to paint a mural that has been rolling around town. The mural’s beach scene features the message, “We’re ready to work for you.” Local franchising authorities and media were presented with cakes bearing the same message. It may take a while to get the message across that the cable company itself, not just the name, is different. “Changing the brand is one thing,” says Filemon Lopez, who was recruited from running Comcast’s training center, Comcast University, to be GM of the south Florida division. Lopez first worked for Comcast in Florida in 1990 and still has family there. “We have to work hard to win the hearts and minds of our customers, and it will not happen overnight.” Under Lopez’s direction, plans are underway for training customer care and technical staff and developing leadership. Senior managers have already gone through a “Connecting with Comcast” program, which all employees will eventually take. A “handful” of managers have been brought on from other parts of Comcast, Lopez says. “We are fortunate that the previous company did not establish a culture at all,” Lopez says. “We are building a new culture based on a common mission, clearly defined goals and a common set of values.” Part of this culture change is the switch to being a locally focused, decentralized operation. “We’ve been very aggressively working on decentralizing management in south Florida,” Autry says. In Autry’s service area, which covers Dade County and part of Monroe County, Comcast created an independent operation for the metro Miami area, as well as stand-alone operations for northern Dade County, Hialeah, Kendall and the Keys. “We become much more nimble in our response,” Autry says. For example, in the Keys, the company has technicians and service personnel in three locations, eliminating the great distance trucks would have to roll if there were only one location in the upper Keys. The model also calls for local teams in almost every area of the business, from marketing to HR to construction and technical areas. There’s more to the local angle than just service and upgrade issues. Poor customer service and a perception that AT&T Broadband disregarded community concerns created friction between the operator and regulators. By the time Comcast took over AT&T, the operator had been fined by at least one community in south Florida and had been sued by residents in Broward County, who alleged AT&T had redlined poorer areas for high-speed data service. During the year Comcast sought approval from regulators to buy AT&T, its government-relations team crisscrossed the country gearing up for franchise transfers. Autry and Snedeker have made it clear they will be available to answer any concerns. “The most important thing for us is to be local and to have our people visible to those community leaders,” Snedeker says. “So they know they can go and talk to any one of my staff members, or they can call me and they know I’m going to be able to visit with them.” Although Lopez, Snedeker and Autry stressed that they are focusing on the future, Comcast, even with its stellar reputation, will have to prove itself. “People have given them a honeymoon to see how they implement their business plan,” says Matt Leibowitz, an attorney representing Florida local franchise authorities in transfer and renewal talks. “But the clock is ticking.” Leibowitz did say the new team seems bright and responsive. During the approval process, Leibowitz went over each franchise on a city-by-city basis with the Comcast team and worked out solutions to avoid the old scenario, he says. For example, Comcast actually pushed AT&T to complete its upgrade in Miami before it took over the system. The cities in south Florida also have more enforcement power under the new franchise agreements. “The cities have the authority in the event of a failure of the company to give notice to the company, and if the company doesn’t respond, to fine them,” Leibowitz says. “And the fines can rack up to substantial numbers, which puts tremendous pressure to fix the problems.” The main complaint from LFAs under AT&T Broadband? “Customer service, customer service and customer service,” Leibowitz says. In addition to the poor customer service and lack of upgrades, he adds, there was a “a total breakdown in responsiveness.” The division is implementing a best practices model “to refine our customer service approach,” Lopez says, a process that may take some time. “One philosophy I am conveying to all employees is the fact that we are all in the customer service business.” Klayton Fennell, Comcast’s VP of government affairs and communications in south Florida, worked for the past year on the franchise transfers, and says part of the struggle has been that there hasn’t been one cable provider for a prolonged period of time. “What we’re speaking with communities about is not fines for failure to perform but what we are doing to improve performance,” Fennell says. Community leaders “are finding out that Comcast has an excellent reputation and a track record of direct, ethical and honest negotiations,” adds Lopez. “Our aim is to create a win-win scenario in all our dealings throughout the region.” Comcast has also undertaken reviews of almost every aspect of the business in south Florida, and is expanding its outreach to the large and growing Hispanic population. Lopez was not specific on what programming changes are in the works, but noted that it is a top priority for the division. The success of the new team in south Florida will be measured by feedback from the local franchise authorities as well as by subscriber growth numbers, although none of the managers interviewed would give specific targets. One thing is sure, though — they are itching to get the upgrade done as quickly as possible, not only so new products can be rolled out, but to compete with the ever-threatening satellite competitors. “We’ll compete nicely when the upgrade is done,” Snedeker says. “This is an area that was losing customers, and we simply have to change that.” Lopez has experience with all parts of the cable business. After 18 years in cable advertising, Lopez was named head of Comcast University, the MSO’s companywide training center. While at Comcast U., he was charged with developing programs to prepare for the AT&T Broadband transition. He has also overseen a wide-ranging employee communications program — no small task with a company that has nearly tripled in size with one acquisition. Lopez started with Comcast in 1990 in Florida. Autry’s cable career spans two decades. Before being named to his current position, Autry served in the same capacity in Comcast’s Savannah, Ga., region. That operation consisted of Savannah, Panama City, Fla., and Dothan, Ala. Autry started in cable in 1980, working his way up to operations from the technical side. From 1989 to 1999 Autry worked at Jones Intercable, joining the Comcast team after Comcast acquired Jones. A 20-year veteran of the cable television industry, Snedeker was previously VP/GM for Comcast’s Chesapeake Bay Group. Prior to that, he was GM for Comcast’s Broward County operations. Snedeker has been involved with the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, Historic Annapolis Foundation, Lake County United Way, Lake Educational Foundation, Ft. Lauderdale International Film Festival, Broward Education Foundation and the Florida Atlantic University Advisory Board. He served as a committee member for the National Cable Telecommunications Association for nearly five years. He is also a past Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association Committee chairman. Fennell oversees franchising, government relations, community affairs and public relations. Prior to this appointment, he held a similar position at Comcast Cable in Philadelphia, overseeing Comcast’s franchising initiatives and renewal strategies throughout 26 states. He was also instrumental in the franchise transfers for the systems acquired from AT&T Broadband. Before joining Comcast, Fennell served as executive director of planning and administration for TESS Communications, a facilities-based provider of voice, video and data services in Colorado and Arizona. He began his career in telecommunications with AT&T. EMPLOYEES: 1,800 MILES OF PLANT: 11,306 HOMES PASSED: 1.5 million PERCENT UPGRADED: 37% BASIC SUBSCRIBERS: 800,000 ANALOG BASIC RATE: $10 to $45 (for expanded services) DIGITAL SUBSCRIBERS: N/A DIGITAL RATES: $9.95 to $19.95 HIGH-SPEED DATA CUSTOMERS: N/A HIGH-SPEED DATA RATE: $57.95 for HSD only; $42.95 with basic cable INSERTIONS: 40 channels SOURCE: COMCAST Comparison of Comcast subscribers in Miami to the top 75 market average.