Dinni Jain’s Little Red Book: Good’s no longer good enough for Insight’s Michael Willner and Dinni Jain. With inspiration from Jim Collins’ Good to Great, they have been purging Insight in an all-out effort to stop bleeding video customers. By M.C. Antil To the outsider, Insight Communications was already a good company. Although not a giant MSO, it was an important industry player, in part because of its high-profile CEO Michael Willner. It was profitable, had above industry-average penetration on many products and operated in attractive markets like Columbus, Ohio, and Louisville, Ky. Insight was also going private; seeking an equity partner to help buy up its common shares and free itself from the whims of Wall Street analysts. So why, just more than one year ago, did Insight’s New York-based management team decide to reinvent the company? Because, for all its performance, reputation and pending autonomy, Insight was merely a good company. It was not great, and those at the top knew it. They also knew they lost 21,000 video customers in 2004. The competition was eating them alive. At the urging of COO Dinni Jain, who this month assumed the title of president previously held by Willner, Insight embarked on a massive campaign to become great; an effort that retooled the company from the ground up, or in the case of the employee mind-set, from the inside out. "We were too obsessed with things like new technology," says Jain, who joined the company in 2002. "That stuff was important, but it wasn’t the central issue. The issue was our ability to deliver excellent service—and I don’t mean good, I mean excellent." SHAKEOUT AT THE DISTRICT LEVEL The top-to-bottom campaign—based on the simple premise that good is the enemy of great—proved to be a full-frontal assault on accepted thinking and standard operating procedure. It challenged staff to rethink how they approached their jobs and to limit their focus to a handful of clearly defined goals. In the case of system (or "district") VP/GMs, some were shown the door. The fallout was considerable, and left Insight with 10 new district heads out of 14. Jain and Willner, who has retained his titles of vice chairman and CEO, declined to provide specifics behind the reinvention campaign or the workforce reshuffling. In fact, Willner claims their unwillingness to talk specifics is one example of Insight’s commitment to competitive hardball. Melody Brucker, district VP for Champaign-Urbana, Ill., was one of four district managers who made the cut. Characterizing the mind-set reeducation as an excruciating process, the self-proclaimed "cable gypsy" with 20 years under her belt recalls constantly wondering why the change was necessary. It required her to take a hard look at her team and, after many sleepless nights, admit changes had to be made. "To get where you need to go you really have to make sure you have the right people on the bus," she says. "I had to ask myself a hard question: Was this the team that could take us to the next level?" She was forced to make "hard choices," which meant moving people around, and in some cases letting them go. "It was tough," she says. "Just because you’re a good person and mean well, doesn’t necessarily make you good at what you do." Brucker would offer only these specifics: Her team has been taught to simplify, focus on essentials and refuse to accept excuses. She says that as a district manager in a small college town with strong DBS competition, she had come to believe that once a year there would be high disconnects and that minimizing losses was the same as growth. "At some point it became incumbent upon me to look at my goals, stop making excuses and find a way to turn the dials." She adds, "I wish I could say there was a magic formula, but at the end of the day it was just a matter of focus." A NEWER TESTAMENT The blueprint for Insight’s initiative was Jim Collins’ best-seller, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t, of which Jain is an unabashed devotee. Collins’ Built to Last helped radically alter manufacturing in the U.S. 10 years ago, and since being published in 2001, Good to Great is having a similar impact on the retail and service sectors. At this year’s Insight leadership conference, Jain made the book required reading and constantly referred to it throughout the five-day event. Jain cut his teeth in the rabid British telecom marketplace and the dog-eat-dog cellular industry. He brought to Insight a familiarity with real competition, shaped by a deep sense of the consequences of failure. Willner, on the other hand, was and still is a cable executive who learned the business, in part, by creating it. His idea of competition was colored by the fact that for years cable was the only game in town. He acted accordingly; a bias to which he now readily confesses. "I always thought I knew how to compete," Willner says. "But I didn’t. Not really. Not the way Dinni and some of our new people know how to." Those closest to them say they are an unlikely pair. Willner’s the visionary; Jain’s the details guy. Willner loves politics and being an industry ambassador; Jain’s profile outside Insight is virtually nonexistent. Willner is an action guy with street smarts; Jain is contemplative and bookish. Willner, New York-born and of Jewish descent, is politically conservative; Jain, of Indian descent and raised in the South by two college professors, is a staunch liberal (not to mention a flag-waving Tar Heel who bleeds Carolina blue). Yet, to those who have watched them work together the past three years, each uniquely complements the other. SVP of marketing and programming Pam Euler Halling calls them "two very different individuals who share a sense of purpose." COMCAST WATCH As of Dec. 31, 2005, Comcast, an equity partner in Insight, has the option of dissolving the partnership and acquiring half of Insight’s 1.3 million customers. Comcast has indicated it will do just that. What is not clear is when. Insight has the ability to delay the deal up to six months, but it cannot prevent it. Given the regulatory hurdles, the negotiations to determine the customers impacted and the normal approval process, it is possible that whenever Comcast exercises its option, it might be as long as two years before the transfer takes place. But the specter looms. Nevertheless, Insight’s team says that it can only worry about the things it can control. "We will still keep our eye on the target," says Willner, adding that he and Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts "continue to have a very strong industry relationship." At the district level, Brucker says the Comcast deal will have virtually no impact on operations, much the same way that going private was more a corporate than field issue. "The Comcast deal is a non-factor at our level. We have goals and our job is to reach them." While the jury is still out on the impact of Insight’s extreme makeover, cable edition, the early returns are promising. According to communications SVP Sandy Colony, the third quarter of 2005 was the greatest quarter for basic growth in company history (a net gain of 13,800 subs), and Q4 proved to be much of the same (a net gain of 10,600 subs). "We’re gaining in markets that don’t yet offer a bundle, and that is great news," Colony says. Jain, however, remains cautiously optimistic. He claims "a couple of quarters do not a trend make," and says he will reserve judgment on the progress of the turnaround until he sees basic growth over at least a year’s time. "It doesn’t matter who you go to, the research is pretty clear. In consumer satisfaction studies, cable is down near the bottom," Jain says. "Some in this industry want to ignore that, but we can’t. Our goal is greatness and we won’t stop until we get there." Basically Bleeding Despite an overall increase in revenue generating units (RGUs), Insight’s basic customer base continued to erode in 2004 and throughout much of 2005, prompting management to take a hard look at its operating ethos. Source: Insight Insight by the Numbers HOMES PASSED: 2.4 MILLION
BASIC CUSTOMERS: 1.3 MILLION
MSO RANK IN SIZE: 9
DIGITAL CUSTOMERS: 489,900
HSI CUSTOMERS: 439,200
% OF PLANT UPGRADED TO 750 MHZ OR HIGHER: 97%
BASIC CUSTOMERS BY DISTRICT Bowling Green, Ky. 24,662
Central Indiana (Bloomington, Ind.) 78,886
Champaign-Urbana, Ill. 51,361
Columbus, Ohio 87,932
Lexington, Ky. 85,932
Louisville, Ky. 276,367
Northeast Indiana (Anderson, Ind.) 116,919
Northern Illinois (Rockford, Ill.) 117,062
Northern Kentucky (Florence, Ky.) 81,645
Northwest Indiana (Lafayette, Ind.) 68,007
Peoria, Ill. 123,028
Southwest Indiana (Evansville, Ind.) 58,210
Springfield, Ill. 111,637 Source: Insight. Data as of Q3 2005.

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