Had you told us one year ago that Insight Communications would be our MSO of the Year we would have laughed, probably not politely.

Insight was supposed to be history by now, gobbled up by Time Warner Cable, Jerry Kent or perhaps a private equity firm. President Dinni Jain would be running another company at this point. CEO Michael Willner likely would be slipping into early retirement, cruising off Bora Bora.

Who knew in this improbable summer in which an African-American candidate would be a presidential contender and the Rays of Tampa Bay would own baseball’s best record on July 4 that Jain would have Insight setting records and Willner would be busier than ever? (The likable Willner is preparing to co-chair The Cable Show ’09, The Kaitz Dinner and be inducted into cable’s Hall of Fame. Does the man ever say no?)

The Insight story has been told before. Here’s a quick version. At the end of 2002, when Jain joined Insight as CFO after years in the U.K. cable industry, it was a jolt. "When I came here, no offense intended…but I was shocked that everyone was smiling all the time. Every time I’d be in a room with other MSOs someone would be handing someone else an award." Based on the numbers, he "wondered why." Churn was "three times higher than what I was used to…[in England]." Customer service "was terrible, but everyone was smiling."

While he acknowledges that cable’s platform, Insight’s in particular, was strong, "we didn’t seem to have any of the competitive DNA that I was used to." If cable really felt its product was so good, then why was 1% growth good, 3% growth phenomenal? "We should have been growing at 8%, 10%."

It was at that point five years ago that Willner and Jain made changes at Insight — "this was radical change," Willner says quickly — based on the Jim Collins book Good to Great. Instead of having system-level managers "spending a lot of time worrying about the final score," essentially cash flow, they were told to concentrate on "things that could be used to run up the final score," Willner says, using sports terminology, the constant vernacular of himself and Jain. "We started measuring people not on cash flow growth rates but on things they could have total control over," he adds. Some of the measurable items included telemarketing, upgrades and reducing disconnects. It also meant increasing marketing spending from a "meagerly small amount to a properly effective amount," Willner admits. The result was a sustainable growth not based solely on raising rates, but on unit and customer increases.

One more result: "We created much more of a hybridized model between centralized and decentralized" management, Jain says. The "anarchy" of cable, he believes, is that system managers have many ways to reach budget numbers. "We took a step back" and created "the Insight system," a common way of measuring roughly 10 "important numbers that drive success." The systems were held "rigorously accountable" for those 10 metrics. "We made sure we improved in those 10 areas."

Improve they did, enough that Insight had growth last year across the board, in voice, access, video and even basic subs — Insight gained 35,000 in ’07. With the devil in the details, Jain objects to his interviewer saying "even basic subs." Politely he corrects you. "For us it’s not ‘even basic,’ it starts with basic." Insight decided "early on that we’d make the basic product our proving ground, because if you can sell basic…you have built a machine that will be capable of selling other products pretty well."

So this is what turned around Insight? Again the word basic enters the dialogue. "If I laid out our system, you’d…say it’s really basic. This can’t be all that there is. Well, that’s all there is." For Insight, it’s not what you do, but how you do it. "It’s the intensity," Jain emphasizes.

Fast Facts:

  • The dissolution of Insight’s partnership with Comcast on Dec. 31 ’07 didn’t stop it from posting records in basic subs (+5.4%), telephone subs and operating cash flow (+17%).

  • Insight’s penetration for high-speed access reached 30% last year, second only to Cablevision’s.

  • Q1 ’08 saw Insight set records for basic sub growth (up 2.2%), high-speed access and telephone net adds.

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