Jim Robbins didn’t hesitate to accept the top job at Cox when it was offered to him 20 years ago. But few CEOs have had more disdain for the spotlight or for wielding power than Robbins. As he prepares to step down after running Cox for 20 years, Paul Maxwell asked Robbins to reflect on the lessons of his early years in cable, diversity, customer care and how the industry can prepare to battle the telcos. When we approached Jim Robbins about this tribute, he didn’t want any part of it. He abhors the concept of a “Robbins legacy” and dislikes being the focus of tributes, as anyone who attended this year’s Kaitz or WICT festivities knows. He’d rather lead by example, not words. But after a few tries, we prevailed upon his better nature and got him to talk with me for a couple of hours last month. Jim was in his office in Atlanta; I was in a hotel room in Puerto Rico. I’ve known Jim for decades and worked closely with him when he chaired the Kaitz Foundation. I’ve even picked him up to take him to the airport from a secret meeting (that one resulted in TelePort) in order to talk about the business. The following conversation expands on the version that appeared in the print version of CableWORLD. It hits the high points of Jim’s cable legacy (like it or not, the word is appropriate) especially as it applies to customer service. To see how important that simple but complex-to-execute concept really is, all you have to do is map out cable vs. DBS penetration. You can pick out the Cox systems at a glance. They simply do better. Here’s why: JR: Mr. Maxwell? PM: Mr. Robbins … I apologize for being on a speakerphone, but that’s the only way I could connect to a recorder. JR: Well that’s OK. But you’re mistaken on one point and that’s that there’s going to be anything worth recording (laughter). PM: Well I kept telling Seth and everybody else that, but they didn’t believe me (laughter). JR: Oh God… PM: How’s your farewell tour coming? JR: I’m not doing a farewell tour. I’m making an occasional stop at various systems to say goodbye to people. You know, but that’s really not my drill. PM: I know, but you’ve been baiting the telcos, which I thought was pretty funny, late last month. JR: I had more fun, Paul, doing that. I have to tell you, from the day I got in the business the telephone companies have always had a finger up your butt and it was really, really, really fun to just sort of blast. And I will tell you that with my PR people here. Andrea Proser helped write that speech and got a lot of input from a lot of people. It was fun doing that speech. PM: I bet. I read it. It was good. It was too bad you couldn’t have laid out the Sprint deal while you were there. JR: Well, you know, I alluded to that. We weren’t ready to go at that point. You know, as I said in New York, I think the Sprint deal is a small step forward. It gives us a golden arrow in our quiver and gives them something else to sell. They need us as much as we need them, but nobody was giving away the store in terms of the future. And the fun of that deal is going to be trying to figure out the future and trying to work the future. That’s really where the fun is. PM: The implications are interesting but it’s going to be even more interesting to watch it play out. JR: That’s right. I think everybody has realistic expectations that we each want to control our economics. That’s where @Home went awry. [Editor’s Note: In the late, lamented @Home deal experience, @Home more or less controlled the broadband customer, not the cable operator. In addition, the operators could did not stop the Excite merger mostly because of the capital structure.] PM: No kidding. Very excitably if I remember… (laughter). JR: Yeah, [venture capital powerhouse] Kleiner Perkins wanted to incent the entity for an IPO and all of that, which, you know, we should have known that from the beginning. We don’t have that kind of capital structure here. PM: That’s a very, very good point. And [the Sprint Nextel wireless customer] gets to be your customer, as I understand the deal? JR: Yes. PM: That’s really critical and congratulations on that, all of you. JR: That was sort of our major sticking point. I can remember 15 years ago sitting in a room in New York with AT&T and the whole thing blew up over that issue. I think these guys are realistic. I’m very comfortable with Gary Forsee [president and CEO of Sprint Nextel]. I’ve known him for a bunch of years. Unlike [former chairman/CEO William] Esrey over there at Sprint before. Esrey held the entity, Sprint PCS, captive because he wouldn’t approve any financing. PM: That was the Achilles’ heel in that deal. JR. Absolutely. PM: I’ve been listening to Frank Drendel behind the scenes on this for a long time and I’m really pleased this has come about. JR: Well he’s been, well, you know, between you and me and the fence post, he’s been very helpful… PM; That’s probably an understatement, Jim. JR: Well, he’s been very helpful in trying to get it done. PM: Let’s start at the beginning of your career in cable. We’ll mention where you’ve been in this business. And then diversity issues, which are something you care about. PR is also something you care about and then the big one, customer service, and then sort of a legacy wrap-up. JR: First of all let me just tell you, and I say this straight up. I’m not wholly concerned about legacy or any of that kind of stuff. 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. So, you know, I do this somewhat reluctantly. PM: I understand. But look, you’ve had an impact, so you might as well get called out for it. JR: That’s fair. And I don’t know where you want to start. I actually started in the cable business with a company called Adams-Russell in Massachusetts. Got rate increases in all three systems, got permission to bring distant independent signals in from New York, two independents from New York, in to all three markets, got three franchise renewals, knocked out a union and, uh, 10 days before my first child was born was fired for bad effort. PM: (Laughter) JR: So that taught me the best lesson in a way and that was to work with good people. PM: How’d you wind up at Adams-Russell? JR: I was working at WBZ television news in Boston and had been on the editorial side, and they wanted to move me to Baltimore or Pittsburgh. I was chasing Debbie Robbins, or Debbie Clark at that point, and I also had some sense of wanting to be on the air. And they said you can go to Burlington, Vermont, or Portland, Maine, or you can transfer with us to another management job in Pittsburgh or Baltimore. And I was having fun in Boston and didn’t want to go and have this great television experience, whatever the hell it was. And I learned about a job in cable television. I’d always reacted a bit to my brother’s work experience. He went into a bank training program and I’ll never forget him telling me after a year, basically saying, “Bank. Bank.” (That’s what he said, in a kind of demeaning manner.) He became a schoolteacher for the rest of his life. PM: That’s interesting, and probably a lot more rewarding. JR: I think so. So I was single and I had the GI Bill pay for my graduate school and I thought I was just going to follow my heart for a while and I was lucky and fell into this business. PM: After Adams-Russell, where’d you wind up? JR: Went to Continental in Ohio, where Bob Classen and Barry Lemieux and I all started on the same day, all working for Chuck Younger. I was basically franchising, completing the franchising and building the Dayton metropolitan area—if you can make that statement. We spent six years in Dayton doing all that. What I did there was build and operate a collection of small systems, nothing particularly large. Then I got a call to go to the eastern half of Long Island with Viacom, and there I went. And for me, at least, the career progression was going to a big-sized system. So I had run small systems, run collections of small systems, and then I thought I could help myself by learning what it was like to run a big system. The difference is in a small system you push a button and watch people jump. In a big system, you push a button and watch them jump a day later. PM: (laughter) Yeah, but you had military experience, so you were used to that. JR: Sure. Well, you had indirect control of a much larger system. I extended the learning and I really learned this business from [Amos] Hostetter and Irv Grousbeck. I was there for six years, or five years, and I was on my way to California to report to John Goddard and take over everything but San Francisco on the West Coast as an operations guy. I guess they felt that I did a decent job in Long Island. I don’t want to get bogged down here and burn up all your time, but literally on the Sunday night before I was making my last trip while in transition to California a headhunter representing Cox called and asked if I would be interested in working for Cox. I said I couldn’t. I own two houses and I’m in transition. And they said well, let’s deal with the houses. Take them off the table, would you be interested? Obviously I had some exposure to Cox when I was in Dayton and had seen all of the executives at Cox. I came at David Van Valkenburg’s behest and, you know, liked it and felt comfortable and was responsible for some big systems. I started out in New York because David knew I had some New York experience and he had a management agreement in Queens Annuity Cable with Percy Sutton and he owned half a franchise in Staten Island and didn’t know what to do with it. I had a lot of experience in Albany and none in Manhattan. But I think David, despite his thoroughness, blurred those lines and that’s where I started with Cox. So we were able to recapture our house on Long Island. I think my tenure with Cox has been as long as it is because they’re paying off a terrible house I bought and they welcomed the addition of at least some experience on the Cox team (laughter). PM: That’s a good line. JR: Well, fast-forward a couple years after I joined Cox. The second year I came down to Atlanta on Labor Day. Almost two years to the day I had joined the company and I am just about ready to quit because we weren’t making the kind of progress I had hoped we were making. I’ll never forget the Friday before Labor Day in 1985. We had a big meeting in the conference room about whether we were going to go distributed or big iron in the IT area. The conclusion of the meeting is we’re going to go both and that was sort of typical of the decision-making. I went home and in my mind I was dusting off my resume and the parent CEO called Tuesday morning after Labor Day. They asked would I be interested in this job and I said yes, I haven’t toiled in the vineyards for this long without wanting. So any way, the rest is history. And honestly, if you take my career at Cox in sort of segments, the first four or five years were really just dueling budgets and making budgets and establishing credibility with what we had. So that took the next three or four years and then the business was going nicely and growing. Jim Kennedy arrived in 1987 and he had done a quick McKinsey review, which we worked very hard on and staffed and manned it properly. The way we treated the review was very important to us because I think McKinsey came away thinking very highly of cable and convinced Kennedy that’s where he wanted to be. And so he forwarded the calls on cable at our urging. And of course the Times Mirror transaction in 1995 was somewhat defining on two fronts. One, it was getting bigger for Cox. Two, it forced us to go public. We were arm in arm with Southwestern Bell having learned the phone business with them in Europe. That was another one of the things we dabbled in. Cox had always sort of roamed the world in franchising and we had some pieces of stuff over in England and we joined forces with Southwestern Bell and we learned something about the phone business and something about bundling services and stuff like that and that was very, very helpful and that led us to get together with [SBC Chairman Ed] Whitacre, who, in the end, pulled the plug because he didn’t want to be in another regulated business. In 1992 when the regulations came down on us again he got very infuriated about that and pulled the plug. Well, that was a godsend for us, obviously, and it forced the question for us—would we go public with Times Mirror? Which we did and that set up the currency we used to buy Multimedia, and buy a lot of cable operations from Media General. Teleport came out of Cox Enterprises. Sprint PCS came out of, really, Cox Enterprises and their Pioneer’s Preference. We managed those relationships and, you know, made a lot of money on those things. PM: That set up some good partnerships with TCI, too, in those days. But, one question. Cox and Discovery? JR: Discovery we picked up in 1987. My boss and I were on the way to look at our cable operation in Denmark, which was a joke because we spent more on the airplane tickets than we made on the thing over there. It was in the departure lounge in Kennedy one night that we got a call saying would we help [Discovery] make payroll the following Friday. And that was our initial $37,000 investment and the rest is history. One of the biggest mistakes I made, I think, was not pushing hard when United Cable sold out. We passed and [Liberty’s Dr.] John Malone took the whole piece… and in hindsight that was a grave mistake. PM: One question… Why didn’t you do more programming deals? Or was that just serendipity on this one? JR: It was serendipity on this one. And it was a time when we were just tiptoeing little by little into cable master programming and it was my conclusion, right or wrong, that you couldn’t be big on both. You had to concentrate as a family-controlled company with a limited number of resources. We were not going to use our currency to dilute the family. They didn’t want that. So with limited resources you had to pick one, and we felt our expertise was on the operating side of it. PM: All right. That’s a sensible answer. JR: Yes, the line between… PM: Right, very clear. Let’s talk about diversity. When you were involved with Kaitz more closely, you and I did a lot of stuff back then and I know how important that is. How would you like to address that? JR: Let me take it two ways. I always felt our management teams need to reflect the universe that we serve. You know, a very stupid example, but in the Hispanic community, many Hispanics don’t use checks. It’s a cash society. But there weren’t Hispanic marketers or somebody sitting at the senior table that was of Hispanic origin who understood that you’re probably going to under-serve that part of your market. And we did that in Phoenix for a long, long, long time. So that’s pretty straightforward. When we went public with Kennedy I said I want gender, I want race, on the outside directors here. And he said I’ll go get Andy Young, you go find a lady. So that’s just very fundamental to my core beliefs. Andy Young is the guy who puts it so eloquently; it’s a business proposition. PM: Good points on diversity. The other thing you always touted was public relations with the CTPAA. You’ve been more involved on that than any other senior MSO executive I know. JR: I think I understand that theme from having served in my second tour in the Navy as a public affairs officer. I think I understand that business well and I’ve been well served by Dave Andersen and especially by Ellen East. They’re two very different kinds of individuals. Dave was a wonderful personal performance guy. Ellen is a real strategic thinker. And it was Ellen East who did the entire ESPN effort for us. I wanted to do it, frankly because it was a business imperative for us. But it was Ellen who really orchestrated the whole thing to the point where when a rep from ESPN called our San Diego system and said “let’s have lunch” or “let’s go to the ballgame” or something like that, they said, “No, you guys are bad cats, we’re not going to spend time with you.” I give her all the credit. PM: How, though, do you teach the rest of our industry to be more upfront and use this resource better? JR: I think the best way to do it is by example. I don’t want it any other way. PM: Now to customer service. You know, in all the years my company has been tracking DBS penetration and now telco penetration, all you have to do is plot a map to tell where the Cox systems are. That’s because the DBS penetration is lower, almost by default, to Cox systems. It’s that customer service part of your playbook you’ve done so well. What does it take to teach the rest of the industry to answer their phones? JR: I also think by example. And even though we’re private, I hope we will use the opportunity when we have some particularly good numbers, to share them with analysts so that we keep our public company brethren in line. It was a very shocking revelation in 1989 or ’90 when some of our employees in an employee opinion survey in Pensacola basically condemned the company for not providing as good service as they felt we could provide. When your front-line troops tell you you’re not doing as much as you should be doing, that’s an indictment of management as far as I’m concerned. So we put a group of general managers together and were determined to fix this. And we also knew the satellite guys were coming and we also knew sooner or later we were going to offer more stuff in the pipe and if your customer base wasn’t happy with your video delivery then there’s no way they’re going to try data or telephone from you. PM: That’s something that your own employees told you to pay attention to this? JR: That’s kind of a plank story around here that people know. It reinforces the notion that we listen to Joe Six Pack. It’s my belief that the best use of power in my position is to not use it. I’ve always operated that way and I feel very strongly about that. PM: That empowers the rest of your company to do what they think they need to do. JR: Exactly. What is right. PM: What is right. That’s great. So, as you’re getting read to leave—except it seems like it’s hard to get rid of you with the WICT Gala and Cable Positive in March—do you have any regrets as you’re going away? JR: No. I really don’t. I had lots of opportunities along the way, as you can imagine, to do various things and this has been a great place to be. I think the intellectual challenges today are as vigorous as they always have been. But as I’ve said repeatedly and really mean it, 20 years in this job is way longer than I should’ve stayed. I’m sure, it really is time for the younger generation to take over and I’ve got the right guy now. And all of that feels right and Kennedy has been kind enough to ask me to come on to the Cox Enterprises board so I can keep an eye on the guys here and what they’re doing and so forth. So I really don’t have any regrets that I would share with you off the top of my head. PM: Are there any trends that discourage you at the moment, and on the other hand encourage? JR: The business is more complicated today than ever. I think the competitive landscape is threatening. I’ll never forget about six or seven years ago my objectives for the year: one, two and three were execute, execute, execute. Everything else is secondary. I think that’s where this industry has a chance to make these phone company guys rethink the massive amount of money they’re throwing at building out their networks. And if our industry doesn’t execute well it’s only going to encourage the phone companies to keep going. You know, the phone companies don’t have many other options. PM: No. This is a defensive play for them primarily, I think. Interestingly enough, though, given cable’s turnaround in customer service, not just Cox, but everyone else is better than they were 10 years ago when satellite arrived. That kind of erosion isn’t going to happen this time. JR: I think that’s right and I think with the kludge packages that they have put together so far by basically reselling DBS, whatever, I just think there’s a massive culture clash that they’re going to take. I think we’ve got half a generation—10 years—of headroom in front of us to do it right. And I hold our company up as somebody who has done it right and has that headroom. This is ours for the taking, but the distractions are going to be noisier than they have been. PM: What’s the most encouraging trend? JR: I think the most encouraging trend really is the bundle, and people really recognizing that if you provide a customer simplicity and you provide a customer productivity and try to provide a customer good relations and good service, they’ll stay with you forever. I tell you, I think the wireless play is 75% defense and 25% offense, but that 25%… The defense part is critically important in terms of customers not being encouraged to go over to their wireless carriers for everything. In other words, we’ll keep a lot more customers because we have them in a four-pack bundle. I think that’s just following what your consumer is telling you about. JR: I’ll tell you, I’m a little skittish about where all the regulators are. As [NCTA chief] Kyle [McSlarrow] points out to us, the phone companies are after us, the network neutrality guys are after us. PM: That’s the scary one. JR: It’s sort of a convergence of a lot of ill-wishers that we’ve really got to look out for. The flip side is we’ve got the best captain in Washington [in McSlarrow] that we’ve had in a long time. PM: So, we’ll see you next spring [as the honoree] at Cable Positive? JR: Hopefully more than that. I’m not going to go out of sight. PM: Oh good. Well maybe you can learn to do an install again (laughter). JR: Probably takes some remedial training. PM: It would for me, connecting all the stuff we have in the house now. JR: It really would for me, Paul. PM: Is there one last thing you’d like to tell the readers? JR: Just to tell them to keep it going. It’s a great business. JAMES O. ROBBINS Resume: President/CEO, Cox Communications Inc. Age: 64 At Cox: Joined as VP of NYC operations in 1983; later promoted to SVP of operations in Atlanta; named president in 1985; added CEO to his title in 1995 when company went public; retiring Dec 31, 2005. Before Cox: SVP of operations for Viacom Communications Inc.; was VP/GM for Viacom Cable of Long Island, N.Y.; served in various management positions for Continental Cablevision of Ohio Inc., and Montachusett Cable Television, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Adams-Russell Co.; managing editor, WBZ-TV News, in Boston. Education: University of Pa., B.A. in American Studies; M.B.A., Harvard University. Military: Destroyer Line Officer and Gunboat Flotilla Public Affairs Officer during two tours of duty with the U.S. Navy in Vietnam. Boards Outside Cable: STI Classic Funds, a mutual fund affiliate of Sun Trust Bank; president, board of trustees, St. Paul’s School. Retirement: Will join Cox Enterprises’ board and continue to serve on Cox Communications’ board. He’ll continue to serve as president of the board of trustees at the St. Paul’s School, a prep school in Concord, N.H., that he attended with John Kerry. He also plans to look at a health care board. “I’ve got one child who is about to become a doctor and another child with a chronic illness, diabetes. Health care is a really crazy world.” The Cox Timeline 1985 Public shares of Cox Cable Communications are merged into Cox Enterprises Inc., making it a private company. Conducts its first customer service survey. James O. Robbins is named president. 1986 Begins offering PPV as a regular service. Initial investment in Discovery Communications. 1987 Launches Home Premiere TV, providing customers first-run movies at the same time they’re available at home video locations. 1988 Builds Internet protocol network and launches Cox High Speed Internet. 1990 Reaches 1.5 million customers. Becomes first cable operator to establish company-wide customer service standards. Becomes a founding member of Cable in the Classroom. 1991 Partners with four cable operators to establish direct broadcast satellite company PrimeStar and begins offering service in Cox markets. 1992 First cable company to invest in Teleport Communications Group. Congress passes the 1992 Cable Act, reregulating the industry. 1993 Delivers cable and telephone service in the United Kingdom through a partnership with SBC Communications. 1994 Establishes a partnership with Times Mirror Co. to develop programming, resulting in the creation of Outdoor Life and Speedvision networks. 1995 Acquires Times Mirror Cable Television, increasing the number of customers served from 1.8 million to 3.2 million, with new customers in Phoenix; Orange County, Calif.; Palos Verdes, Calif.; and other markets. Becomes a public company traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Forms the Sprint Telecommunications Venture with Sprint, TCI and Comcast, and wins licenses to deliver PCS wireless communications in 31 major metro areas. 1996 Launches Cox@Home in Orange County, Calif. Launches Sprint PCS in San Diego. Announces partnership with Frontier Corporation to offer long-distance phone service. Congress passes the 1996 Telecommunications Act, deregulating the industry. 1997 Launches Cox Digital Cable in Orange County, Calif. Orange County becomes first cable system in the nation to deliver high-speed Internet access, local and long-distance switched telephone service and digital video to customers over one broadband network, from one company. 1998 Purchases cable operations in Las Vegas, making it the largest cable television operator in the southwest United States. 1999 Acquires more than 2.1 million customers from Gannet Co., AT&T, TCA Cable and Media General, resulting in nearly 6 million customers in 18 states (including systems in Kansas, Arkansas, Louisiana, OK, N.C. and Texas). Acquires Northern Virginia system. Adds 550,000 RGUs. 2000 Enters the Fortune 500 with $3.5 billion in annual revenue. 2002 Builds Internet protocol network in five months and launches Cox High Speed Internet. Reaches 500,000 digital telephone customers. Launches HDTV in Omaha, Neb., Las Vegas and Phoenix. Launches FreeZone, first VOD ad channel. Named Operator of the Year by Communications Technology magazine. 2003 Launches new services including HDTV, digital video recorders and entertainment-on-demand in select markets. Launches Cox Digital Telephone throughout service area in Tucson, AZ, the first full-market launch of phone service in Cox history. Launches first rollout of phone service via voice over Internet protocol technology in Roanoke, Va. Cox Business Services surpasses the 100,000-customer milestone. 2004 Cox Enterprises completes takeover of Cox Communications for $8.5 billion, making Cox a private entity. Cox Digital Telephone receives J.D. Power and Associates’ highest honor in Local and Bundled Long-Distance Telephone Customer Satisfaction. 2005 Jim Robbins announces he will retire Dec. 31 as president/CEO. 26-year Cox veteran Patrick Esser will replace him.