It’s been nearly one year since Jim Robbins’ untimely passing. Although he disdained the spotlight more than most executives, we think he’d forgive us for resurrecting his image and words during Diversity Week. Below are excerpts of things he told our Paul Maxwell and Seth Arenstein in interviews prior to his retirement in December 2005 and induction into Cable’s Hall of Fame in October 2006, respectively. The excerpts cover some of what he stood for, namely diversity, customer service, blunt honesty and fun.
PAUL MAXWELL: 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?
JIM ROBBINS: 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 [Cox became a] public [company] with [Cox Chairman and CEO James] 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.
SETH ARENSTEIN: You have a lot of experience competing against the phone companies. Any words of advice for cable?
JR: 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.
SA: Speaking of your customer service mantra, Paul Maxwell reminded me to ask how’s customer service at your house?
JR: 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.
PM: My company has been tracking DBS penetration for years. All you have to do is plot a map to tell where the Cox systems are because the DBS penetration is lower there, almost by default. 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: Even though we’re private, I hope we’ll 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…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.
SA: There’s a nasty rumor going around that despite your retirement your handicap is not improving.
JR: It’s getting worse. And that’s the honest-to-God truth.
SA: [Laughter] Why?
JR: 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…