Pat Esser may be exiting Cox Communications at year’s end, but his impact will be felt long after he’s left the building.
When Pat Esser moved into the office of president for Cox Communications in 2006 following the retirement of the late Jim Robbins, he found a few things already waiting for him—his predecessor’s employee badge, a personal note of encouragement and a framed photo of Robbins with a few hundred of his most senior executives behind him.
Esser has kept them all in his office. The photograph is one of the very first things he sees most mornings, evoking more than memories of his fondness for Robbins as a leader. “It’s never left my office because some days you’ve got to remind yourself that all these people are counting on you,” he says. “The chair you sit in is not your chair. You’ve been privileged to sit in this chair.”
After 15 years leading Cox Communications, Esser’s getting ready to retire with CMO Mark Greatrex poised to move into that chair. He won’t say what sort of personal effects he may leave his successor, but it is clear he’s passing on a company that is an industry leader in customer care and a trailblazer for business services that continues to make aggressive investment in other sectors, including cloud offerings, telecom infrastructure and home healthcare. One of the largest deals under his tenure is the still-pending acquisition of the commercial enterprise segment of fiber infrastructure provider Segra, reported to be in the $3 billion range.
“Once you start creating access for residential or commercial customers, you start to build expertise in adjacent areas and you can see emerging sectors that we want to fund,” explains Esser, who had CEO added to his president title last year. Investments under his leadership have included regional fiber companies, home healthcare firm Trapollo and edge computing firm StackPath.
Don’t take Cox’s business expansion to mean Esser is down on cable, though. He’s been a part of the industry for more than 40 years, joining Cox’s Hampton Roads, Va., system in 1979 as director of programming. He still sees plenty of runway in cable’s robust network. “There are as many things on the horizon brewing in front of us as there have ever been in my career,” he says. “I don’t care if you want to look at things like how we build more capacity with multi-gig speeds or symmetrical speeds and what that broadband network will enable. Or if you look at things like the Internet of Things… I could just go down the line on how we will continue to diversify and expand into adjacent areas.”
And yes, that broadening of the business will include a mobile offering at Cox. “There have been teams that have been working on that for years for us. You don’t just wave a wand and get into the wireless business, but we hopefully will have something to announce very soon,” he says.
The timing of Esser’s exit may coincide with COVID-19, but it’s unrelated. This is the target date he had discussed with Cox Enterprises CEO Alex Taylor for years. “I just think it’s the right time for a change, and we have people ready,” Esser says. “It’s a really healthy time for the business. We are entering a lot of new spaces, a lot of exciting spaces. It’s a good time for the next leader to be in place for that, and the senior team and group of leaders we have in the company are very, very strong.”
The people at Cox are foremost in his mind—and that’s something that has come from the top. A couple years before Esser was named president of the company, Cox Enterprises reached a $8.35 billion deal to take Cox Communications private. The exec remembers receiving a weekend phone call from then-Cox Enterprises CEO Jim Kennedy about the decision. “He said… ‘I want you to know why I’m doing it. I know we have these incredible products, and I know we have the winning network. But I’m betting on you, and I’m betting on the people that come to work here every day because that’s what I really believe in,’” recalls Esser. “I have never forgotten that phone call… and it imprinted on me what’s important here.”
During his time at Cox, Esser has been a part of numerous organizations outside the company, ranging from NCTA to the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. And with each, he’s been heavily engaged. “I want it to be something I care about, and I’m actively involved in or it’s not something I’m going to be a part of. Otherwise, you don’t need me there. You just need a check from me, and that’s very different,” he says.
For years, Cox has been a partner of the Boys & Girls Club, a group Esser became intimately familiar with because his brother Frank Esser was director of the Cedar Valley, Iowa, club from 1985 to 1995. “Pat Esser is the most dedicated Cox employee that is working on behalf of the Boys & Girls Club. He has helped to get grant money for them. He gives of his time. I know a lot of people are on boards. He’s not just on a board, he believes in the Boys & Girls Club,” says Cox corporate public affairs SVP Leigh Woisard.
Within the cable industry, WICT has benefited from Esser’s strong support, which has included delivering remarks to a roomful of Betsy Magness Graduate Institute alums, participating in various WICT panels and leading an operator that is frequently on WICT’s Top Companies for Women to Work and featured in Cablefax’s Most Powerful Women magazine. “Pat Esser has served as a visionary leader and an inspiration to countless business professionals—myself included. He is a proven champion of the cable industry and its DEI efforts,” says WICT president & CEO Maria Brennan. “On behalf of WICT, I extend my heartfelt thanks and appreciation for his exemplary leadership at Cox. I look forward to Pat’s continued insights and most certainly his friendship as he moves into his next chapter.”
Esser, who attended college on a partial theater scholarship, is still thinking about his next act. But he’s pretty proud of the work the current ensemble has accomplished.
“If you work in this industry, you are part of the fabric of America. You can never forget that. This industry does impact people’s lives. While we have a lot of fun with a lot of exciting things and really cool technology, we really are driving the economy and many times the livelihood of our communities,” he says. “We can’t forget that.”