My Turn

Robbins Helped Lead an Industry

10/11/2007 5:58 AM

Leader.

That’s the word that comes to my mind when I think of Jim Robbins, the longtime Cox Communications CEO, who died last night (Oct. 10) at age 65.

His cable company’s accomplishments speak for themselves.

Long before “It’s Comcastic” was a catch phrase and the cable modem became a product people couldn’t give up, Cox was the gold standard for quality in a business beset with image problems. Cox proudly displayed its J.D. Power awards for consumer satisfaction at its Atlanta headquarters, for good reason.

Years before voice over Internet protocol was anything but a future awkward acronym, Cox was actually delivering facilities-based telephone service, and helping an industry proclaim it was fulfilling the promise of the 1992 Telecommunications Act. Cox’s demonstrating that a cable company could reliably provide dialtone service was no small feat, and the company has been doing so for a decade now. Its Orange County system in 1997 became the nation’s first to offer high-speed Internet, digital video and local and long-distance phone service over the cable plant – the birth of the triple play.

He obviously wasn’t afraid to take a stand, and lead with words as well as actions. In 2003, Cox was the first big operator staring at proposed 20% annual price increases from the enormously popular sports network ESPN, and Robbins spoke out against that prospective impact on cable rates. While that dispute was long and the words got increasingly harsh – including between Robbins and powerful Walt Disney chief Michael Eisner — the long-term contracts that emerged were workable for all parties, and cable operators appreciated Robbins’s taking the point and risking the subscriber losses.

Later, Cox and ESPN spoke with a unified voice in opposing a la carte pricing regimes that would have wrecked independent programmers.

A tall man with a deep voice, given to plain speaking, he made an indelible mark at Cox. Look at the people he hired and empowered and observe how many of them still are in leadership roles at the company and in the industry. Pat Esser (his successor), Jimmy Hayes, Joe Rooney, Dallas Clement, Mae Douglas, Ellen East, Chris Bowick, to name some of the prominent examples. When Multichannel News named Cox cable operator of the year in 2002, Robbins insisted his chief lieutenants be the ones to speak for the company’s accomplishments in a roundtable interview. When Robbins was soon to retire, in 2005, he politely deferred attention from himself at the Walter Kaitz Foundation dinner, where thousands of dollars were raised (in his name) to aid cable employees affected by Hurricane Katrina.

He was proud of his employees and gave them the credit for what he felt was his biggest lasting legacy at Cox. In an interview with K.C. Neel for a 2005 series of stories on his retirement, he said Cox employees in an internal survey in 1988 said not enough was being done to keep customers happy. “We immediately added customer-service standards and more customer-service reps. And we spent more money on customer satisfaction. We were the first to do that. My proudest moments have been when I’ve listened to my employees.”

He was big-hearted enough to have enjoyed humor at his own expense, including one retirement party at which Cox managers all wore “what East calls the ‘Jim uniform:’ khakis, old blue denim shirts, jackets with patches on the elbows, fleece vests” and “even this silly, tacky hat he wears,” Neel also reported, with the hat description coming from Debby Robbins. “He loved it,” East said.

Jim Robbins helped create a template for the success cable companies now enjoy as full-service telecommunications providers. He helped the industry recognize that customer service was Job One, and that included keeping prices reasonable and giving customers credit (discounts) for buying all those products. He established a corporate culture that made Cox a place anyone would want to work, and build a long career.

And as so many of his friends assemble in Denver for the Cable Hall of Fame tonight, they’ll be thinking of Robbins’s induction exactly a year ago.

His own retirement was much too short.

His legacy, as a leader, will last much longer.