News

Prime Cable’s Primetime Player

10/24/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Robert Hughes, Founder, Prime Cable

Like many cable leaders, Robert Hughes didn’t exactly seek out a career in the business. But once involved, he became passionate about cable — and remains so, even into retirement.

“I stumbled into the business,” Hughes said. “It was blind luck.”

Hughes was working at venture-capital firm Texas Capital in 1968, when Jack Crosby and Fred Lieberman convinced him to join them in forming a new cable company, Communications Properties. By 1974. he was president of the firm and eventually grew the company into the No. 7 U.S. MSO, until it was sold to Times Mirror in 1979.

“Jack was then, and remains today, one of my closest friends and mentors,” Hughes said.

When Crosby told Hughes he was selling the company, Hughes sold his shares and started Prime Cable the next day. Hughes set out to become a significant player, concentrating his efforts in major metro areas.

By 1980, Prime operated systems in Atlanta, Houston, Chicago, Las Vegas and Anchorage, Alaska. Later, another major complex was acquired in suburban Washington, D.C.

By 1995, Prime was one of the eight largest cable companies, with more than 1 million subscribers in six states. Prime didn’t follow its brethren into the public markets, though: It remained privately held by its top managers.

“Bob never wanted to go public,” said Jerry Lindauer, who served as Prime Cable’s principal and partner. “We were all owners of the company and were given incentives to do well.”

Prime Cable built itself as “turnaround experts,” Lindauer said.

“We’d buy troubled systems, turn them around and then sell them,” he said.

Each system was financed separately and operated on a standalone basis. But by 1997, the MSO began dismantling, unloading its systems one by one until 2000, when every property had been sold.

“I decided it was time to get out,” Hughes said. “It was time to wipe my chips off the table.”

But Prime’s management still remains close to this day. They keep offices in the same building and have jointly invested in a number of endeavors including @Security Broadband, founded by Lindauer and two other former Prime executives.

“If any one of us wants to invest in something, we always talk to each other first to see if any of us want to invest, too,” Hughes said.

The one investment that Hughes has a tinge of regret for was Grande Communications, an overbuilder formed in 1999. It wasn’t a bad company, but the investment did “ruffle a few of my brethren’s feathers,” he said.

Hughes was an investor in a venture-capital firm started by his Prime buddies, and one of the investments was Grande Communications. Some 18 months after that, Hughes agreed to serve as Grande’s chairman.

Hughes didn’t have any day-to-day responsibilities, “but if I had realized that it would upset some of my friends, who thought I had turned on the industry, I may have made a different decision,” he said. “I’m still a cable guy.”

He stepped down as chairman of Grande six years ago.

Hughes was an NCTA board member and served as chairman in 1978-79. He was also a founder and director of the original C-SPAN board in 1978.

Hughes currently serves on the board of directors of Aloha Partners, Diamond Ventures and Prime II Investments. Hughes and his wife, Gail, divide their time between homes in Austin, Texas, and Jackson Hole, Wyo.

“He is a great leader,” Lindauer said. “His strength lies in his demeanor. He is always calm and he never loses his cool.”

October