News

Hanging In and On

9/26/2004 8:00 PM Eastern

Given the chaos employees at Adelphia Communications Corp. have endured over the last two years, it would be easy to assume morale at the MSO has taken a nosedive.

Consider: the company’s founders were charged with and eventually convicted of fraud. New management was brought in and headquarters was moved 1,500 miles from Coudersport, Pa., to Denver, where a ready and experienced pool of talent was plentiful. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. And fires ravaged Adelphia’s California plant last year and hurricanes are currently causing havoc in the Southeast, where the operator has a heavy concentration of systems.

Now, Adelphia might be sold either as a whole or in piecemeal to satisfy hungry creditors.

But recent interviews with employees indicate the bulk of Adelphia’s staff remain committed to the company for the long haul.

Several said they enjoy their jobs and love coming to work every day. Staffers are concerned about what the future holds. But it doesn’t appear to be negatively affecting their ability to work or their loyalty to the company.

“I think everyone is doing remarkably well working under these circumstances,” vice president of media services Jack Olson said. “And I credit management’s open-communication policy for much of that.

“People trust [COO] Ron Cooper and [chairman and CEO] Bill Schleyer. They’ve done a wonderful job of keeping people as informed about everything as possible. The company is running more efficiently and effectively than ever before and that is also a positive for people.”

Employees said open lines of communications established by Schleyer and Cooper have made it easier to swallow the bad news that has continually followed Adelphia since founders John, Timothy and Michael Rigas were charged with defrauding investors and stealing billions from the company in 2002.

COMMUNICATION KEY

“If I had to pin one word on why people feel pretty good around here despite the uncertainty, it would be communication,” said Joanne Wolf, director of the outbound call center in Coudersport. “Corporate has made real effort to open the lines of communication.”

Comments like that are music to Cooper’s ears.

He doesn’t sugarcoat the situation, but is quick to say: “Things aren’t as gloomy as some people would like to think. We’ve tried to create an open culture from the beginning. When Bill and I came on board, we’d come in, turn the company around and continue operating it.

“We told that to all the people who worked here and to all the people we hired. People liked being part of a turnaround, even though most of them recognized it would be difficult. Our April 22 announcement that we’d consider bids was a bombshell for a lot of people. But we’ve tried to be as open and frank as possible. People always work better when they’re informed. They all need and deserve to know what’s happening.”

Adelphia’s corporate communications staff has created several print, e-mail and direct face-to-face mechanisms for fostering a full disclosure-type of environment at Adelphia.

That might sound like old hat at some companies, but employees and management both say the Rigas family, which founded and ran Adelphia until the family members were kicked out of office following the accounting scandal that left the company bankrupt in 2002, never had such procedures in place before. Employees were used to getting information after it became public. Cooper and his staff are determined not to make the same mistake.

Vice president of communications Paul Jacobson and his staff have created a weekly online newsletter; send regular e-mail bulletins when necessary, to update staff on such matters as the sale process; and churn out special reports, such as the results of the 2004 employee survey.

STAFF SURVEYED

The survey was conducted in May, less than one month after the company announced it was going to consider selling the company to satisfy creditors.

“We were a little worried because we thought the response to the survey would be low or very negative. But communications runs both ways and we wanted to know what our employees were thinking,” Cooper said.

More than 93% of the MSO’s 14,500 employees responded and the responses weren’t all negative, Cooper said. And although it showed staffers were concerned about the uncertainty, the employee satisfaction results didn’t deteriorate in 2004, vice president of employee and labor relations Sue Wombacher said.

“The way employees are being treated now, and getting the truth from the get-go, has been vital in how people feel about the company and their jobs,” Wombacher said. “Besides, we’re all just too darn busy to really worry about the future too much right now. Folks aren’t getting distracted by a possible sale because they’re too busy doing their jobs. And besides, it’s going to be a year before anything happens to us even if the company is sold.”

Many, especially in the Denver office, have never assumed that they would be working for Adelphia for the long haul.

“I think just about everyone came here knowing this could happen,” said Fran Zeuli, vice president of sales development and a former AT&T Broadband staffer.

“Sure, there’s some trepidation,” Zeuli said. “But people are working and doing their jobs. The unknown is always scary, but when you take away the unknown with good communications, you take away the scary part. I feel loyalty to the people I work with and the people I work for.”

When it comes to sensitivity about employees’ concerns as to whether or not they’ll have their jobs a year from now, Cooper and his team tend to break the company down into three sections: those based in Denver (about 120); those working in Coudersport (about 1,400); and the folks in the field (12,600).

UNEASE IN COUDERSPORT

Coudersport-based employees are the most nervous about their careers, because there’s little opportunity for finding an equivalent local job if they are laid off in the wake of a sale.

While the company continues to hire call-center staff at wages that are attractive in a community where the cost of living isn’t as high as it might be in a larger city, there is still concern about whether and how employees will be able to stay in the bucolic burb.

Communications manager (and Coudersport native) Paul Heimel, who’s worked for Adelphia for 10 years, and his wife, who also worked for Adelphia’s ad-sales division until recently, decided it would be best if she left and got another job outside the MSO so that if employees are laid off, they would be able to stay in the town they both grew up in.

“We decided not to have all our eggs in one basket,” Heimel said. “Adelphia is clearly the largest and best-paying employer in Coudersport. We all want the company to stay here.

“People’s standards of living have improved with the growth of the company. But if it’s sold, I also don’t want to leave Coudersport. This town functioned before Adelphia and it will function afterward. But it will be hurt if the company is sold and employees are laid off.”

Cooper has spent a lot of time having face-to-face conversations with employees in the small town nestled in the bosom of the Allegheny Mountains.

He had made a regular visit to the company’s offices in Coudersport the first week of April to assure folks that all was well — only to return less than two weeks later, when the company’s board agreed to explore the idea of selling the company to satisfy creditors’ demands.

Field personnel or corporate staffers aren’t being ignored. But at a cable company, field-staff jobs are always the most secure in the wake of a sale.

The bulk of Adelphia’s Denver-based employee base has some kind of cable-related background and scores went through this less than three years ago when Comcast bought AT&T Broadband. Many are new to cable, though, but have managed to feel at home quickly.

'WAY OF LIFE NOW’

“This is a way of life now,” said Dianne Barber, an executive assistant based in Denver. “I’m new to the cable industry, but I’ve been through this before and I’m used to it. The company was up-front about the possibility when I was hired. You just have to prepare yourself for it and enjoy it while you can.

“I have never worked for a company where the morale was so high, especially in a situation like this. I love the company I work for and the people I work with. You look at the overall experience, and you realize the opportunity you had in rebuilding a new company and the people you got to work with and you don’t worry about the other stuff.”

Adelphia has lost some employees in recent months to the uncertainty. (To help keep key staffers and ease their minds about the future, the bankruptcy court has approved up to $41 million for bonuses and severance packages: $35 million in bonuses and $5.7 million in severance for up to 200 executives.)

And staffers do worry about what the future holds. But like Barber, Wombacher is happy she chose to come to Adelphia when its headquarters moved to Denver almost two years ago.

“I retired after working for AT&T Broadband,” she said. “I came back to work for Ron and Bill, and I don’t regret it one bit. I’m having a blast.”

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