Former Time Warner Cable chairman and CEO Glenn Britt was remembered last week as a consummate businessman, a visionary who saw early on the potential of the Internet and an executive whose integrity, smarts and negotiating skill helped more than triple the cable company’s revenue and increased shareholder returns fivefold during his tenure.
But to his old boss, former Time Warner Inc. chairman and CEO Dick Parsons, Britt will always be “Glennworth.” Or better yet, “Sensei.”
Britt, a 41-year veteran of Time Warner Cable and its various iterations over the years, died on June 11 at 65, after a battle with melanoma. He leaves behind his wife, Barbara, and countless friends and colleagues who knew the sometimes stoic executive as a complex man with diverse interests and an unrivaled sense of integrity.
“I had nicknames for everybody,” Parsons said. “Glenn always had this formal air to him. To call him Glenn just seemed like a little too informal. He was a good man.”
Parsons, who retired as Time Warner Inc. chairman and CEO in 2007, met Britt more than 25 years ago. They first got to know each other after Parsons was named president of Time Warner Inc. in 1995.
“Glenn was not your life-of-the-party kind of guy,” Parsons continued. “He was a thoughtful and reflective person.”
With a background as a banker, a lawyer and an adviser to top politicians, Parsons knew the cable business as a board member of American Television Corp., Time Warner’s then-cable arm. But he had little knowledge of the media conglomerate’s other properties in publishing, motion pictures and music.
“I made a deal with Glenn,” Parsons said. “Glenn would come to my office on Friday evenings every other week and walk me through the numbers and the business models and the operations of these businesses. He was my Sensei.”
Parsons said those Friday-night sessions lasted several months, and he would work closely on countless deals over the years with Britt and then TWC executive vice president of programming Fred Dressler (who died in 2007).
“Glenn was the smart one, Freddy Dressler was the canny one and I was the guy who could sign off on the deal,” Parsons said. “The three of us had many adventures dealing with, literally, the entire cable networks community. Glenn was the guy that had the big picture in his head, the guy that would pull me back from the brink when I would say, ‘Let’s just make this deal and go get a beer.’ ”
Britt was indeed a compassionate, savvy visionary who helped create the cable industry’s first truly successful high-speed Internet service, Road Runner, and spearheaded industry initiatives to reduce out-ofcontrol programming costs and make pay TV content available on all devices. But behind the scenes, and what his close colleagues remember him for the most, Britt was a fiercely loyal friend, an executive willing to share his expertise and insight to help a colleague get ahead, and a surprisingly funny guy.
“He had a dry, somewhat self-deprecating sense of humor that many people didn’t see,” said former Insight Communications CEO Michael Willner. “Glenn was really a funny guy and an enjoyable guy to be around. You had to get to know him, and he had to get to know you.”
One example of Britt’s dry sense of humor occurred on the first day of his retirement, Jan. 2, Willner said. He had spent the afternoon with Britt and his wife, Barbara.
“Barbara said, ‘Glenn’s been dealing with Time Warner [Cable] all day,’” Willner said. “I said, ‘Really? Why?’ and she said, ‘Because they turned his phone off.’ We all just laughed over that.”
Willner sold his company to Time Warner Cable in 2011 and has been picked to head up SpinCo, the soon-to-be publicly traded entity that will house about 3 million customers contributed by Comcast and Time Warner Cable after their pending merger is complete. He remembered Britt as a complex man, a lover of history, photography and technology, a shy person who nevertheless led one of the largest media operations in the country.
TAKING A STAND
While he had a reputation as possessing one of the stiffest upper lips in cable, Britt was not afraid to take a stand on some of the industry’s most controversial issues. He was the executive who first threw down the gauntlet regarding rising programming costs, in 2009, launching Time Warner Cable’s “Roll Over or Get Tough” campaign to combat rising retransmission-consent fees.
TWC also was a pioneer in usage-based pricing — devising a template that was later followed by the rest of the industry that allowed customers to pay less for using less bandwidth.
Britt again stepped into the fray in 2012, telling programmers that TWC would think hard about carrying marginal networks with low ratings. He made good on that promise in December of that year, when TWC dropped lightly-watched arts channel Ovation. Ovation was later reinstated on TWC systems in October 2013, after it agreed to add more original programming.
“The spotlight wasn’t something that Glenn sought out; he wasn’t necessarily the most comfortable in the spotlight,” Willner said. “But he knew he had a very important role to play in an industry that needed his leadership and he rose to that occasion. He was a quiet, thoughtful guy who thought strategically, thought about things in a very complex way to get to simple answers. That’s a real special attribute.”
Integrity was also one of Britt’s greatest traits, Willner said, adding that when he decided to sell his company after 28 years, “there was never a moment in the negotiations that I felt we were being mistreated because of Glenn’s commitment to his own integrity and the way he ran a company that followed his lead. I admired Glenn for that.”
“Glenn was the guy who could get his mind around the big picture,” Parsons said. “You will never find anybody who said that Glenn Britt ever went back on a deal or did anything unseemly. He was rock solid in the integrity category.”
Britt joined Time Inc.’s Controller department in 1972, fresh out of the MBA program at Amos Tuck Business School at Dartmouth College, where he had received his undergrad degree a year earlier. He only stayed at the magazine publisher for about two years; in 1974 he moved to the company’s fledgling cable operator — Manhattan Cable — as vice president and treasurer, lured, he said in his last earnings conference call in October 2013, by an industry and technology that he felt had the potential “to challenge all the incumbent ways and transform the media and communications industries.”
He moved steadily up the ranks, becoming chief financial officer of Home Box Office in 1984 and CFO of Time Inc. in 1988. By 1999, Britt was back on the cable side, becoming president of Time Warner Cable and rising to CEO of the unit in 2001. Time Warner Inc. spun off Time Warner Cable as a publicly traded company in 2007 and in 2009 completed the separation.
Britt announced in July 2013 his intention to retire at the end of that year, and the board selected Time Warner Cable chief operating officer Rob Marcus to replace him as chairman and CEO. Last October, Britt announced that the melanoma he had successfully battled five years ago had returned.
Former Advance/Newhouse Communications chairman Bob Miron, a friend and business partner of Britt’s for decades, said when Britt first told him that his cancer had returned, the two talked about how to fight it and how his family would be taken care of.
“It was a tough conversation,” Miron said.
Miron remembered other top cable executives who died before their time, like Dressler and former Cox Communications CEO Jim Robbins.
“It’s sad to lose a good friend,” Miron said. “When you think of Jim Robbins, Fred Dressler, Glenn, these are guys who had terrific careers and right around the time they retire, they don’t get to enjoy it. It’s heartbreaking.”
Marcus, who had a close relationship with Britt over the years and called him a friend, colleague, mentor and role model, said in a statement that Britt’s legacy is one of “innovation, integrity and inclusion.”
COMMITED TO DIVERSITY
“We were guided for many years by his strong belief that a company must be willing to reinvent itself to be successful; his commitment to saying what you mean and doing what you say; and his conviction that a richly diverse workforce — diverse in ethnicity, culture, beliefs, perspectives, experiences and lifestyles — is necessary to best serve our diverse customers and communities,” Marcus continued. “He will long be remembered for his thoughtful and steady leadership through rapidly changing times in the communications field.”
Britt himself had no regrets. In an interview last December with Multichannel News editor in chief Mark Robichaux, Britt said that while he possibly should have started his own cable company early in his career, “Life is good, and I’m happy.”
“When I became CEO, I had a handful of big things that I hoped to do over whatever my tenure was going be,” Britt said in the interview. “I’m proud to say that I have done those things and I actually don’t talk publicly about what they were, so I won’t start now. But I think if you look at the company, you’ll see the changes. It’s pretty obvious. So I feel good about that. And those are the kind of things that you just work away at, and it’s not one big event.”