Cable’s Great People Person


In 1969, midway through his graduate studies, Jim Robbins satisfied his thirst for journalism by landing a job with WBZ-TV in Boston as the station’s managing editor and morning news anchor. “I wanted to be a TV reporter,” he said.

But it wasn’t long after that that he began to chart his course in cable by answering an ad for Montachusett Cable Television’s general manager spot.

“I liked cable because we were writing the policy manual, which was very different than my previous employer, Westinghouse [Co.],” Robbins said. “I had done some good things there, but after 18 months I was fired for being too aggressive. That was a huge lesson: Work for good people. That’s when I joined Continental Cablevision [Inc.]. They really taught me the business and to pay attention and contribute to the community.”

Robbins joined Cox Communications Inc. in 1983 as vice president of New York City operations, became president in 1985 and CEO in 1995. His tenure with the company represented what many experts say was the dawn of a new era of professional managers who would advance the cable business beyond simple video delivery.

For Robbins, that has meant a focus on people — employees and customers. Throughout his Cox career, Robbins encouraged employees to participate in their communities and for the company to treat them with respect. “'Don’t forget the people who brought you here’ was the mantra at Cox, which is very employee-conscious,” he said. “It’s a culture that when times get tough, people go the extra mile. It pays huge dividends to take care of your employees.”

And the industry as well. Robbins’ leadership during his service with the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, where he served as chairman twice, and his commitment to C-SPAN, have helped shape the cable’s policies and future.

“We’ve seen the NCTA get more professional each year as the business has grown. Now, it’s a well respected operation in Washington. I loved being a part of it, especially C-SPAN,” he said.

His love for TV reporting — which he says “always intrigued me” — would provide for a scary lesson of survival during his tour with the Navy in 1967 on Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, where he served as a public affairs officer.

“On patrol, a piece of shrapnel tore into my tape recorder which was strapped directly over my heart,” he recalled.

But Robbins valued his time with the Navy. “It was a great experience to be working with so many strangers of all types. It was one reason I chose to re-up in the Navy instead of probably shining shoes at CBS in New York,” he said with a chuckle.

The lessons learned at Continental, the Mekong Delta, Westinghouse and Viacom Cable, where Robbins was vice president and general manager for five years, would all contribute to his Hall of Fame legacy as a people person with great leadership skills.

“Jim has always emphasized the importance of people in an organization,” said Dick Green, CEO of CableLabs Inc. “We have used the Cox blueprint here to support our employees.”

Green also gave Robbins high marks for understanding the importance of new technologies in the cable industry. “He has always been right on top of new technologies and has been very open about how technology can be used in cable,” Green said.

Cox’s introduction of phone and high-speed Internet service in Orange County, Calif., in 1997 was a tipping point not only for the company, but also for cable. And Robbins was at the forefront.

“That was a key change for the industry. We could dilute ownership or we could grow revenues by putting more services in the pipeline. We had to push more stuff down the pipeline. It was a hard decision and we had to get the right people,” Robbins said.

Getting the right people is the key, he added. “Get good people and give them free rein. We’ve grown performance year after year through perseverance and with great people. And we’ve got our communities to go with us.”

One of the people who most influenced Robbins is James Cox Kennedy, the grandson of the founder of Cox Enterprises Inc., whose encouragement and financial support was crucial to Cox and Robbins. “He believed in us and gave us the capital and support. I give him a huge amount of credit for our success,” Robbins said.

And that success continues, using Robbins’s early strategies as a blueprint, most notably the recent joint venture between Sprint Nextel Corp. and four of the top MSOs — Bright House Networks, Comcast, Cox and Time Warner Cable — which he believes is a landmark venture.

“I pushed our colleagues to do it because we needed a wireless arrow in our quiver,” said Robbins, who retired at the end of last year. “Integrating our bundles is very important, along with executing the triple play and giving quality service with one technician, one call. It’s the right strategy and a key for the industry.”

Yet Robbins’s contributions go beyond cable’s borders. He has served as chairman of the Board of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and chairman of the Policy Holders Examining Committee of Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co.

He has also served on C-SPAN’s Executive Committee and is president of the Board of Trustees of St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H.

And now Robbins enters cable’s Hall of Fame. “This is very humbling to be joining such a great group of people. It’s been a great ride,” he said.

“Jim maintains the same values as he did 20 years ago,” said Gail Sermersheim, former senior vice president of affiliate relations for HBO. “He’s open, approachable with strong positive values. I think that’s why Cox has been so successful, because he values other human beings, and that includes customers. He made customer service real when others were just talking about it.”