Cox's Esser to Succeed Robbins as CEO

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Cox Communications Inc. president and CEO James Robbins will retire at the end of the year, passing the reins to executive vice president and chief operating officer Patrick Esser.

Robbins' retirement removes one of the cable industry's more vocal CEOs from the spotlight. But his departure was not entirely unexpected. After Cox Communications was taken private by its parent company Cox Enterprises Inc. in December in an $8 billion deal, several industry executives wondered when the long-time CEO would call it quits.

Robbins said that he had been mulling retirement for “a long time.”

HAD HIS DAY

“Every idiot has his day in the sun, and I've had mine,” Robbins said in an interview. “It's time to move on. Twenty years on the job, 63 years old, the company going private, it all works nicely. I'm happy as I can be and I'm proud of what I leave behind here. My great fear, and I've shared this with [Cox chairman] Jim Kennedy for years, is staying around too long.”

The announcement of Robbins' retirement came amid several other changes — CCI chief financial officer Jimmy Hayes was named president and COO of Cox Enterprises, succeeding Dennis Berry, who will become vice chairman at year-end replacing retiring vice chairman David Easterly.

Esser, who joined Cox in 1979 as director of programming at its Hampton Roads, Va. system and has risen steadily through the ranks (he was named COO in 2001), will report to Hayes.

Cox Communications spokeswoman Ellen East said that Esser has not yet decided whether he will name a COO for the cable unit. However, she said that Esser has started a search for a CFO. In the interim, vice president of accounting and financial planning Bill Fitzsimmons will take on that role until a permanent replacement is found.

Robbins praised Esser's performance, adding that he has been grooming the COO for the job for years.

“I've had three executive vice presidents in the company, chief operating officers in training,” Robbins said. “Pat has absolutely been the home-run selection.”

Robbins came to Cox in 1983, after stints with Viacom Communications Inc. and Continental Cablevision Inc. He became president in 1985 and added CEO to his title in 1995, when Cox went public.

In the meantime, Robbins grew Cox to become the third largest MSO in the nation — it had 1.3 million subscribers when he was named president in 1985 and has grown to 6.3 million customers as of March 31. Cox also was an innovator. It launched circuit-switched telephony service in 1997 and now has 1.4 million telephone customers, tops in the industry.

Robbins said that he was most proud of the success Cox has had in integrating that phone product with high-speed Internet and digital cable into Cox's triple-play offering. Cox was the first MSO to offer a triple-play product on a wide scale basis. Currently about 14% (900,000 subscribers) of its total customers subscribe to all three products.

But Robbins may be best known for his very public battle with ESPN over the sports programmer's double-digit rate increases. After several months of sometimes caustic rhetoric on both sides of the argument, Cox emerged with a 10-year deal with an average annual rate increase of 7%.

Most significant, though: the Cox agreement set the tone for the rest of the industry. Thanks to Robbins's willingness to step up to the plate, other MSOs reaped the benefit of similar deals with ESPN.

COX WAS UP FIRST

While Robbins tried to downplay the significance of his ESPN battle — “We weren't looking for that assignment; it just happened that our contracts were up first,” he said — he later said that negotiation helped restore the balance between programmers and distributors.

While Robbins will remain on the Cox Communications board and will join parent Cox Enterprises' board in 2006, he said that he will also focus on some nonprofit endeavors. He is already the president of the board of trustees at his alma mater, St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H. and he is looking for a health-care board to join — one of his children is a third-year medical student another has diabetes.

“We'll do more nonprofit and may do another business board — I know a little bit about running companies,” Robbins said. “The mind is not going to go dead, I can tell you that. The hardest problem for me is going to be learning to hitchhike on I-75.”

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