As Robert Sachs worked the room at the closing lunch at the 2003 National Show in Chicago, he noticed a familiar figure milling around. It was civil-rights leader Jesse Jackson, who had on several occasions shown up unannounced at cable conventions to take the industry to task for moving too slowly on diversity issues. As president and CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, Sachs was a bit nervous. “He had come to our conventions and taken the microphone on previous occasions,” recalls Sachs. “So I wasn’t sure.”
Many trade association executives might have ignored Jackson, hoping the mike didn’t reach him during the event. Sachs took a different approach. “I went over and introduced myself to Rev. Jackson and said, 'You know, there are some seats at my table, and I hope you’ll join us,’” Sachs relates. “And so I had a chance to tell him about all that we were doing, rather than view it as potentially confrontational. None of these things by themselves are very significant, but overall it’s an effort to bridge relationships, and I think that’s important.”
Sachs recalls the event with the nonchalant air of a man used to making such gestures — and not quite sure why people would make a fuss about it. Sachs doesn’t relish the attention. In fact, he seems to find it somewhat embarrassing. Yet, he also projects a quiet pride about his more than five years as head of the NCTA. “Robert is kind of shy,” says NCTA executive vice president David Krone. “He’s the type of person who likes to see others get the accolades. He doesn’t talk a lot about diversity, but his actions are what’s important.”
Those actions haven’t gone unnoticed. “As the head of NCTA, he’s made significant contributions to diversity,” says Walter Oden, president of the New York chapter of the National Association of Multi-Ethnicity in Communications. That chapter is honoring Sachs at an annual gala slated for Dec. 1 at Gotham Hall in New York City. “He has treated diversity as a central issue,” adds Oden, who also serves as vice president of business development and affiliate sales and marketing at A&E Networks.
While at the NCTA, Sachs has spearheaded a number of diversity-related initiatives, mostly without fanfare. In 2002, he created a diversity committee charged with reporting industry progress (or lack thereof). He created an annual joint breakfast of the NCTA board and the NAMIC board during Diversity Week. And Sachs has reached out to the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Hispanic Caucus, setting up several meetings with cable industry leaders.
Sachs also pushed for two new seats on the NCTA board in an effort to include women. One of those seats is held by Oxygen Media chairman and CEO Geraldine Laybourne. “Women bring a different point of view,” says Laybourne. “We add a lot to the discussion. We raise tough issues.” In 2001, Sachs nudged cable to voluntarily continue compliance with federal equal employment opportunity rules even after a court effectively put them on hold.
Perhaps most significantly, Sachs helped facilitate bringing the once-troubled Walter Kaitz Foundation under the NCTA’s umbrella and refocusing its grants system. At the time, cable operators were becoming skeptical about the effectiveness of Kaitz and other diversity initiatives. “In a climate in which there were lots of questions about the viability of these organizations, he really did a great job of overseeing that and making organizations like NAMIC feel welcome in the industry,” Laybourne says.
Sachs has also participated in NAMIC’s L. Patrick Mellon Mentorship program. In 2000, Sachs began mentoring Patricia Andrews-Keenan, who is now Comcast Corp.’s vice president of communications for the greater Chicago region. “Even to this day, we still try to get together,” says Keenan, who spent a year as NAMIC’s president in 2001 and is now on the NAMIC board. “When I think of [Sachs], I think of the word 'gentleman.’ He took it very seriously.” As for other diversity initiatives, she says “he chose to push it up on the agenda.”
One of Keenan’s most recent calls to Sachs was to let him know that the NAMIC New York chapter would be honoring him. The accolade comes only months after Sachs announced that he was leaving but would stay on until his replacement was named.
Sachs’ path to cable was somewhat accidental. After growing up in New Rochelle, N.Y. (a town he describes succinctly as “cold”), Sachs received his undergraduate degree from the University of Rochester and then a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University.
His interest in politics led him to Washington, D.C., where he worked on various committee staffs in Congress. By the mid-1970s he had entered Georgetown University’s law school. “I wanted to be a legal reporter,” he says, “but I just got sidetracked.”
A GREAT OPPORTUNITY
As a young Capitol Hill staffer, Sachs met cable pioneer Amos Hostetter, who ran Boston-based Continental Cablevision Inc., which had yet to make a name for itself as one of cable’s legendary MSOs. Sachs asked for a job and was promptly turned down. A few weeks later, though, Hostetter called him to see if he might be interested in a new position negotiating cable franchises with cities. Sachs jumped at it. “I didn’t really know what I had signed up for, or that this would be a great career opportunity,” he says.
Sachs soon found himself competing with huge corporations for local franchises. While he refused to over-promise, he says he still won at least 75% of the franchises on which Continental bid. “So much of your success or failure depends on whether people can rely on the representations you make to them,” he says.
Many remember his tenacity well. “He’s a tough competitor,” says Time Warner Cable executive vice president Lynn Yaeger, who went up against Sachs several times in those days. “There’s no limit to the strategic smarts he has. He does it with a smile too, which is even more deadly.”
Continental eventually caught the eye of U S West, which purchased the MSO for nearly $11 billion in 1996. Sachs left to become a consultant and even got involved in several charities. He had settled into a comfortable rhythm in Boston when he received a call from Leo Hindery, then president of MSO Tele-Communications Inc., and the chairman of the NCTA board.
THE RELUCTANT CEO
Hindery wanted Sachs to consider running for the top-executive NCTA post being vacated by Decker Anstrom, who is now president and chief operating officer at Landmark Communications Inc. and chairman of The Weather Channel.
“At first, I said 'no,’” Sachs recalls. “It just didn’t make sense. All of my family ties were in Boston, and I wasn’t looking to relocate.”
Hindery persisted, arguing that Sachs was uniquely suited to mend some industry fractures, including disagreements between operators and programmers. Though he was offered a five-year contract, Sachs insisted on a three-year deal — he ended up staying more than five years anyway.
In the end, he managed to hold operators and programmers together. “I feel very good about that,” he says. Some in the industry are thankful. “This has been a challenging time for programmers and operators because of consolidation,” says Laybourne. “I feel like Robert has done a very good job of keeping a civil climate for operators and programmers.”
Sachs’s civility at least partly stems from his bout with cancer when he was 37 years old. “You appreciate life and people so much more,” he says. “Every day is precious to you. All of my friends were complaining about turning 40. I was delighted to be turning 40.”
Since taking the reins at the NCTA, Sachs has been described as absorbed, typically working 12-hour days and returning e-mails from his Blackberry at 4 a.m. or late at night. “He’s virtually on duty 24-7,” says NCTA senior vice president Rob Stoddard, who also worked under him at Continental. “He has tremendous passion for this job.”
Sachs’s wife, Caroline, is a painter and art-gallery director in Boston, so Sachs has spent the last five years commuting every week from Boston to a condominium in Washington — sometimes taking the train so he can work en route. “It requires a full-time commitment,” says Sachs. “I suppose you could get by with less, but you’d be doing yourself and the people you represent a disservice. These jobs are all-consuming.”
Anstrom says Sachs has navigated Washington’s shark-infested waters well. “He has a high sense of integrity,” Anstrom says. “He has a moral compass as to what is right and wrong.” He also lauds Sachs’ work on diversity.
“When I was there, the industry was just in its beginning stages of understanding how important diversity is as a business strategy,” Anstrom says. “Robert has clearly taken NCTA’s support for diversity to the next level.”
Sachs, who hasn’t announced any future plans, says he’ll miss a lot of things about the NCTA, although perhaps not the commute from Boston or “those two-ounce bags of pretzels on U.S. Air.”
Many hope he stays involved. “We would love very much to keep his hand in the industry at a very high level,” says Stoddard. “I would hate to see those talents go elsewhere.”