Elevating Customer Care

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Italia Commisso Weinand didn't intend for a career in television.

"I just fell into cable," she explained.

Weinand, now senior vice president of programming and human resources for Mediacom Communications Corp., was headed for a job in retail after she earned her bachelor's degree in art from Fordham University.

"I was working for Gimbels in Manhattan when I saw the real world of retail. It's dog-eat-dog," she recalled.

Weinand was managing the large appliance section, including television set sales, when she was introduced to cable service.

"I fell in love," she said. So Weinand quickly entered the arena, started her cable turn as a customer-service representative with Time Warner Cable in Manhattan "and I just kept getting promoted."

EMPLOYEE CARE

Her cable entry brought her in contact with, and under the tutelage of, a number of great executives, she said, naming Time Inc. veterans Thayer Bigelow and Nick Nicholas as major influences. "I learned from the best," she said.

Weinand was impressed that Time Inc. treated its people well and she applies similar strategies today in guiding the employees of Mediacom, which now has fully upgraded digital systems in 23 states, passing about 2.7 million homes.

Imparting those lessons and cable acumen to competent, content and caring employees is critical to the operator's continued success, as analysts note that Mediacom's strategy of acquiring non-metropolitan cable systems puts it squarely in the competitive bull's-eye of direct-broadcast satellite competitors.

Today, nearly all of Mediacom's 1.6 million customers have access to advanced products. But once the technology is improved, industry executives agree that excellent customer service will prove to be a key determinant in staving off churn to DBS options.

Over the years, Weinand had been paying her dues around the industry. She was helping to build the cable business by managing systems in the Chicago suburbs and Connecticut, among other markets, when she received a call from her brother Rocco Commisso. He launched Mediacom, now the nation's eighth-largest MSO, in 1995.

"I was Rocco's third employee. I was at Comcast in New Jersey and he lured me away with an offer to work three days a week," she said. That was an attractive offer for the mother of a then one-and-a-half-year-old son challenged with a hearing disability.

GUIDING LIGHTS

The men in her family have been guiding influences her entire life, from the day she was named 50 years ago. About that moniker: "Italia" is for her father's love of the old country, she explained. Her father overruled her mother and picked the middle name, too: Immaculata.

"People look at my name, and think, is that an organization?" she quipped. "He gave me duality from the get-go."

Her father also gave Weinand her most important guidance. He believed in education, and not just to get a good job, but to become a better person, Weinand said. The patriarch was always putting dreams in the minds of his children, she said, recalling an early visit to the ballet, when her father pointed out the dancers' slight stature, noting his daughter had the body type to become a ballerina if she wanted.

Even though her family was old-fashioned in many ways, the senior Commissos had the same expectations for Italia as they did for older brother Rocco, she added.

Her father's early death, at age 56, also motivated both Commissos. "We will fulfill the dreams he had for us."

In her life, and at work, Weinand tries to be the "Henry Kissinger of Mediacom," whether it's dealing with negotiations with programmers on the job or with contractors at home.

As an executive at a relatively small MSO serving rural systems, those dealings can prove problematic. Indeed, the power of size became evident to her early in her career. At her first cable system, money was tight and her responsibilities broad. Her next job was at a system four times as large, where the job was just as far-reaching, but was actually easier because she had a bigger corporate budget.

"I learned early on that the bigger you are, the more power you have," she said.

Now, she's striving to buck the trend again. "It's very tough, because I just no longer believe in this volume discount business," she said, adding that as the major conglomerates get bigger, it gets even tougher for smaller MSOs. "Why should my customers be less valuable than a consumer in New York City?

"They say Rocco's the tough guy, but I don't get rolled over, either," she added.

Mediacom earlier this month concluded a comprehensive, long-term deal with MTV Networks for all of the programmer's main channels, including Comedy Central, as well as digital networks Noggin, VH1 Classic, MTV2, MTV Hits, Nickelodeon Games and Sports and Nicktoons, across its systems.

DIVISION OF DUTIES

Though she's devoted to her work, Weinand says one of her life strategies is to carve a division between work and home.

"I try very hard not to work on weekends," she said, laughing. "I commit 150% during the week, staying with the here and now in the work you are doing, staying focused."

But she believes weekends should be devoted to family, which includes husband George Weinand, a senior director of industry training at KPMG International; stepsons William and Michael, and the couple's son, John Giuseppe.

Weinand hasn't totally abandoned the skills she honed earning her art degree. She applies her creativity to home decorating, and is currently customizing her third (and, she says, last) home. "That's my outlet for getting away from the rest of the world," she said.

The No. 1 thing in her life list gets her the most emotional.

"It's to see my son finish college and get married," she said.

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