The cable industry is losing its highest-profile female executive — Insight Communications Co. president and chief operating officer Kim Kelly — but many cable executives are hoping that Kelly won't be away from the industry for long.
Insight surprised the industry late on Friday, Aug. 22, issuing a press release that Kelly would step down.
Kelly, who had been with Insight for 13 years, said in the statement that she was leaving to pursue other opportunities and would stay on until Nov. 30 to help with the transition. She also would be available to consult for the company for up to two years after that, indicating that the decision to leave was hers and that she wanted the chance to seek a CEO job elsewhere.
"Clearly, this has been a difficult decision," Kelly, 47, said in a statement. "I love this company and the people that make up Insight. They are the best in the industry, and I have been proud to work with them."
Insight CEO Michael Willner said in the release that Kelly would be missed, but she'd assembled "a terrific team of senior operating executives both in the systems and at the home office. All of them will continue to provide the same top-quality management that they have in the past."
Insight — the No. 9 U.S. MSO, with about 1.4 million subscribers — said it was considering internal and external candidates to replace Kelly.
Insight stock was relatively stable after the news. It dropped 15 cents to $11.47 on Aug. 25, but regained that ground in subsequent days, finishing up on Aug. 28 at $11.65.
"Her talents will be missed," said Stifel Nicolaus & Co. cable analyst Ted Henderson. "That said, Michael Willner also has an operating background. He is also very familiar with these properties and all reporting responsibilities flow directly up to Michael in the interim.
"There are some very good operating cable people available in the marketplace. It came as a little bit of a surprise to me, but in the cable business, one executive does not make the company."
Kelly is one of the more popular cable executives in the industry — she had been called "the busiest woman in cable" — and is respected equally for her business and financial acumen (she was a banker for eight years before joining Insight) and her quick wit. Many were saddened by her decision to leave Insight, but expected her to land wherever she pleased.
Comcast Corp. executive vice president and co-chief financial officer John Alchin, himself a former banker, said that Kelly can basically pick and choose her next job.
"She's got a great track record, a wealth of experience and would be an asset to whoever could attract her to the fold," Alchin said.
Kelly was on vacation last week and could not be reached for comment. But sources said that she has received several offers in the past — she was said to be in the running for the top spot at Adelphia Communications Corp. before it hired former AT&T Broadband executives William Schleyer and Ron Cooper.
Kelly joined Insight as executive vice president and chief financial officer in 1990 from Marine Midland Bank, where she had been head of its media unit. She was named COO in 1998 and added president to that title last August.
She also has been a fixture at cable events and is on the board of trustees of Women In Cable & Telecommunications.
Co-chair of this past May's Cable Positive benefit dinner, Kelly was named "Woman of the Year" by WICT in 2002 and is chairwoman of the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau. In 2001 she received the National Cable & Telecommunications Association's "Vanguard Award for Leadership."
Cable Positive president and CEO Steve Villano had nothing but praise for Kelly.
"Kim is the best," Villano said. "She always went the extra mile for us. She's a real leader, a real motivator, the go-to person you love working with."
Villano said he has not spoken with Kelly since the announcement, but added that he expected her to remain active with the organization.
Kelly's resignation makes Charter Communications Inc. executive vice president and chief operating officer Margaret Bellville and Ann Montgomery, regional senior vice president for the southern region of Comcast Corp.'s Mountain Division, as the two highest-ranking women in cable operations.
WICT president Benita Fitzgerald Mosley said that Kelly's departure will have a twofold effect on the industry.
"It's a credit to her and Michael Willner and Insight for giving her the opportunity to rise to that level at Insight," Mosley said. "I think that in and of itself gives a lot of motivation and encouragement to the women that are already in cable or seeking careers in this industry.
"On the flip side," Mosley added, "having so few women at that level, it does leave a huge void. Will it have a negative effect on the industry as a whole? Probably not, because just having her there was huge motivation. I'm hoping people will still aspire to those heights."
Kelly could still wind up in cable — and in a position of more responsibility — Mosley added, which would have a positive effect on other women trying to break into the industry.
Mosley said she hasn't spoken to Kelly since her departure was announced, adding that Kelly's resignation came as a surprise. She speculated that Kelly decided to leave Insight because there was no place left for her to go in that company.
"Obviously, Michael [Willner] doesn't look like he's going anywhere, not that we would want him to," Mosley said. "Possibly to get out of that situation and open herself up to new opportunities was the best thing she could do for herself and her career."
But the opportunities for anyone — male or female — to assume the CEO role at an MSO are dwindling. The top five MSOs, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Charter, Cox Communications Inc. and Adelphia, have CEOs that have either been hired in the past two years or are relatively entrenched in their positions.
Mediacom Communications Corp. is of similar size to Insight, but is run by its largest shareholder and founder Rocco Commisso, who appears to want to stay on as long as possible.
Some industry observers have speculated that Kelly could assume the CEO role at DirecTV Inc., after the No. 1 direct-broadcast satellite service provider completes its merger with News Corp., expected by the end of the year. But others have said that Kelly has been such a staunch proponent of cable — and a fierce opponent to DBS — that such a switch is unlikely.
And as one industry analyst put it, the talents that Kelly possesses aren't just specific to cable.
"The common theme that runs through some of the sought-after executives are skills that are applicable to any business — honesty, discipline, a good feel for the markets that you operate in," Henderson said.