Going Out in His Own Style

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There are boxes everywhere in Jim Robbins’s spacious corner office these days. The president and CEO of Cox Communications Inc. is packing his belongings after 20 years.

Robbins will have an office at Cox Enterprises Inc. headquarters to use when he’s in Atlanta. But he’ll be splitting most of his time between Massachusetts and Florida with Debby, his wife of 34 years. “I’m simplifying,” he says, although it’s hard for people who know him to imagine him slowing down much. Even Robbins admits he’s only “leaving active duty for the reserves,” and doesn’t expect his schedule to become any lighter after retiring as Cox’s lead officer.

In addition to the moving boxes, Robbins’s office is filled with the makings of gift baskets — exotic jams and crackers, bottles of wine and other consumables — just waiting to be deployed into holiday baskets.

He personally undertakes the task of assembling the baskets for his executive staff every year. It’s just the kind of guy he is, say Cox executives. The special touch is one of the reasons Cox employees remain so loyal to the 63-year-old executive, to hear them talk. And it doesn’t surprise industry executives who have known Robbins for any length of time.

“Jim should be respected for the culture he has built at Cox,” Landmark Communications Inc. president and chief operating officer Decker Anstrom says. “He’s picked good people and lets them do their jobs. He’s encouraged a culture where they have all acted with integrity, and he gave them the resources they needed to do the job right. He worries all the time about doing that correctly, and he has done it correctly.”

A strong corporate culture that promotes diversity, camaraderie and a sense of purpose is something Robbins feels very strongly about. His attention to people in general — whether it be his employees, industry peers or Cox’s 6.6 million customers — is one of the things he will be remembered for best.

Case in point: Cox’s headquarters are ensconced in the middle of a wooded, serene setting in Atlanta. The highway is a stone’s throw from the offices, but visitors feel as if they’ve wandered off into the wilds of Georgia.

There are walking paths, gardens, picnic areas and lots of trees. There is plenty of parking for employees, but the company’s care for outsiders shines in the visitors’ lot. In addition to the regular handicapped spots reserved for guests, a dedicated spot for pregnant visitors is right up front. There are also parking spots reserved for high-efficiency vehicles and motorcycles.

Judging from the smiles on the faces of Cox employees as they walked into work one recent morning, it appears that people like coming to work at Cox. They know they have jobs to do, but they also know that if they have a soccer game to catch, a doctor to visit, or a date with a set of golf clubs, they can do that without ramifications as long as they get their jobs done.

“I am not afraid of long hours,” says Cox vice president communications and public affairs Ellen East. “But if I need to slip away early, I know I can do that.”

According to East, that’s all part of the work/life balance encouraged over the years by Robbins and Cox chief operating officer Pat Esser, who will take over the CEO post when Robbins leaves.

Employees outside the corporate offices can also count on the company for support. In New Orleans, where over 1,000 employees were left out of work after Hurricane Katrina, Cox vowed to continue paying everyone their salary, regardless of whether they could be put to work or not. And the operator’s parent, Cox Enterprises, established The Cox Employee Disaster Relief Fund to help employees recover from the destruction.

“Jim is first and foremost a family man,” says Discovery Communications Inc. John Hendricks. “It doesn’t take long for family — his or yours — to come up in conversation when you’re talking with Jim. That grounds him, and it brings something human to the business environment. When people have a balanced work life, they tend to give it their all while they are at work.”

Robbins practices what he preaches, says Debby Robbins. His travel schedule has forced him to miss some family events in years past. But when he had control over his schedule, she says he made sure he was around. “Jim has always been devoted to his family, even if he couldn’t be at everything. If he wasn’t there, he was calling to make sure he knew what he missed,” she says. “His schedule was hard to put up with at times because of his loyalty to people. If someone asked him to do something, he would do it, because he felt like he should. Jim’s loyalty is unparalleled. If there is one thing I think he will be remembered for professionally, it will be that he’s fair and honest and his tremendous loyalty to his people, to the company and to the Cox family.”

Robbins has endeared himself among his employees over the years by giving them the tools they need to succeed and having faith they will take those tools and run with them, according to East and Esser. He encourages input.

Not many people leave Cox. The company continually promotes from within its ranks. There are no employment contracts, they say. People stay because they like the environment and they like who they work for.

That isn’t likely to change much under Esser — he is, after all, a 25-year Cox veteran who knows, understands and embraces the culture Robbins has worked hard to cultivate for the past 20 years.

“I think you should love coming to work,” Esser says. “The secret sauce at Cox is the fact that we all want to be here, because it’s such a wonderful company. I haven’t worked at another MSO, but the caliber of talent, the enthusiasm and accountability of the employees speaks to the unique nature of Cox. It’s the concept of cause above self.”

That philosophy starts at Cox Enterprises, says Andy Heller, president of domestic distribution at Turner Broadcasting System Inc. But Robbins has taken it to heart and ingrained it in the fabric of the company, he says.

Oxygen CEO Geraldine Laybourne agrees, saying Robbins has “always been comfortable having truly smart and sometimes contrarian people in his ranks. Jim doesn’t want 'yes men.’ He wants true answers. People talk about the glass ceiling, which I have always thought of as a crock. The biggest challenge in corporate America today is the glass floor. Jim has shattered that. He looked down from the top to actually hear the truth from the bottom up.”

Robbins says he’s just giving his employees the power to do their jobs to their ability. It’s something he’s experienced with his boss, Cox Enterprises chairman and CEO Jim Kennedy.

“Jim always allowed me to my job without a lot of interference. He believed I would do the right thing,” Robbins says. “I’ve always tried to do that with my employees as well.”

Robbins has a knack for being comfortable around just about anyone, says Leo Brennan, general manager of Cox’s Las Vegas system. He’s charismatic and easy to talk to. He’s also brutally honest, according to Brennan.

But Robbins says there’s nothing magical about this way of running a business. He does admit that it’s not necessarily commonplace. “A lot of people in business look at corporate culture as bullshit,” Robbins says. “It’s all soft and fuzzy. It’s squishy. But I submit there are 100 ways to translate a good corporate culture to the bottom line.”

For example, Cox conducts annual employee and customer surveys to gauge the company’s performance. One survey in 1988 unveiled some disturbing news for Robbins. Employees didn’t feel the company was doing enough to satisfy customers. It was a turning point in the company’s emphasis on customer service.

“When your own employees are indicting you, that’s a real slap in the face,” Robbins says. “We immediately added customer-service standards and more customer-service reps. And we spent more money on customer satisfaction. We were the first to do that. My proudest moments have been when I’ve listened to my employees. I’ve always felt that great ideas don’t come from the top guys; they come from the front lines.”

Laybourne says Robbins stands out among his peers for his development of people within the Cox organization. “He’s a good manager and is a proponent of 'the team’ approach,” she says. “Any time there is an award, Cox consistently takes two-thirds of them. It’s shocking if it’s not the case. Jim’s not the one accepting those awards either. He’s happy to see his people take them home.”

Robbins’s attention to his employees has been an inspiration to other industry executives. Robbins was instrumental in helping CableLabs president Richard Green carve out his organization’s personnel policies and culture. “I have enormous admiration for the way he has managed Cox,” Green says. “Jim has not only been a keeper of the culture there, he has also been enormously effective in establishing cable as a significant telecom player. Cox was able to sort through the fog and figure out where we all ought to be going — that is, adding services to the existing platform.”

Cox was the first operator to delve into local telephone service in 1997, and Robbins considers it probably the riskiest thing he did while manning the helm at Cox.

Few people believed consumers would subscribe to local phone service from a cable company. Cable was thought to be unreliable, and customer service was considered sub-par. But Cox had already invested heavily to shore up its plant and service. Customers weren’t resistant to the idea.

Robbins would like to think Cox’s attention to customer service is one of the company’s trademarks. His peers clearly believe it’s one of his biggest achievements.

By the time the National Cable Television Association launched its initiative to have operators guarantee on-time service calls and other customer-relations standards, Cox had been employing that mandate for years, says Anstrom, who was NCTA president at the time.

“Cox took hits from Wall Street for doing it. They spent more on customer service and ended up having lower margins because of it. But it was the right thing to do,” he says. “That’s why Cox always wins all those customer-service surveys. Jim just got it. He understood what customers wanted.”

If there’s any advice he’d pass along to the industry as he leaves his current post, Robbins says it would be “connect and coddle your customers.” He says it is customer loyalty that ultimately improves the bottom line.

Comcast Corp. chairman and CEO Brian Roberts says Robbins has long distinguished himself and Cox by setting lofty goals and standards. In addition to being out front with cable voice services and bundled products, Robbins has been a constant reminder to the rest of the industry “of the value of good old-fashioned customer service.”

“He’s not afraid of taking a stand, and that’s not always easy,” says Char Beales, president and CEO of the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing.

Robbins did exactly that when he took on ESPN over its proposed 20% per-year rate hike in 2004. It wasn’t the first time Robbins and his team had battled programmers over higher prices, but it was the most public fight he took on in his 20 years at Cox. Both companies were steadfast in their arguments: Cox maintained that the hikes were simply outrageous, and ESPN countered that the network was worth every penny.

Robbins doesn’t want to be remembered solely for that episode, but he does feel it was worth the effort. ESPN had been asking for annual 20% rate hikes over the next decade, and Robbins felt that plan could bankrupt Cox.

In the end, both sides compromised: Cox agreed to a 7% annual hike through 2014. It’s still expensive, Robbins says, but not as much as it would have been, had he not engaged in the rate-hike battle in the first place.

Robbins was by far the most vocal operator during that imbroglio, and he is still disappointed that other operators didn’t stand by his side. He had plenty of support behind closed doors, but no one else was willing to take the heat, he says.

Today, executives on the programming and operating side of the house say they respect his decision to go to bat over the issue.

The ESPN mess was perhaps the first time Cox and Robbins were at the forefront of a big rate-hike fight, Heller says. “Jim has never been afraid of a fight, but he usually did it in the boardroom, not in public. But his going public gave the issue more prominence. It created a new dynamic for dispute, because he was the one bringing it to people’s attention.”

There wasn’t much good that came from the battle between ESPN and Cox, says ESPN executive vice president of sales and marketing Sean Bratches. But it was all strictly business. It never got personal for Robbins, Bratches says. “I played in a golf tournament with Jim during that whole thing, and the first thing he said to me was, 'Let’s put down the knives and just have fun.’ We both pursued our points of view passionately. But there were never times when we stopped being civil with each other.”

The lines between friends and foes have blurred over the years, Heller says. “But you can still shake Jim’s hand, and you know you have a deal with him,” he says. “He is straight-forward, and deals get done the way he says they’ll get done.”

Robbins may not be the only cable executive to operate under those rules, Anstrom says, but he is one of a kind in so many ways. For example, while Robbins ran Cox for two decades, he has never been an owner-operator. Yet industry executives say that he ran the company as if it were his own.

“Jim has always operated as an owner,” Laybourne adds. “But he’s not an entrepreneur. There’s a downside to entrepreneurs. They can be impatient and love to start things but not necessarily run them. Jim’s not like that that. Every morning he gets up and says, 'How can I make Cox a better company today?’”

Robbins appears a tad uncomfortable about the hullabaloo over his retirement. At the same time, he is clearly touched by the outpouring of sentiment. There are things he won’t miss when he leaves Cox as CEO. The day-to-day operations have become a grind. But Robbins says he will miss the camaraderie and the friends he’s made along the way.

More than one retirement party has been planned before year’s end. At one such fete, all the general managers and top Cox brass dressed up in what East calls the “Jim uniform”: khakis, old blue denim shirts, jackets with patches on the elbows, fleece vests and “even this silly, tacky hat he wears,” says Debby Robbins. It’s a testament to his personality that folks can poke fun at him and know he’ll smile at the joke, too. Employees gave Robbins a scrapbook with pages completed by every cable system team and every corporate functional group.

“He loved it,” East reports. “Jim learned early that people were more important than the job. That’s going to be the most difficult part of retiring for him. He’ll miss the people.”

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