About 10 years ago-one week after she came on board as executive vice president and chief financial officer at Insight Communications Co. Inc.-Kim Kelly got a crash course in the difference between men and women in the cable industry.
Kelly had been out in the field looking over some of Insight's cable operations, checking data and talking to employees about how to improve operations.
"I'm sort of an analyst by heart, I like looking at data to see what it's telling you, also listening to customers-you have to put the two together," Kelly said. "We were looking at how we were awarding points in terms of truck rolls. In fact, we were awarding too many points.
"I was asking a guy, who still works with us, how long should it take to do a reconnect. He finally looked at me and said, 'When was the last time you climbed a pole? 'I said, 'OK, I get your point.'"
Kelly recalls that encounter with a laugh. A former banker-she headed up Marine Midland Bank's media unit with a staff of 25-Kelly was no stranger to the cable industry, even then. A veteran of numerous cable financial deals over the years, Kelly found out soon after taking the Insight job in 1990 that she enjoyed the operations side just as much.
Insight has been through a lot of changes since Kelly came on board-it grew from 110,000 subscribers in 1990 to 1.4 million customers at present-including an aborted sale to Charter Communications Inc. in 1995 and a $600 million initial public offering in 1999. She's worked closely with Insight founders Michael Willner and Sidney Knafel through some pretty heady times in the cable industry.
But Kelly is far from alone. Today, there are at least two other women with operations responsibility in cable- Margaret "Maggie" Bellville, executive vice president of operations for Cox Communications Inc. and Adelphia Communications Corp. senior vice president of operations Ann Montgomery.
These women also have diverse backgrounds. Bellville came from the telephone industry, while Montgomery got her start with Cable Services Group, which handled billing and information technology services for operators.
Other women are also beginning to make similar inroads in cable, an industry that has been very open to women in the past, according to the three top female executives.
Kelly said she has never faced overt discrimination in the cable industry, but in cable, as well as banking, there was still a sense of an "old boys club."
"When I first started in banking, many of the client outings were stag," Kelly said. "That was a little difficult. But then I had a meeting with a woman who was one of the first women to be appointed as senior reporter at the
Wall Street Journal.
"I was sort of grousing about it. She said, 'It is unfair, and you could either spend a lot of negative energy complaining about it and getting unfocused, or you can just always do a great job.'
"Because in the end, it doesn't matter what you look like or where you come from," Kelly added. "It's really about people who can get things done-close, act, generate ideas."
While Bellville has encountered a male-centric mindset in the cable industry in the past, she said, it hasn't hindered her career development.
"Was it difficult? No. Is it daunting? Sure," Bellville said. "This was an industry that was built by the grand entrepreneurs."
Bellville gives credit for her relatively smooth rise through the cable ranks to the foundation laid by other pioneering women in the industry.
Those were mainly the strong women behind those grand entrepreneurs, like Betsy Magness; Yolanda Barco; Claire Tow, wife of former Century Communications Inc. chairman Leonard Tow;
Marguerite Lenfest, the wife of former Lenfest Communications Inc. president H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest; and Vicki Myhren, wife of former American Television and Communications Group chairman Trygve Myhren.
"This is an industry that has a lot of back-slapping founders-men," Bellville said. "But they had great women behind them. If you think about Betsy Magness, Mrs. Barco, Mrs. Tow, Mrs. Lenfest, Mrs. Myhren-these women were every bit as visible in the industry as their husbands, and they are as well-known."
Bellville got her start in the telephone industry, first as a part-time residential service representative at the former New York Telephone Co. After divestiture of the old Bell system, Bellville moved over to AT&T Corp.'s consumer products division.
"I had a VP there come to me one day and say 'I think that someday people are going to talk on phones that aren't connected to walls,'" Bellville said. "I was like 'Wow, what an idea.'"
It so happens that at that time, AT&T was conducting its Chicago cellular-telephone trial, one of the first in the country.
"He convinced me as a young, up-and-coming manager that I needed to go and join the start-up cellular division within AT&T. And I did," Bellville said. "All my friends thought I was crazy, because all that was working over there was a bunch of engineers. But I thought it was an opportunity to learn and grow with something."
Bellville stayed in the cellular business for seven years after that, later moving to Contel Cellular.
Contel was a startup-it had about four systems when she joined and roughly 60 when she left-and that allowed Bellville to gain experience in several different areas of the business, including distribution, strategy, advertising, public relations, operations and marketing.
"I got to go sideways in a lot of different functions," she said.
When Contel was acquired by GTE Corp. in 1990, Bellville stayed on, becoming vice president of the cellular division for GTE Wireless.
"When I was in that job, I got called by a recruiter who said that the ultimate convergence is going to be on the cable platform. I thought he was crazy, until I started looking into it and realizing that there was a lot of opportunity that the cable platform had that twisted pair and wireless certainly didn't."
Bellville took her first job in cable in 1993 as a vice president at Century Communications Corp.'s Southwest division, responsible for about eight Southern California systems with 200,000 customers.
She made her way to Cox after a meeting with a company vice president who was a fellow classmate in the inaugural class of the Betsy Magness Leadership Institute.
"After meeting with [Cox Communications' president] Jim Robbins and learning his vision, it seemed like a perfect fit," Bellville said. "I've been here five years. It's been pretty fun."
Coming from a telephony background, Bellville broke into the cable industry at what seems like the perfect time. Cable companies throughout the country were struggling to find their way into the telephone business, primarily to beat back the competitive threat from telephone companies that wanted to break into video.
"I think the wireless industry taught me how to compete in a duopoly," she said. "Coming up through residential telephone, knowing the ins and outs of that and then wireless, helped me hit the ground running when I came to Cox and we started up all of these new products and services."
Being in the wireless industry also gave women the opportunity to show their managerial stripes, an opportunity that may not have come up in a more established industry.
"I think that because it was a start-up and it was unknown, it was a distinct opportunity for women to take a risk," Bellville said. "You didn't see a lot of men initially in the sales roles in wireless because the job was highly commissioned.
"It was a five-call close-you had to call the customer five times to make the sale because you had to tell them how to spell cellular first, let alone sell it to them.
"Women took that risk," she added. "And I think it proved itself out. If you look at other women in our industry now that came from wireless, you can look at Maggie Wilderotter [CEO of Wink Communications Inc.], Teresa Elder [executive vice president of the West division for AT&T Broadband], Jan Peters [former CEO of MediaOne Group Inc.] and myself. I think it kind of bore a lot of women that grew in the industry and out of it."
Montgomery had the most direct cable industry experience of the three, getting her start at Cable Services Group, which later became part of American Express Corp., focusing on billing and information technology.
She moved through the ranks at Amex-which later sold the operation to CSG Systems Inc.-joining Tele-Communications Inc. in 1989 as office manager at the company's Boulder, Colo. office.
Those early days at Cable Services Group gave Montgomery a wealth of experience in cable-company operations. While there she traveled to about 150 different cable operations across the country.
"I got to see cable all over the country," she said. "It was a really good introduction."
Montgomery stayed with TCI through its merger with AT&T, eventually becoming executive vice president of fulfillment. She joined Adelphia earlier this year.
A native of Louisville, Ky., Montgomery said the transition to rural Coudersport, Pa.-Adelphia's headquarters-was not difficult. She added that the close-knit community kind of reminds her of her upbringing in the South.
"The first time I came to Coudersport, I felt like I was coming back home,"
Montgomery said. "I was seeing autumn again, a sense of community and beautiful geography. Another element is that I'm a pretty Internet-savvy person-I immediately logged into Starbucks.com and Nordstrom.com."
But then again, Montgomery is used to change. While at TCI, she worked for several different bosses. One of the last was Leo J. Hindery, Jr., who later became CEO of AT&T's cable unit before resigning in October 1999.
Hindery, who was known as a champion of women and minorities in the cable industry, brought a fresh perspective to TCI, Montgomery said.
"When Leo came aboard he evaluated what the company's priorities were, what we were spending money on," Montgomery said.
And while Hindery's term at TCI was also characterized by a flurry of system sales and swaps, Montgomery said her last manager-AT&T Broadband president Dan Somers-also had a different style.
"When Dan came in it was not about buying or selling," Montgomery said. "It was about making this ship operationally sound."
AT&T during that period also was devoting much energy toward integration issues, not only involving the old TCI, but later MediaOne Group Inc. And around this time Montgomery started to think that she would like to get more involved in the operations side.
"I learned an awful lot there [at AT&T]," Montgomery said. "I am definitely appreciative of what I learned and appreciative of Dan's graciousness when I was there and when I left. I was glad to get back into operations at Adelphia, [away] from the integration exercises."
While these women obviously wield considerable power in their respective organizations, they are still a few steps away from the top spot. That might change sooner rather than later, with Bellville among the top candidates to take over for Robbins once he decides to retire. And Bellville is ready.
"I think that someday I'd like to run something," Bellville said. "I'd like to put my footprint, my heel print, my thumbprint on a company someday in an overarching way, certainly.
"If it's Jim's job, I'd feel blessed and honored. If it's another job, only the crystal ball knows for sure."
And the industry today is more likely to accept a woman CEO.
"I think the industry is ready [for a woman CEO]," Bellville added. "They are very accepting and embracing of women that are heading up technology companies like Maggie Wilderotter, Gerry Laybourne running Oxygen, Carole Black running Lifetime. Those are big programming companies.
"Maggie's company is a big technology company. I've met every senior person in this business and they've all been very open. I just hope that and continue to earn their respect and create the difference for the company. That's my goal."
Bellville, however, said she is no rush to move to the corner office.
"I'm running an operation now," she said. "I'm running 6.2 million customers, I have the P & L for a $4 billion company, capital is nearing $2 billion, [we have] 19,000 employees. I've got a lot to say grace over. I've got a big job right now that I love to do. I'm going to do this for a while, because there is still a lot to be done."
Kelly, as a partner in Insight along with Willner and Knafel, said she already, in effect, has a hand in running the company. And Montgomery said that moving into the CEO spot is not a priority at this stage.
"I didn't come here to be CEO, to have total autonomy," Montgomery said. "I am a collaborative person. My leadership style is collaborative."
Whether the next cable CEO is a woman or not, Bellville believes that this is one of the best periods of opportunity for women the industry has ever seen.
"I think it's a good time for women to be in the business," Bellville said. "You're seeing a lot more women as managers, executive managers in our systems.
"When I joined this company we had three women general managers. Now we have 11. In five years that's good."
Kelly said there are still things happening in the industry that she feels are unfair-for example, she would like to see a woman on the National Cable Television
Association board of directors. But cable, like other industries, has realized that success is predicated on getting the best person for the job, regardless of gender, she added.
That philosophy is evident at Insight, where nine of the 15 most senior execs are women.
"That's not by design," Kelly said. "They were the best for the job and they are doing a great job. We're rather gender-blind here."