Persevering Programmer


Sue Ann Hamilton has never been one to shy away from a challenge. It fact, over a 90-minute interview, one gets the feeling she’s quite accustomed to juggling matters, whether that’s negotiating programming contracts, weathering management storms or raising three small children.

As Charter Communications Inc. executive vice president of programming, Hamilton is responsible for all the programming contracts signed by the nation’s fourth-largest operator. She has held the programming ship steady at Charter, first under Carl Vogel, then interim leader Robert May and now CEO Neil Smit. While some might consider the Charter saga the epitome of corporate chaos, Hamilton is no stranger to abrupt workplace change.

Consider her third day on the job in the cable business: Tele-Communications Inc., circa 1993, when the company announced its sale to Bell Atlantic Corp., a merger that would be aborted a year later.

Also, consider her family life. Hamilton, 45, has three children under the age of 7: boys 6 and 2; a girl, 4, plus a 19-year-old stepson. Her life is as hectic as it gets.

But Hamilton more than perseveres, gracing those in her presence with affable humor and a no-nonsense ability to get to the core of any issue.

Born in Minneapolis, Hamilton spent her childhood between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Her father, a member of the 1960 University of Minnesota’s national football championship team, was a salesman for International Business Machines Corp.

She remembers her father’s words of equality, both for Hamilton and her younger sister (Hamilton also has an older brother), “He always said we had the same opportunities as anyone else.”

Her high school career was busy, filled with cheerleading, volleyball and track and field.

Hamilton attended Northwestern University in Chicago for two years before transferring to Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., where she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in sociology in 1982.

Even then, her realistic side surfaced when she looked at the job prospects for her major. “I knew I wanted to be a lawyer,” she says, “because it was a path toward a sustainable income.”

She headed west to Stanford University Law School, earning a juris doctorate in 1986. Upon graduation, it was off to Denver where she worked for Kirkland & Ellis, representing clients in secured lending and leveraged buyout deals.

She climbed the ranks, gaining partner status in seven years, defending the likes, unsuccessfully, of Charles Keating, who was jailed in the savings and loans failures of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Hamilton was looking for a change in 1993, and sent her resume to Adolph Coors Co. and TCI. Jedd Palmer hired her as the third employee in his TCI programming department, soon joined by Matt Bond and Tracy Wagner.

At the time, digital technology was just taking shape, with John Malone sketching his now infamous 500-channel universe vision. But on her third day at TCI, the company announced its intention to merge with Bell Atlantic, which could have short-circuited Hamilton’s cable career.

But the deal unraveled, and Hamilton and company spent the rest of the decade signing precedent-setting, 10-year programming pacts.

Hamilton also survived AT&T Corp.’s takeover of TCI — no easy feat — until Comcast bought AT&T Broadband in 2002. After doing some consulting work with Adelphia Communications Corp., Carl Vogel and Maggie Belleville convinced her to join Charter in 2003.

“I was intrigued by the opportunity,” she says, knowing full well Charter’s financial position and its tenuous status among Wall Street investors.

In the nearly three years since she took the job, Hamilton has weathered more storms, starting with Charter’s new 10-year deal with ESPN, the departures of former chief operating officer Maggie Belleville and ex-president Vogel, May’s eight-month interim term and the August hiring of Smit.

Hamilton’s programming group continues to be based in Denver, along with the ad sales and technology groups, but Smit and other executives work in St. Louis, so there are monthly trips east.

Like any working mother, Hamilton does the best she can navigating the demands of work, travel and home. Hamilton runs the morning shift at home, then works later in the evening, while her husband, a mortgage lender, handles evening meals. “He’s a great cook,” she says.

Her youngest son was born eight months after she joined Charter and Hamilton did not take maternity leave. Instead, he went to work with mom from the time he was two weeks until he was five-months-old.

“I perfected one-hand typing and used the mute on the phone a lot,” she says, with a laugh. “It was wonderful.”

Now at home, she has to explain to her children why she has to answer her BlackBerry. The response: “She is helping to solve a problem for someone.”

Charter faces it share of those as Comcast, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV Inc. and EchoStar Communications Corp. grow larger, and the mid-sized operator doesn’t enjoy any vertical integration opportunities. “The challenges are enormous to try to make the economics of the video business work,” she says.

But that’s what Hamilton seems to thrive on. As one of the more tenured top executives at Charter, she is drawing upon 13 years of experience to bring Smit up to speed on cable. Other executives may have left a troubled company like Charter by now, but not Hamilton, not yet.

“I’m a loyalist,” Hamilton acknowledges, one who accepts the challenge of a difficult situation without losing her humor and perspective on the realities around her.