It’s hard to think of Rogers Communications or the Canadian cable and telecom business without Phil Lind.
The company’s vice chairman and executive vice president of regulatory joined Ted Rogers 45 years ago, when Rogers’s little company had just north of 10,000 cable customers and a pair of radio stations.
In fact, it’s very hard to think of Rogers Communications ever being that small, since it has grown into a wireless, cable, telecom, broadband and media behemoth in Canada with about 29,000 employees, 9.5 million wireless customers, 2 million cable customers, 2 million broadband customers, 1.1 million wireline phone customers, 24 TV stations, 50 radio stations and more than 50 magazine titles.
Having been Ted Rogers’s copilot for four decades until the founder’s death in 2008, then continuing to lead the government relations and regulatory group since (not to mention being the eminence grise for the whole company, brokering deals, too), Lind has decided the time is now ripe to step aside. The 2012 Cable Hall of Fame inductee announced earlier this year he will give up his operational roles at the end of 2014, then working certain special projects for about three more years. He’s retaining his seat on the RCI board as well, where he is vice chairman. He’s retiring — but not leaving.
Lind joined Rogers in 1969, the same year Ted’s son Edward Rogers was born. Edward, now a Rogers board member himself and head of the Rogers family trust, which owns control of the corporation, joked before the company’s annual general meeting earlier this year he never was sure which debut was most important to his father that year — his or Lind’s.
“I began my career at Rogers 45 years ago, just after the 1968 Broadcasting Act was enacted and this commission was created,” Lind told Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission chairman Jean-Pierre Blais at the company’s appearance during September’s TV Policy Review hearing. “Since that time, Mr. Chairman, I have had the pleasure of appearing before you and all your predecessors. I reckon that I have represented Rogers at more than 100 broadcasting hearings over the past four and a half decades.”
That’s right, Lind has appeared before every single CRTC chairman there has ever been.
There are very few people left in the business with that kind of history and institutional knowledge, or who engender the amount of love and respect which the 72-year-old Lind does. “Phil has had a passion and a love for the company that goes far beyond the average employee’s commitment to their job,” Edward Rogers said. “I’d say he shared my father’s enthusiasm for the business like few others did. You could see that kind of excitement over the years.”
Shaw Communications founder JR Shaw said: “He’s always been a good friend to everyone in this industry. He’d always reach back and help us all, because Rogers was a front-runner.”
SAW U.S. ACTION
According to those who knew Lind best and have worked with him over the decades, it was loyalty, tenacity and people skills that led to his extraordinary business successes, on both sides of the border.
While those under the age of 45 or so might not recall, Rogers Cable was once a big deal in the States and Lind was one of the premier generals in the U.S. cable wars of the 1980s, when companies went from town to town trying to win cable franchises from local town councils. The company once famously promised to plant 10,000 trees in Portland, Ore., as part of its bid to win the franchise there.
With his “Road Warriors,” the group of executives and lawyers Lind put together to identify and claim territories (yes, there were Tshirts), Lind built up a sizable U.S. cable operation in places like Minneapolis; Portland, Ore.; Orange County, Calif.; and San Antonio for Rogers in the ’80s. “It was a gold rush,” Lee Sheehy, a longtime Lind friend and one of the Minneapolis lawyers who worked on many of the Rogers franchise bids, said. Many companies devoted serious resources and various tactics to win market after market.
“It was the Wild West,” said Colin Watson, Rogers Cable’s president at the time. “There were cases of people being caught with their hands in pockets … there were some that got caught and sent to jail, as I recall, for it. Everyone wanted the same franchises, and the bidding wars were extreme. The typical M.O. was to go in and get local investors, so you had a very local face to offset the Canadian aspect of the company. That formula worked very well for us.” And for a time, Rogers was a serious American cable player.
‘THANK YOU, CANADA’
“The stories are legend about Phil’s ability to create relationships and to bring insights,” added Sheehy. It was never easy to be the Canadian, the outsider, asking local American town councils to grant a cable franchise, so Rogers was often looking for an edge. While the company was bidding for Minneapolis, the American public was consumed by the U.S.-Iranian hostage crisis, and when Canadian diplomats helped smuggle six Americans out of the country, Lind had the idea to buy a full page ad in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune which proclaimed loudly “Thank You Canada,” but kept the ad’s buyers a secret.
“Phil had the political sophistication to try and listen to what the local communities wanted. Again, I think he brought an ear that some U.S. companies didn’t, who relied more on bravado,” Sheehy continued. “Phil had a subtlety and a little bit of the Canadian ability to listen to what the customer wanted and be responsive was my experience representing the company … Somewhere along the way, I said, ‘Phil, you should be the Canadian ambassador to the United States.’”
But in the late 1980s, Ted Rogers the visionary began telling people the future of communications was in cellular phones. However, taking that road wouldn’t be cheap and in order to fund wireless in Canada, Rogers made the decision to sell the U.S. cable clusters — very much to Lind’s chagrin.
Lind still tells anyone who asks that the cable-franchise wars were the most fun he ever had in business and it “broke his heart” to have to sell the American operations, said Missy Goerner, one of those Road Warriors who began working for Rogers when it purchased the San Antonio cable system she worked for in 1981 from UA-Columbia Cablevision.
According to contemporary reports in The New York Times and Los Angeles Times, respectively, Rogers sold systems in Texas, California, Minnesota and Oregon, with a total of about 525,000 subscribers, to Paragon Cable for $1.3 billion in 1989. It then sold Maclean-Hunter cable operations with 550,000 customers in New Jersey, Michigan and Florida to Comcast in 1994 for $1.27 billion.
“But the quality of the man is — and how he was always — it was always Rogers company first, not his own personal feelings,” Goerner added. Lind worked hard to get the best deal possible for the company — a deal which very nearly fell apart thanks to a single clause in the franchise agreement with San Antonio.
Rogers had a deal to sell U.S. systems to a company which would become Paragon Cable. “They were kind of new in the cable business … so we got the top-of-the-market price, at that point,” she said. It was a multibillion- dollar deal — more than enough to help fund a telecom launch in Canada.
But there was a snag. San Antonio’s franchise agreement said that whatever the fairmarket value was of the system, the city had the option to buy it for 5% less. Rogers didn’t believe San Antonio would exercise the clause, but Lou Fox, the city manager at the time, convinced council to do it. “They could’ve cratered the entire U.S. sale,” Goerner said.
No amount of convincing and negotiation between the city and Rogers would work. And when Fox went on the radio to say he had Rogers “by the balls,” Ted Rogers was beside himself with anger. The deal looked scuttled because, seeing the battle in San Antonio, many of the other cities stopped negotiating their sales, too.
Lind was able to calm his boss down (another skill he was renowned for within Rogers) and Goerner managed to finagle one last meeting between he and Lind mere weeks before the Paragon deal was to expire.
“I said, look, give Phil one more chance to talk about this. He said, I’m going to a city manager’s meeting tomorrow in Charleston, South Carolina. He said if he wants to come talk to me, he’ll be there,” Goerner said.
‘OK, SIGN THE NAPKIN’
“Just he and Lou sat down for hours, until Phil took out a napkin, put it in front of Lou, and asked him to write down what number he had to get from Rogers in order to be willing to move forward on the transfer. Lou Fox took his pen out, and he wrote $10 million, which is what they figured it was worth to the city if they were to buy the system, and then flip it.
“Phil said ‘OK, sign the napkin.’ He signed it, Phil signed it and that napkin was what Lou took back with him to the city council — truly a napkin. He went back to the city council, and the city council approved the deal,” Goerner recalled.
The Road Warriors then fanned out across the U.S. in order to finish the rest of the franchise transfers and save Rogers’s American exit.
Lind would clearly relish playing in the U.S. cable sandbox, still. “I’d love to be in the Comcast war room right now,” he said in an interview. “There’s thousands of touch points and you have to imagine that taking care of a lot of them … I’m actually quite envious.”
At Rogers, Lind is also known as a champion of the media side of the business: he and Watson used to appear regularly — and live — on Rogers Cable 10 community access channel in the 1980s and ’90s to answer customer questions. What has become Rogers Sportsnet was his idea, he was the force behind CPAC (Canada’s C-SPAN) and he helped pioneer multicultural programming through the OMNI-TV brand.
But there’s one other important way Lind has moved those who have had the good fortune to work with him. On Canada Day in 1998, Lind suffered a significant stroke which very nearly claimed his life. He had to learn to speak, read and walk again at 56.
His fellow executives visited daily, helping with rehab, reading newspapers and keeping him informed about the business. Lind taught himself to write with his left hand and returned to work just over year later.
Lind did not slow down once he recovered. He continued to travel, do deals, lobby politicians, lead Rogers’ efforts in front of the CRTC, collect art, see his beloved Cleveland Browns (he has season tickets and was a close friend of the late Browns and Baltimore Ravens owner Art Modell) and turn up at industry events. He was even front and center on a general-session panel at this past Cable Show in Los Angeles.
While he doesn’t like talking about himself too much, he admits he set himself a goal of five more years at Rogers after his stroke, something he thought would be a stretch. It’s been 16.
The most Lind will say about his physical limitations is “it’s been a struggle sometimes” — and thankfully note
how the iPhone, something he can operate with one hand, has so dramatically improved his life. “It’s fantastic,” he has often said of the device.
“He was at a point of his life where financially, he didn’t need to come back to work,” said Edward Rogers. “But he never hesitated in coming back and was a real example for many of us — meeting the challenges that life throws at you and continuing the work that you do. I think he was an inspiration for folks around here.”