Amy Smith got her first taste of the cable industry when her accounting firm did the books for the former Telecable in 1991. Mark Bookout joined the industry in 1989 as a telemarketer for then-United Artists Cable, helping to pay the insurance for his pickup truck while he was in high school.
Bill Copeland's first cable job was in door-to-door sales for Masada Corp. Stan McCabe was running a mortgage company in Tulsa, Okla., when one of his clients — a Charter Communications Inc. executive — told him about a job opening at the company, which he took.
These four cable executives have very different backgrounds. But they do have two things in common: they're all cable-system general managers, and they're all young — each under the age of 35.
In the early years, the cable industry was known as an old-boys' network of operators, many clad in cowboy hats as they dug out trenches around the country to lay cable.
While most system general managers are still men, some women are breaking into the ranks. And as these four general managers illustrate, age isn't a barrier at many MSOs.
None of these general managers said they dreamed of working in the cable industry when they were kids. Some — like Copeland, 34, general manager of Mediacom Communications Corp.'s Central Illinois division — didn't even know what the cable industry was when they were in high school.
In 1986, Copeland was working in a National Automotive Parts Association (NAPA) store in Mississippi when his cousin came into the shop and told him about a job in Alabama, where they could make $500 a week selling cable.
"I said, 'Hell, I'm going,' and we took off to Huntsville, Alabama," Copeland said.
"So on the way there, I look over at him and ask, 'Who are we going to be selling this cable to?' He didn't know.
"The whole way up there, I had this idea that we were going to have this big roll of cable in the back of the truck, and we would be going around selling it to people."
Copeland and his cousin found out that they'd be selling a multichannel video service — not rolls of cable. And the then-19-year-old made 10 sales on his first day as a door-to-door sales rep for Masada, a sales contractor for the former Group W Cable.
His cousin, Joey Copeland, made 12 sales.
Bill Copeland did well enough at door-to-door sales that his superiors promoted him to sales manager. That's when he "really got serious about moving up the ladder."
In 1989, Copeland took his first in-house cable job at Cablevision Industries Inc. (CVI), where he was regional sales manager for the former MSO's Columbia, S.C. office. He jumped to USA Cable Systems in Houston in 1991, where he was director of marketing.
Copeland's first general manager gig came in 1992, when he took over Community Communications Co., a small independent operator in Monticello, Ark.
"When I got there we had about 5,800 subscribers," he said. "When I left, it was about 14,000."
Jim Carey and Dale Ordoyne, two former CVI executives who later joined Mediacom, brought Copeland to the MSO in September. He runs the company's 60,000-subscriber Central Illinois division, and about 100 employees report to him.
Copeland says the biggest change he's seen the industry since he was a 19-year-old selling cable door-to-door is in customer service.
"When I started, I don't think customer service was a big part of anybody's business plan, and today customer service is obviously the No. 1 priority."
SELLING TO THE AMISH
After graduating with degrees in business administration and accounting from Washington and Lee University in 1991, Roanoke, Va.-native Smith joined PriceWaterhouseCoopers as a staff accountant. She was introduced to cable in 1994, when she audited Telecable, which was being purchased by the former Tele-Communications Inc.
"I realized pretty early on that doing accounting-only work wasn't what I ultimately wanted to do," Smith said.
After the TCI deal closed, Smith went to a headhunter to find a job in the cable industry. She landed at Comcast Corp.'s Charleston, S.C., system as business manager, and spent most of her time working on budgets and analyzing operating results and subscriber reports.
Smith's first general-manager position came in 1999, when Comcast moved her to the company's Lake County, Fla., system to prepare the system for a trade to Time Warner Cable.
Smith said she preferred the technical and operational aspects of the general manager job, and dealing with everything from sales to keeping employees happy to just crunching numbers as an accountant.
"At Comcast, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well," Smith said. "This is a business they give you to run — how cool is that!"
Comcast ended up holding onto the Lake County system after the deal with Time Warner fell apart, and Smith was moved up to general manager of the MSO's 195,000-subscriber system in Pennsylvania's Chester and Lancaster counties last year.
One of Smith's challenges is selling cable in Lancaster County, where the Amish — who represent about 10 percent of the population — shun such technology as cable TV.
"I would be the queen of cable if I could figure out how to sell [to] the Amish," Smith cracked.
Smith, 34, oversees about 200 employees. A typical day involves meetings on system upgrades and new technology rollouts and talking to front-line employees to get customer feedback, she said.
"Some of the key challenges are just balancing all of the multiple priorities — meeting the financial and subscriber goals are key to what we do, trying to launch new products, and at the same time trying to provide excellent customer service," Smith said. Another key to the job is "making sure it's a fun work environment" and communicating often with all of her employees, she added.
Smith, an avid equestrian who owns two horses, competes in horse-jumping competitions about once a month. But does she have a cowboy hat, like her cable forefathers?
"I wouldn't admit if I did," she said.
SETTING BIG GOALS
Bookout is only 29, but the general manager of Cable One's Grenada, Miss., system already has 12 years of cable experience. His first cable gig was at a United Artists Cable system in Houston when he was a high school senior.
"I just took it so I could pay the insurance on my pickup truck, to tell you the truth," Bookout said. "Once you get the cable business in your blood, it's hard to get it out."
Bookout started out as a part-time, customer-service representative, but when one of the full-time CSRs took maternity leave, he was asked to stay on full-time. He was soon promoted to customer-service supervisor.
While attending San Jacinto College — a community college in Houston — Bookout was assigned to write a paper about his career goals.
"In five years I want to be an office manager, and in 10 years I said I wanted to be a general manager," Bookout recalled.
Bookout's professor would be proud — he achieved both goals.
After working for six months as assistant customer-service manager for the now defunct wireless operator People's Choice TV in Houston, a headhunter helped him secure the office manager job at the Grenada system in 1994, which was then owned by Bresnan Communications.
Bookout was promoted to general manager of the system in 1995, when he was just 24. "Of course I was nervous, but I jumped into it with both feet, and ended up coming out of it no worse for the wear," he said.
The Houston native oversees a dozen employees and a small system with 7,000 subscribers running from two headends in rural Mississippi. The system, which was acquired by Cable One in 1998, offers digital cable and is about to launch cable-modem service, Bookout said.
Long-term, Bookout would like to continue his education, and eventually move into the corporate office on the operations side, managing multiple systems, he said.
ROOTS IN TV
McCabe, 32, grew up with the television business. His father was sales manager for KOKI-TV in Tulsa, Okla. But McCabe didn't follow in his father's footsteps after graduating from Ohio State University as a business administration major in 1994 — he started his own mortgage business instead.
Last year, one of McCabe's clients told him about an opening for the general manager's job at Charter Communications Inc.'s Tulsa system. McCabe's client — Charter director of advanced services Bruce Berkinshaw — was selling his Tulsa home to relocate to St. Louis.
Although he didn't have cable experience, McCabe got the job last year at age 31.
A key part of the job is surrounding yourself with people that understand the technology, McCabe said. "If you have the right people telling you the right things, it certainly makes it much easier."
McCabe oversees a wide area in Eastern Oklahoma that encompasses 77 small towns, 50 headends and 17,000 subscribers. Since joining the company last year, he has focused on "improving economies of scale," and has consolidated 10 headends.
Charter sells digital cable on three of McCabe's systems, and McCabe said he also recently began offering a satellite-delivered programming package in Eastern Oklahoma. In its first two months of availability, the service from WSNet Inc. — which competes with cable in some markets — Charter has sold it to 400 subscribers who don't have cable running past their homes, McCabe said.
Selling a multichannel competitor's digitally compressed programming to cable-company customers who don't even have wire running into their homes is something even these under-35-year-olds probably never dreamed of when they first joined the business.