Time (Zone) Traveler


Listening to Miranda Curtis describe her typical workday is like watching the Tour de France on TV: You can almost feel the exhaustion.

"You'll go in and do your 14 hours of meetings in Japan, and then you go back to your hotel room and have a couple of hours to deal with Europe on e-mail and phone," said Curtis, the president of Denver-based Liberty Media International. "And if you stay awake until 11 o'clock, Denver kicks in, and then you get up again at five or six while Denver's still awake. And then you go back and do the next 14-hour day. You get to play very long hours, but it's also very interesting."

Curtis logs about 250,000 frequent flyer miles per year shuttling between her home base in London and everywhere from Europe to Asia (and Denver for meetings with her boss, John Malone, who runs parent company Liberty Media Group). But then again, that's just part of the job when you work for a multibillion-dollar company run by only a handful of senior executives.

The low headcount has created a nimbleness that is rare among large corporations. "The advantage is that you can raise issues very quickly and get additional feedback very fast," she said. "John has this ability to absorb information and make decisions with extraordinary speed, and the great thing is that I don't have to get through 15 layers of bureaucracy to get an issue discussed and resolved."

Curtis, of course, isn't one for bureaucracy. Or sloth. Or, apparently, even for much sleep. In fact, she said she feeds on the constant action, joking that she has become a "virtual media executive" from bouncing between so many different cultures on a weekly basis.

"That to me is one of the most interesting parts of the business — dealing with very complicated cross-cultural environments," she said. "To be a European representing an American corporation in Japan to me is part of the fascination of the job: How do you get everyone to sit down and reach a common understanding and move the business forward together? Of course, one goes in the matter of a week from dealing with a very traditional Japanese trading house to explosive rounds with our French partners where we can shout and have a great time and then kiss and make up at the end of the day. We're in a very creative content business, and that's a lot of fun."

Curtis was born and schooled in London, but the "fun" didn't really begin until the late 1970s when she joined the British Broadcasting Corp.

She worked in international distribution where her language skills (she speaks English, French and Spanish) were useful. But she also gravitated toward "new media" technologies, such as laser discs, which were in their infancy by the early 1980s.

That led her to work with a number of U.S. companies, which piqued her interest in business culture. She enrolled in a London business school in 1984. "I very much wanted to move into new, developing sectors," she said. "I was also interested in the technology piece. And so cable was the obvious area."

After a stint in CD-ROM publishing, Curtis joined London cable operator United Cable in 1988. From there, Curtis' future seemed predestined. "United Cable became United Artists became TCI became Liberty," she said.

These days, Curtis spends a lot of time in Germany where Liberty is trying to get regulators to approve its $5 billion purchase of Deutsche Telekom's cable assets. It's a massive deal that would put Liberty in control of more than half of that country's cable households.

Already, some regulators have balked at the idea of an American company exerting so much media power. "We started work on this transaction in February, and I've been going to Germany every two weeks since then, meeting with state and federal regulators and partners," Curtis said.

In some ways, Liberty has fallen victim to its own tendency to work behind the scenes. "Liberty doesn't have a single brand, it doesn't have a single product, it doesn't have a textbook way of doing business, which allows us to be very flexible and respond to market conditions," she said. "But it also means that as you go into Germany to see state politicians, they don't know what Liberty is or what it does, so they tend to be cautious about [us]."

Liberty has also made no secret about its desire to transform Deutsche Telekom's cable systems from a sleepy utility into a vibrant broadband platform. "We are posing some very fundamental questions of the regulators about the changes we want to affect," she said. "In Germany, we're looking at a much more radical transformation from a transport model to a marketing and consumer-driven model."

Curtis would like Germany to emulate Liberty's success in Japan, where voice, video and data subscribers generate $150 per month in revenue. Subscriber growth is up 48 percent in the last 12 months.

"It doesn't get any better than that," she said. "But it's very high maintenance. Japan is our secret sleeper, and that's really what we hope Germany will be long term."

One thing Curtis doesn't find in her travels are many other women executives, which begs the question: Does that make her job easier or harder?

"It varies," she said, chuckling. "One is certainly more distinctive. There's no danger of being confused with anyone else. I sit on 12 boards and there are only two that have any women on them. I've had maybe one meeting in probably 80 trips to Japan with another senior Japanese woman."

Of course, Curtis isn't complaining. She doesn't have time: Denver will be up in an hour.