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The People Price of Moving On

There isn’t a giant warehouse in the Midwest full of GreatLand Connections truck decals looking for a new home, but according to Michael Willner, the long-time cable executive who was set to become CEO of the company that was to emerge from the now-terminated Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal, the decision to end the merger has taken a toll on the people who for more than a year believed they were going to be working for another company.

“When they said ‘We’re done,’ we were done too,” Willner said of the Comcast-TWC termination, adding that in addition to the half-dozen or so people like himself who were working directly for GreatLand, there were dozens more who were committed to join after their respective deals closed. Still more at the various companies committing systems and resources to GreatLand were working in their spare time to get the company up and running.

GreatLand was to be spun-off as a separate, publicly traded company after the Comcast-TWC deal, housing about 2.5 million subscribers in Minnesota, Indiana and Kentucky. While Charter Communications was set to own 33% of the new company and would provide services like procurement, technical support and consumer-facing branding and marketing services to its systems, GreatLand was to have its own management team and an independent board of directors. Willner had already hired a chief financial officer – Time Warner Cable treasurer Matt Siegel, who has returned to that position – and had identified between 15 and 20 SVP and VP-level executives to join the company. Now, with the larger deal scuttled, that work has come to naught.

Even though GreatLand never officially opened for business – Willner said he also held off on making long-term commitments for office space or buying new truck logos – a lot of work had already been done.

“There is no way in words to express the man-hours and the level of detail for what was going to be one of the most complex acquisitions ever done,” Willner said.

GreatLand was only a part of a series of swaps and sales between Comcast, TWC and Charter that involved about 3.9 million customers.

On the GreatLand side, Willner said he personally visited systems that he thought were going to be under his purview several times in the past 14 months to reassure them that the transition from Comcast to GreatLand would not disrupt their lives.

“All the people going to GreatLand were Comcast people,” Willner said. “These employees loved working for Comcast. I had to convince them that life would be OK with us. It took me awhile.”

Wilner said that at GreatLand, no one was so irreversibly committed to the company that they couldn’t go back to their previous jobs. But other people who had worked at other operations that were earmarked for swaps or sales were preparing for big changes – like preparing to put their children into new schools – which they now have to change again.

“The people aspect of this is just breathtaking,” Willner said. “For 14 months this deal was meandering through the regulatory process, for whatever reason they just decided that after all the planning and all the money and all the people commitment and people who had moved to other cities, and planning to move for other cities for new jobs – there were even a few people who were told they wouldn’t have jobs after the close – they just decided there was no way to do the deal. It was unprecedented.”

As for Willner, who sold his Insight Communications to Time Warner in 2012 and joined video software company Penthera Partners as CEO later that year, it is back to business as usual. When he agreed to become CEO of GreatLand, he had planned to step down as CEO of Penthera while remaining on the board and continuing to play a role at the company. The planned search for a new CEO once Willner stepped down obviously is not going to happen.

“I have a personal stake in the company, I am very committed and I believe in it,” Wilner said. “We’re just moving on. We’ve got customers, we’re selling our products and I’m feeling pretty good about it.”