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Always Poised, No Matter the Dance

NAME: Beth Main
TITLE: Senior VP, Domestic Network Distribution
COMPANY: HBO

CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Joined HBO in 2002 after careers in ballet, travel writing, Silicon Valley and marketing for cable operators. A member of the CTAM board of directors, she is also an executive member of WICT.

QUOTABLE: “The qualities that make me successful here are the ability to remain poised under pressure, to remain resilient — ‘that didn’t work, let’s try something new’ — perseverance, and teamwork. I do not give up. There’s always a way.”

A ballerina, a travel writer and a Silicon Valley pioneer: It sounds like a pitch for an HBO series, not the resume of one of the network’s executives. Beth Main has taken a circuitous path to her job as HBO’s senior vice president for domestic network distribution, but every experience was worth it.

“I have tried on many, many different hats — and shoes,” Main said. “I learned this industry quite by accident.”

Raised in San Francisco, Main devoted her early years to ballet study, including a summer at the Joffrey Ballet in New York. She was set on dancing professionally. Then her father sat her down at the kitchen table one night toward the end of high school and told her she had to try just a year of college, at least.

“‘You’re about to make a decision that’s going to impact the rest of your life before you know anything about life,’ ” Main’s father told her. “‘Before you’ve got your pointe shoes off and a burger in your body, I’m not going to let you make that decision.’ ”

“I hated him for it,” Main recalled. “But he was a wise man.” She loved college, and though she did dance professionally with a regional ballet company, “I was soon reminded that the world was bigger and the relentless focus that athleticism requires was not for me.”

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Main worked in marketing for Tele-Communications Inc. and Viacom cable systems. “I had great bosses that recognized quality in me that they appreciated: Discipline, poise, perseverance, communications skills. I just had people that pulled me right up.”

She did a stint with a Silicon Valley startup, Diva Systems, which she called “exhilarating” but unsatisfying. “Companies run by engineers — it was not for me.” So she took six months off to drive across the country, then cold-called travel publishers until she landed a gig writing the guide Karen Brown’s Pacific Northwest. In 2002, wanting to be part of a team, she came to HBO via the San Francisco office.

Classical Training Comes in Handy
“The most formative of all those experiences, though I didn’t know it at the time, was the training as a classical ballerina,” she said. “That experience, coupled with a liberal arts education, fostered in me attributes that serve me so well in a business environment. Especially this environment where it’s so chaotic right now, where it’s all unknown and we’re making it up together.”

Since 2014, Main has headed sales and distribution strategy for HBO and Cinemax through general management of all U.S. cable partnerships. Worth $2.4 billion, they represent half of HBO’s domestic subscription business.

That means she must nurture HBO’s relationships with cable operators at the same time as the network has launched HBO Go and made its content available through other streaming services.

Good thing diplomacy is one of Main’s strengths, said Shelley Brindle, a former HBO executive vice president who mentored Main. “You can imagine how much finesse is required in doing that.”

With the seismic shift in the cable industry, an easy reaction is “panic,” said Bernadette Aulestia, Main’s boss and HBO’s executive vice president for global distribution. But Main is “unflappable” and “takes everything in stride. She has incredible confidence not only in her own capabilities, but in the team she’s built and developed.”

Main’s diverse background is a plus, Aulestia said. “She’s actually one of the most interesting people to talk to because she has a variety of different experiences to draw from,” Aulestia said.

The result: Main has delivered consistent subscriber and revenue growth for HBO, Aulestia said. “That is not an easy feat over the last five years. That is really a feather in her cap.”

Like many Wonder Women, Main is also a “Betsy,” a Betsy Magness Leadership Institute graduate, through Women in Cable Telecommunications (WICT).

Building Teamwork and Promoting Growth
In turn, she helps her team members grow, Brindle said. “Beth provides very clear direction to people and she is absolutely unafraid in giving people really direct feedback: the information people need to hear, even if they don’t want to. She can do it in a way that people understand she has their best interests at heart.”

The only casualty of Main’s HBO success has been the ability to indulge her wanderlust, though she makes a point to stay in “fabulous inns” on vacations, like her most recent trip to Norway. She still harbors plans to travel and write again, and to return to favorite destinations such as Ireland — her husband Donald’s home country — for longer stays.

Being named a Wonder Woman came just as Main celebrated a milestone birthday. She viewed it as both a birthday present and — “for all those people who said, ‘Oh, the ballet dancer will never amount to much”’ — a vindication of her unorthodox approach to forging a career.

At times, her changes in direction “met with more dissension and concern than with support,” she said. “But I follow my own star, for good and ill. I’m glad for every move I made.”