Cox Communications CEO Patrick Esser’s decision to retire at the end of the year — he will be succeeded by company veteran Mark Greatrex — was met throughout the industry with equal parts regret at losing yet another of cable’s old guard and good wishes that one of the good guys gets to end his decades-long cable story on his own terms.
Esser got his start in the cable business in 1979 as a pole climber for a small cable operator in Waterloo, Iowa. According to an interview he did with this reporter back in 2013 after receiving the industry’s highest honor — the Vanguard Award for Distinguished Leadership — Esser packed up his belongings and drove 1,000 miles to Hampton Roads, Virginia, the site of Cox's latest system buy. The catalyst? One of his sales managers in the Waterloo system was a former Cox employee who couldn’t stop talking about what a great company it was to work for. The then 20-something Esser decided to see for himself.
“I knocked on the door of the cable system and I got a job as the public-access director,” Esser said at the time. “Everything I heard about Cox was true from the moment I stepped on the property.”
Esser’s first job at Cox was officially director of programming at the Hampton Roads system, and he was part of the management team that pioneered Cox’s advertising sales division now known as Cox Media. In 1991 he was named corporate vice president of advertising sales, rising to vice president of operations for Cox’s Western Division in 1999. A year later he was promoted to senior vice president of operations and in 2004, Esser was promoted to executive vice president and chief operating officer.
In 2006, Esser was tapped to succeed CEO James Robbins, who had said earlier that he would retire that year. Robbins, who died in 2007, said in a July 2005 interview he couldn’t have hoped for a better person to take the reins.
“Pat has absolutely been the home-run selection,” Robbins said in that July 2005 interview.
Esser didn’t just have an impact on his own company. While he spearheaded and pushed along efforts to diversify Cox’s workforce and bring the company into the information age, he also enthusiastically waved the cable banner wherever he went. Throughout the years he served as chairman of NCTA: The Internet & Television Association; C-SPAN; CableLabs; adviser to the National Association for Multi-Ethnicity in Communications (NAMIC) and on the national Board of Governors of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America.
“Pat Esser’s contribution to our industry has been invaluable,” said NCTA: The Internet and Television Association CEO Michael Powell in a statement. “He’s a true cable success story, rising through the ranks from local executive to company CEO. Throughout, he has represented the heart and soul of our industry, always committed first to the welfare of Cox customers and employees.”
Through his journey throughout the industry, Esser has worked closely with other cable and telecom CEOs. He serves on C-SPAN’s board with Charter Communications chairman and CEO Tom Rutledge and has served with Mediacom Communications founder, chairman and CEO Rocco Commisso on the C-SPAN and NCTA boards.
“Pat’s had a great career starting at entry level and rising to the top,” Rutledge said in a statement. “I’ve enjoyed working aside him on Industry efforts at NCTA and CableLabs. Pat’s contribution to the industry is unmatched. I have been personally lucky to work with Pat in an industry where long term business success has kept us on the same team for decades. It’s been a pleasure.”
National Cable Television Cooperative CEO Lou Borrelli has known Esser for years, dating back to their early days in cable. Borrelli has logged 43 years in the cable business, beginning with UA-Columbia Cablevision in 1978. Borrelli also was a founding partner of Marcus Cable in 1986.
"I had the good fortune to meet Pat back when our cable careers were getting off the ground," Borrelli said in a statement. "His energy was infectious and his word was his bond. Through numerous CTAM collaborations, Pat never ran out of ideas and always was up to the challenge. His track record at Cox is a testament to his work ethic and his ethics in business and life. Good luck and godspeed."
Esser also helped drive Cox forward as the industry changed, building on its decades-long reputation as the “gold standard” for the cable industry and unafraid to invest in new businesses like broadband.
“During Pat’s 15 years at the helm, Cox Communications became the gold standard of U.S. telecom companies,” Commisso said in a statement. “Through his many operational successes at Cox and his leadership within NCTA, Pat motivated us all to make the significant private investments necessary to turn our collective broadband networks into America’s most powerful technology platform. I thank him for his tremendous contributions to our industry and wish Pat and his family all the best in the years ahead.”
Powell also pointed to Esser’s history as a champion of the NCTA, leading its board of directors and trade show several times, and his commitment to diversity, both at Cox and throughout the industry.
“Pat has been a leader and innovator in cable marketing; a visionary in cable operations and technology; an ally and champion for diversity, equity, and inclusion; and a thoughtful, forward-looking President & CEO of his company,” Powell continued. “As one of our industry’s most trusted and authentic voices, Pat has immense credibility with policy makers. He has helped provide a strong presence for our industry here in Washington and always has committed Cox Communications to the public good. I will miss Pat enormously as a friend, mentor, and advisor on all of our critical issues. We wish only the very best for him in his next chapter. We’re looking forward to working with Mark Greatrex, another formidable presence in our industry who will be a positive force as we move into the future.”
Esser has served as chairman of C-SPAN for about two years but has been a member of the organization since 2005. The Cox chief has also been a regular video contributor, participating in trade show forums broadcast on the channel ranging from the future of the cable business to Open Internet and consolidation.
“You can't ask for a better chairman than Pat Esser,” C-SPAN said in a statement. “He is passionate about C-SPAN's mission and shares that enthusiasm throughout Cox. Over the past two years, he has been readily available with strategic guidance and encouragement as our network navigates a changing marketplace and we are confident we can continue to call on his wise counsel into the future.”
In 2006, Cox was first named in DiversityInc's listing of the Top 50 Companies for Diversity and in 2020, reached its highest ranking at No.11. Women in Cable Telecommunications (WICT) regularly recognizes Cox among the top operators for women.
"Pat Esser is an industry legend — 15 years of exemplary leadership at the helm of Cox and countless beneficiaries of his dedication to the industry and its DEI efforts,” Maria E. Brennan, WICT President & CEO, said in a statement. “We likewise congratulate Pat’s accomplished successor at Cox, Mark Greatrex, and look forward to continuing our strong partnership with the Cox leadership team."
Michael Farrell is senior content producer — finance.
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