It isn't every corporate chief who counts a kids-show host as a professional influence. But Uncle Al can take some credit for NBC Universal Executive John Eck's love of television. Growing up in Cincinnati, Eck was entranced by TV, particularly a local offering from Uncle Al, the star of WCPO's long-running children's show. Eck was also a big fan of a local morning talk show on WLTW.
“Some kids want to be firemen, some an astronaut. I wanted to run a TV station,” says Eck, now the president of technical operations and integration for NBC Universal. “I thought it was cool.” And though he has never run a station, he is responsible for the technical operations and facilities of all of NBC's networks and stations nationwide. For years, that meant he was calling the shots for TV studios, equipment and real estate.
When NBC took over Vivendi Universal's U.S. media operations, NBC Chairman Bob Wright expanded Eck's duties, putting him in charge of integrating the company's movie studios, cable networks and theme parks into NBC. That meant meshing everything from office space to financial systems, ensuring Universal's properties fit smoothly with NBC parent General Electric.
Eck sees the deal as transforming NBC's future, with Universal's movie and TV studios and cable networks USA Network and Sci Fi Channel, giving the corporation long-term firepower. Aware of how gigantic cable and DBS companies like Comcast and DirecTV had become, NBC deemed it unwise to “go it alone” as a broadcaster and cluster of smaller cable networks.
“We weren't sure we could be the prettiest girl at the dance,” Eck says. That is, NBC didn't know if it could be a programmer every distributor would always want. “We made a decision: We were going to be long in content distribution that was plentiful and cheap.”
Despite his senior operations posts, Eck did not rise through the traditional TV ranks. A finance guy, he hopped around several divisions of GE before joining NBC in 1993. “At GE, you're trained with an operational view toward things; you're there to support operations.”
And Eck knows something about bottom-line realities. His father was a factory worker for a fastener company who eventually became a manufacturers' rep—a traveling salesman peddling screws, nuts and bolts to manufacturers in the Midwest. “He was a great role model,” Eck says.
But rather than work independently, Eck majored in business at Indiana University, a path that pointed him toward corporate America. “I figured I'd either work in banking or a big company someday. I was the antithesis of my father, who sort of worked on his own.”
GE was recruiting on campus and tapped Eck in 1982 to join its finance staff in Cleveland, where the company cranked out consumer and industrial light bulbs. “I'm a big sap; I bought into the big GE thing: great company, Thomas Edison, the light bulb. I thought that was cool from a historical perspective.”
He spent two years in the company's vaunted training program, where they hammer in “The GE Way,” the company's methodical approach to financial analysis, no matter how disparate its businesses. After another year in lighting, Eck went on an eight-year trek of GE's operations, from HQ in Connecticut to aircraft engines in Massachusetts, electric generators in Georgia to financial services in London.
Frequent relocations were stressful, but a necessary part of his career ascent. The major alternative would have been joining the corporate audit staff, where his family would have stayed in one place but Eck would have been on the road “virtually 100% of the time.” Instead, he chose to move every few years.
“The downside is, you're away from family and never become a permanent part of the community. After a year, you think about the next position.” The upside: two years in London including weekend jaunts with his wife (his high school sweetheart) and young children to Europe.
The job locations varied, but his job description did not. The finance department crunches all available cost, revenue and market data to set budgets and estimate future performance and needs. “It's supportive of business decisions with financial analysis,” Eck says. “The emphasis is to help make the smartest business decisions the company can make.”
That may sound dull, but the stakes can be high. At the company's aircraft-engine division, for example, Eck was a financial analyst charged with assessing which factories should be shut down, resulting in substantial job cuts, which was “gut wrenching.” But at the company's power-systems unit, he helped a regional manager justify keeping his unit open despite a slump in the market. That saved workers' jobs.
As the NBC Universal deal approaches its one-year anniversary, the integration part of Eck's job is nearly over. And he'll drop that part of this title, too. His duties seem likely to expand, but it isn't likely station management is in his future. Still, he feels wistful. “The guys who run our TV stations, they're like the junior mayor if not the mayor. They have thriving enterprises.”
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