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Friend, Fighter and Visionary

To those who knew him, Jim Robbins was a lot of things: top-notch cable CEO, friend, fighter and visionary.

Robbins, who served as CEO of Cox Communications for 20 years before retiring at the end of 2005, died Oct. 10 at his home in Westport, Mass., after a months-long battle with cancer.

Robbins was known throughout the industry for his take-charge attitude, his sometimes irreverent humor and his passion for the cable industry and the employees of Cox Communications. Under his watch, Cox increased its subscriber base from 1.3 million to 6.3 million, pioneered telephony services and laid the foundation for the triple-play bundle that has driven growth in the cable industry for the past few years.

'WILL MISS HIM TERRIBLY’

While Robbins has been battling cancer for several months, news of his passing still came as a shock, even to those closest to him.

“The passing of our dear friend and valued colleague is a sad event for me, my family and all the employees of Cox,” said Cox Enterprises chairman and CEO Jim Kennedy in a statement. “Jim embodied the spirit of our company — to do the right thing by the people the company touches — employees, customers, vendors, partners and the communities Cox serves. We will miss him terribly.”

Robbins decided to pass the reins to executive vice president and chief operating officer Patrick Esser in 2006, an executive he had been grooming for the job for years. In an interview in July 2005, after he had announced his intention to retire at the end of that year, Robbins said that over the years he had three executive vice presidents, which he called chief operating officers in training.

“Pat has absolutely been the home-run selection,” Robbins said in that July 2005 interview.

Esser, who became Cox president in 2006, has long considered Robbins as a mentor and friend.

“I am deeply saddened by the loss of Jim Robbins,” Esser said in a statement. “He was a friend, leader and mentor to countless people, including me, and is widely regarded as an industry pioneer who led our company with brilliant vision, courage and heart. Jim’s influence on Cox and everyone who had the honor of working with him will live on.”

Robbins’ vision surfaced early in his career with Cox — a U.S. Navy veteran who completed two tours of duty during the Vietnam War, he joined the Atlanta-based cable operator in 1983, after stints with Continental Cablevision and Viacom Cable. Two years later, Robbins was named president. He added CEO to his title in 1995, when Cox went public.

Under Robbins’ leadership, Cox was the first cable company to build out its network for circuit-switched telephony, laying the foundation in 1997 for today’s triple play of voice, video and Internet services. Cox had just under 1 million circuit-switched telephone customers in 2003, well ahead of its cable peers, who only began rolling out a voice over Internet Protocol technology product that year.

STUCK TO INSTINCTS

Robbins also was an early advocate for improving customer service — a stance that was heavily criticized by some of his cable brethren at the time. But true to character, Robbins stuck to his instincts, which proved to be right.

“He really understood more deeply and earlier than anyone the importance of excellent customer service to the future of the industry,” Landmark Communications president and chief operating officer and former National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Decker Anstrom said. “He was evangelical about preaching the importance of excellent customer service and he and Cox led by example. The pile of JD Power awards and their low churn rates and their ability to introduce new services, all of that are testament to that commitment.”

During Robbins’s tenure, Cox won four J.D. Power & Associates awards for customer service and satisfaction, tops in the cable industry.

FOCUS ON CUSTOMERS

Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing president and CEO Char Beales said that Robbins’ focus on customer service wasn’t always appreciated by the rest of the industry.

“He was one of the only MSO CEOs who really put the customer first and paid for that,” Beales remembered. “I remember when I was on the NCTA staff in the 1980s and he was investing a lot of money in customer care, other [NCTA] board members made fun of him for wasting all of that money on the customer. He had the vision and he had the courage to carry it out.”

But Robbins may be best known for his very public battle with ESPN in 2003 over the sports programmer’s double-digit rate increases.

After several months of sometimes caustic rhetoric on both sides of the argument, Cox emerged with a 10-year deal with an average annual rate increase of 7%.

Most significant, though: the Cox agreement set the tone for the rest of the industry. Thanks to Robbins’s willingness to step up to the plate, other multiple-system operators reaped the benefit of similar deals with ESPN.

While Robbins tried to downplay the significance of his ESPN battle — “We weren’t looking for that assignment; it just happened that our contracts were up first,” he said in a 2005 interview — he later said that negotiation helped restore the balance between programmers and distributors.

And though both sides in that battle got a little testy at times, Robbins still commanded respect and maintained friendships with people on both sides of the negotiating table.

'PIONEERING LEADERSHIP’

“We will miss Jim’s candor, sense of humor and friendship,” said ESPN and ABC Sports president George Bodenheimer in a statement. “In addition to his pioneering leadership in our industry, his commitment to philanthropy is a most fitting legacy.”

Continental Cablevision founder Amos Hostetter remembers the late executive as a smart, savvy businessman who naturally stepped into the role of industry leader.

“This was truly a class act and the glue that held an awful lot of the collective efforts in the cable industry together,” Hostetter said.

Hostetter added that he recognized Robbins’ talent early on.

“I gave him his first job in the industry; he was a disc jockey at a radio station in Fitchburg, Mass.” Hostetter said. “I could tell right off that he was a talented guy, energetic, talented, good with people. It was an easy hire.”

Anstrom added that Robbins also bred loyalty among his employees by championing executive development, diversity and training.

“He really believed in investing in people and he spent personal time and he built a culture around that,” Anstrom said.

But Robbins wasn’t all business all the time, Anstrom added.

“Jim really lived a leadership style all of us could benefit from paying attention to,” Anstrom said. “He was as competitive and serious and tough as any CEO in the industry, but the other side of it was he had fun in life. He was irreverent, he made fun of himself, he didn’t take himself that seriously, he could let his hair down. He was happy to talk to you about his Labradors or about his daughters. He just had that nice, practical, people touch as well as all of the other attributes that come with being a great CEO.”

Mediacom Communications chairman and CEO Rocco Commisso, who bought one of his first systems, a small property in California in the late 1990s from Robbins, had served on several industry boards and panels with Robbins over the years.

“He was a great friend, a great leader and someone to emulate,” Commisso said.

Robbins also devoted much of his time to charitable causes — he was a past chairman of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (his daughter Payson is diabetic), testifying before Congress in 2001 for additional research and funding. Robbins also served on the board of directors of Humana Inc. and was president of the board of trustees at his alma mater St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H.

Robbins is survived by his wife Debby; their three daughters, Jane Brooks Robbins, Payson Robbins Murray and Hilary Robbins Thomas; his brother, E. Brooks Robbins; and sister, Barbara R. Anderson.