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Gamble Likes the Hands-On Experience

Jaye Gamble has an unusual background for a cable executive. As senior regional vice president for Comcast metro Washington, D.C., systems, he's a former management consultant working in a field unit. Also, he's a former telecommunications company executive working in corporate management rather than the telephone side of the business.

The more parts of companies Gamble saw from the outside—first as an auditor, then as a consultant—the less he was drawn to headquarters. "I was looking more for an operating unit with bottom-line responsibility," he says.

He got his wish. Gamble is in charge of Comcast's dense 1 million-subscriber cluster stretching from Baltimore to northern Virginia. In the Baltimore market, its systems serve 95% of cable homes; Comcast passes 75% of the homes in the adjacent Washington market. Comcast's takeover of AT&T Broadband added the Richmond, Va., system, which also dominates its market.

Gamble initially entered the career his mother had: accounting. Out of college, he joined accounting firm Price Waterhouse's Washington office. He was drawn less to the work, though, than to the perspective it offered. "I wanted to be in the senior ranks of a corporation. Accounting was a great way to see the entire company."

As he steeped himself in audit and financial issues for clients, he soured on the experience. "A lot of it was trench-like work." He gravitated to the firm's consulting practice.

At Price Waterhouse (now PriceWaterhouseCoopers), Gamble worked primarily with telecommunications companies, particularly MCI, and got a good look at telco operations. After two MBAs—in telecom policy and marketing—he joined management consulting icon McKinsey & Co., gaining even broader exposure.

But the grueling travel schedule sent him looking to take responsibility for an operation. He joined telco GTE's cellular division at a time when cell-phone penetration was still well less than 10%. He started in marketing at GTE Mobilnet's Atlanta unit, then moved to his native state of Virginia to run the Richmond operation. "I really caught the general manager bug when I was running Richmond," Gamble says.

In 1996, Comcast came looking. Partly, the company still thought it would be involved in Sprint PCS, a venture of Sprint and several cable operators. But just as important, threatened by DBS and then-nascent telco video operations, the MSO was seeking executives outside cable. "For some years before I joined," Gamble says, "they very methodically tried to get someone who had a competitive background."

He got to put his consulting background to good use because Comcast made four acquisitions adding systems to the Baltimore region, including in 1999 taking over the notorious District Cablevision, the Washington, D.C., system owned by Tele-Communications Inc. and BET founder Robert Johnson.

The system had long been an industry disgrace, its poor service experienced in the living rooms of key politicians and regulators. "Clearly, the D.C. system had a reputation for being the worst system in the country," Gamble says, adding that Comcast has actually bought systems that were even worse. "Certainly, their technology was obsolete. Capital investment was nonexistent or minimal." As Comcast rebuilt the system as part of a $600 million project, he notes, crews found no signs that key parts of the plant had been upgraded since TCI built the system in the mid 1980s.

If he were back at McKinsey, how would Gamble assess Comcast? "Compared to some of the other companies I've consulted for, there's a very clear strategy." Some of major effort is to cut through AT&T Broadband's management layers, decentralizing the power for things like pricing, marketing, and choosing how to upgrade systems. At the same time, managers are held accountable to tough profitability and growth standards.