Although he's been out of the business for about three years, Fred Nichols has something the cable industry wants, and he might be willing to play ball.
It seems Nichols, the former chairman and CEO of TCA Cable TV Inc. — the last publicly traded MSO to consistently report net income and pay shareholder dividends — is being courted by several cable operators to serve as an independent director.
Skilled independent directors are much in demand these days, following such corporate scandals as those that occurred at Enron Corp. and MSO Adelphia Communications Corp., and major stock exchanges have been encouraging member companies to form boards with a majority of independent directors.
So far, Nichols has agreed to joined the board of a Louisiana-based phone operator, CenturyTel, and said that an executive search firm is trying to land him as an independent outside director.
He wouldn't reveal which cable companies have pitched him, and he hasn't made a decision on which offers, if any, to accept.
But after nearly 20 years in cable and more than two decades as an accountant and banker, he has the credentials for the job — and might find it fits his personal philosophy.
"That's the one thing I'm trying to do with my life," Nichols said recently. "Finding things I can be involved in that make a difference."
He helped build TCA into the 10th-biggest U.S. MSO, with 880,000 subscribers, before selling to Cox Communications Inc. for $4.1 billion in 1999. He stayed with Cox as executive vice president of operations before opting to retire in January 2000.
"I stayed on primarily to make sure all of my people that were working for TCA got a chance to show how good they were," Nichols said. "In my tenure at TCA we'd done over 80 acquisitions, and I know what happens when you do an acquisition."
He says retirement is treating him well. He plays golf regularly — he lowered his handicap from 23 to 10 — plays poker with a group of longtime friends a few times a week and still teaches Sunday school at his local church.
"That [Sunday school and poker] is a wide combination there, isn't it? But people who know me will understand," Nichols said.
He also travels about seven to 10 times a month — mostly on golfing trips — and meets up with cable buddies Jim O'Brien, Barry Babcock and Mike Burrus for a round at least once a year.
O'Brien, the former Jones Intercable president and ex-CEO of the Cable Center, said he, Nichols, Babcock and Burrus have traveled to Cabo San Lucas, Las Vegas, La Quinta, Calif., and Puerto Rico, with spouses (including Emily Nichols), on golf trips.
"He always beats me," O'Brien said of Nichols. "It's fun to play with him and to watch him play. In the past couple of years, I beat him maybe once."
Although his lingering industry ties mostly revolve around the Cable Entrepreneurs Club and the Cable Center, Nichols does have some advice for MSOs.
"The biggest problem with most of the big companies is they really don't know how to focus on keeping expenses down," Nichols said. "My message to the cable industry is: You better watch your costs."
He also thinks operators should present a united front against programmers.
"Programmers have had a free shot at the cable industry," Nichols said. "You can't take ESPN off your systems without your customers going to the satellite dish, and yet they sit there with these exponential increases in price. What I would have pushed for several years ago is to go à la carte."
Only 56, Nichols said heart surgery on Labor Day 2000 helped him set his priorities, and he's "in better physical condition than ever."
He still lives in Tyler, Texas, the small town where TCA was founded, as do his three married daughters and six grandchildren.
"I wake up every morning and try to find somebody that doesn't expect to have a good day and in some way help them have a good day."
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