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He built his competition

There's a reason RCN Chairman David McCourt knows his competition better than most corporate executives: He built some of their systems.

McCourt started out in the cable business not as an operator but as a contractor. His family-owned company was hired by, among others, Cablevision Systems Corp. to lay cable under the streets for its Boston system. That experience spurred him to lay cable that he would actually own, creating Corporate Communications Network, a telephone company focusing solely on high-volume business customers. CCN became one of the first competitive local exchange carriers.

That caught the eye of another construction company that was doing the same thing, Peter Kiewitt Sons, an old-line company with roots stretching back 100 years. PKS had created a similar venture, Metropolitan Fiber Systems, later called MFS Communications. MFS bought CCN, and McCourt along with it.

McCourt then moved abroad, shepherding PKS jobs, which meant designing and erecting cable systems in Europe with clients including current U.S. cable competitor Comcast. In 1993, PKS bought C-TEC, which included cable systems and small-town telephone operations. In 1997, McCourt split C-TEC into three pieces: a group of Michigan cable systems, Commonwealth Telephone Enterprises, and RCN.

How does it feel to be competing against old clients, particularly Cablevision, which he tangled with in court in a dispute over construction payments?

"I don't have any emotion about it," McCourt said. "My emotion is about executing the strategy."