Italia Commisso Weinand, executive VP of programming and human resources for Mediacom Communications, has a favorite negotiating tactic she occasionally uses when locked in intense talks with programmers. It has nothing to do with Sun Tzu’s teachings or an effort to psych out her rivals. It has everything to do with a nice marinara.
Along with putting her terms on the table, she may bring in some homemade pasta dishes or sometimes just the sauce. The food sends a clear message, but it isn’t an empty symbol. It is accompanied by a genuine effort to get to know the person sitting across from her—their background, their family.
“It’s always an icebreaker,” says Barry Paden, the company’s group VP of programming, who reports to Commisso Weinand. “Unfortunately, our deals with programmers are usually contentious. … We could be battling over pricing and things like that, but at the end there’s a hug, a handshake and the relationships have been built, which just move forward.” He adds, “It makes you appreciate what’s really important. It’s TV, but it’s really building personal relationships.”
Mediacom is the nation’s eighth largest cable company—with nearly 1.3 million subscribers across 22 states and over $1.6 billion in annual revenues—and one of the leading operators focused on serving the smaller cities in the United States. It has 4,600 employees and myriad programming costs, and that range of responsibilities keeps Commisso Weinand hopping. Hers is a huge, mindboggling job, and yet, nobody promotes and values the friendly little gestures more than this vaunted boss, especially when the going gets tough.
To Commisso Weinand, the cable world is an extended family. How could she be any other way? She has been part of a team with her older brother, Mediacom founder Rocco B. Commisso, since joining the company in 1996 as VP of operations. It was not her first stint in a family business by any means, having worked alongside her three siblings at Pizza Time, the Commisso family business, starting when she was 12.
The lessons of family—and of being the youngest— established her determination and resolve.
“I always had to argue with [my brothers] because they were very protective in a loving way. And out of that came a lot of strength,” she says.
“She’s not afraid to voice her opinion,” says Judy Mills, group VP, human resources for Mediacom. “It may be contrary to what others say but she won’t back down. Talk about advocating for employees— that’s what an employee needs.”
“Italia’s phenomenal success in cable comes from her incredible persistence, her uncommon caring for people, especially the less fortunate, and from her passionate and long-lasting loyalty to our industry,” says Rocco B. Commisso, himself a 2007 B&C Hall of Fame inductee. “Even though she’s as tough as anyone out there when it comes to dealing with difficult people issues or contentious negotiations, invariably she gets her job done because her peers, adversaries and the 4,600 members of the Mediacom family, have tremendous respect for her unselfish demeanor and the fact that everything she does comes from her heart. Within our company, she starts her day thinking about who needs help and ends the day having helped an awful lot of people, including me.”
Her 37-year cable career began at Time Warner in 1977, and led in time to a regional manager role at Comcast, giving her invaluable experience that she brought along when her brother sought her expertise in his entrepreneurial venture. Mediacom grew in leaps, from year to year, starting with a small Ridgecrest, Calif. system, then gaining more systems in Delaware and Arizona, before beginning a historic rise: from 70,000 subscribers, to 350,000 “in one fell swoop,” she says, and then, after an additional acquisition from Triax, doubling to 700,000 subs. After a huge AT&T deal in 2000, that number rose to 1.6 million, with the majority in smaller, underserved markets in the South and Midwest.
The AT&T acquisition had enormous hurdles that required systems and employees to gain a greater comfort level with Mediacom. So, Commisso Weinand met that challenge with her typical hands-on approach. “In three weeks, I visited 22 locations,” she says. “It was important for me to see these people and places.
“I feel very good about what we’ve been able to do,” she says of Mediacom’s place in the industry, in comparison to “the Comcasts and the Time Warners. It’s an amazing story that we’ve been able to achieve our goals.”
Her story is equally impressive, rising from the little girl who came to America and fell in love with Lucille Ball, to her role as a cable groundbreaker, a 2004 Multichannel News Wonder Woman Award winner and philanthropist, who inherited her beloved late father’s big dreams, and her 93-year-old mother’s perseverance, and has passed on these lessons to her teenage son and two stepsons in the home she shares with her husband, George Weinand.
As to that other family, Mediacom last September opened new corporate headquarters in Blooming Grove, N.Y. And the heart of the place is an on-site foodservice operation. It’s called Café Italia.
Creating it was yet another job for the busy, energetic exec. “It’s become another job for Italia,” she says with a laugh. “What’s that saying again? If you need something done, give it to somebody who’s very busy.”
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