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Keeping Cox Competitive in Omaha

Cable System

Janet Barnard seemed headed for a solid but limited career at Cox Communications. As a controller at the company's Ocala, Fla., cable system, she was responsible for keeping the books, paying vendors, monitoring collections, working with the billing systems, and the like.

The good news was that the job got her fingers into most parts of a cable operation, particularly through the budgeting process. The bad news was that it was accounting: not the most fun part of the media business.

So, when the head of customer service left the system in 1993, Barnard stepped up and said, "I want a shot at this." The general manager was skeptical, since running a squad of telephone reps is far different from running the books. Worse, Barnard said she didn't want to change jobs. She wanted both

That move put Barnard on a path to take charge of Cox's Omaha, Neb., system. As vice president and general manager of the 175,000-subscriber operation that stretches into Iowa, she runs one of Cox's most interesting systems. First, it's a rare market with a competitive cable system, one built in 1994 by a telco now called Qwest. Second, Omaha has been a test bed for new products. It was among the earliest systems in the industry to deploy telephone, digital video and high-speed data, rolling them out in 1997 largely in response to the overbuild.

Launching such complicated products simultaneously was difficult. But today it means that Barnard has a wide array of opportunities for pricing and packaging new and old services. It also means she can experiment aggressively with pricing and packaging, offering, for example, free minutes of long distance to pay-TV subscribers.

Competitively, that strategy seems to be paying off. Barnard estimates that Qwest has 18,000 cable subscribers, about 38% of the 50,000 homes the system passes but just a fraction of the 300,000 homes in the market.

Omaha is also a market that brings Barnard back to her home state. She grew up on a farm near Beatrice, Neb., returning after college with her husband (and high school sweetheart) to buy a farm. After two years of raising hogs, cattle, sorghum and soybeans on 1,500 acres, a 1985 financial crunch eliminated whatever charm was left in farming.

"It was a failure," Barnard says. "I learned more from that process than I did from anything in my life: mostly that you can fall apart and pick yourself up."

An old friend from a college summer job had landed at Cox and tipped Barnard to a job as a controller in the company's Macon, Ga., system. Her husband, Bryan, encouraged her to investigate and agreed that their family would find better opportunities outside Nebraska. A salesman by trade, he continued to encourage her advance in the company. "We've moved three times with this company," Barnard says. "He's had to start in a new industry each time."

Barnard has been general manager for two years, so she's not looking to move anytime soon. "It would be interesting to find what an operations position in a regional office might be like," she says, "but this is where the excitement happens."