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The Reign Maker

When John Bickham started to consider the potential size of the still-growing cable business in the early 1980s, he knew it was the place he had to be.

Nearly 23 years later, Bickham's impact on the cable industry is being recognized with a Vanguard Award in the Cable Operations Management category for his leadership in generating explosive growth for Cablevision Systems Corp. across the company's video, voice and high-speed–Internet platforms.

For Bickham, president of cable and communications for Cablevision, the cable business wasn't exactly baked into his DNA. Armed with an electrical-engineering degree from Texas A&I University, he joined Houston Industries and shortly thereafter became interested in the meteoric rise of cable TV.

“Cable sounded pretty exotic and was very new. And I got bored easily. So I moved to Denver and joined ATC/Paragon, which was a joint venture between ATC and Houston Industries. A year later, we bought some small systems in Southern California. That's when I really got involved in cable and what attracted me to the business. There were franchising wars and rampant cable theft,” Bickham says, “but it was fun.”

The fun was to continue in 1987 when he ran cable systems for KBLCOM, a partner in a venture that served 700,000 subscribers in four cities. KBLCOM sold its assets to ATC, which eventually became Time Warner Cable.

It was a defining moment for Bickham. “When we sold to Time Warner, I didn't know what I'd do. Then, [former Time Warner Cable President/COO] Jimmy Doolittle asked me to come and work for him. Back then, I really didn't have a career in mind, and cable was consolidating. If Time Warner hadn't come along and asked me to work for them,” he says, “I probably would have left cable.”

He left Time Warner in 2004 to join Cablevision. Cablevision Systems COO Tom Rutledge is especially glad he did. “John brings strategic and decisive leadership to our cable operations, which have experienced dramatic growth during his tenure,” he says. “He has also developed a pragmatic, no-nonsense approach to business that comes from finding, fixing and operating cable systems across the country for more than two decades.”

It's no wonder Cablevision has embraced Bickham. Since he arrived at Cablevision in 2004, the company has increased its penetration to record levels. During that span, it has added 186,000 basic-video, 1.4 million digital-video, 910,000 high-speed–Internet, and 1.4 million voice customers.

In addition, Bickham is now responsible for managing all of the consumer and Optimum for business services offered by Cablevision Systems to 4.6 million homes and hundreds of thousands of businesses in the New York metropolitan area, which represents the largest single cable cluster.

Bickham also oversees the company's sales, marketing, field and customer-service operations. Says Rutledge, “John arrived at Cablevision a few months before we launched our triple-play offer, and that marketing strategy, combined with John's steady and inspired leadership, has driven significant growth across all of our digital services and also positioned Cablevision for our next major growth opportunity: selling voice and data services to the hundreds of thousands of businesses passed by our network.”

Cable is a far more complex business than when he began in the early '80s, he admits. “Voice wouldn't be part of the business today if the industry hadn't developed and marketed the high-speed business. That was a turning point for the industry. Now the challenge is to compete with Verizon, AT&T, DirecTV and others. It's more complicated because of the new businesses we are in today.”

But it's less complicated for Bickham because of various mentors he has had along the way, including Joe Collins, former chairman/CEO at Time Warner Cable. “He gave me a great perspective about the business, from the top down,” says Bickham. And Tom Rutledge: “He knows more about the business from top to bottom than anyone I've ever known.”

Rutledge returns Bickham's sentiment: “John brings honesty and integrity to everything he does. And even with the success he has achieved, he approaches his work with an inherent curiosity and scholarly fascination. This is well-earned recognition for an operating executive who has had a meaningful impact on the industry. His record of success and operating excellence embodies all the qualities of the Vanguard Award.”

For Bickham, however, operating in the cable industry has always been a labor of love. “Of all the different jobs I've had, cable was the one that originally attracted me. I was affecting the way the business runs.”