Remembering the Road Less Traveled

Jim Robbins has never been one to follow the herd. This became clear early in his adult life when he opted for a career in the fledgling cable business, and was later emphasized by a few controversial initiatives that had very positive outcomes for Cox Communications Inc. — and sometimes the entire industry. Recently, Robbins sat down to talk about them with Multichannel News contributor K.C. Neel. An edited transcript follows:

MCN: You have never been afraid of spending money to do things that are not necessarily what everybody else is doing. Many people scoffed at you when you were on the National Cable Television Association board, and tried to get other operators to provide on-time guarantees in the early 1990s — something that Cox was already doing. What was the thought process behind that?

Jim Robbins: Well, to me it was very clear that in order to continue to grow this business, you either could expand horizontally, [gain] more footprint — which was the growth vehicle for many of our colleagues in the business — or you could grow vertically, adding more services to the same customer base.

We elected to do both. The Cox family always valued their equity very, very, very highly and as a result, we used it very, very sparingly. But because of that, our equal focus to vertical meant that if you’re going to add new customers — and this was as clear as the nose on my face — if you’re going to add new services, you’ve got to have good foundational relationship with your customers.

So it was that forward-looking kind of thought. And then a backward-looking thought [came into being as a result of] one of our employee-opinion surveys in 1988 or ’89. Our employees told us that we weren’t doing as much as we could to satisfy our customers.

Well, if your frontline employee is basically indicting management — [saying] that the company isn’t doing what they could be doing — that was a real kick in the face, to me. So at that point, we said, 'Customer service is important, and we’re going to provide that. We are going to have competition.’

MCN: Practically speaking, what did that mean?

Robbins: Practically it meant we spent more money on customer service. We probably added customer service reps. We put standards in place for how quickly to answer the phone and how quickly you resolve the billing dispute.

And back to [your] earlier point, we were the first ones to do that. It was inculcated in the culture of the company, and that’s one of my proudest achievements — that we listened to our employees.

When I was in the Navy, there was a program I think called the Benny Sug — Beneficial Suggestion. [When] a sailor who came up with a good idea on how the Navy could save money, [he] got a $25 gift certificate, for a benny-sug.

I’ve always felt from that experience, ideas don’t come from top guys running around the ether. The great ideas come from the troops down the frontline who are doing the work every day.

MCN: Why were you so vocal, in 2004, in resisting ESPN’s proposed rate hike of 20% a year? Everyone was cheering you on in the background, but no one else stuck their neck out like you.

Robbins: This was really pretty straightforward for us. Had we succumbed to the contract that ESPN was teeing up, we wouldn’t have had a business.

MCN: I’ve interviewed several people in the industry about you, and asked them, “What do you think is going to be Jim’s lasting legacy?” Several people said your dedication to employees and to the people around you are incredible. One of the things that [CableLabs president] Richard Green told me was, “I look at Jim as one of my greatest mentors because he taught me how to treat my people.”

Robbins: That’s all very nice, and I appreciate that, and I was there when we hired Dick Green.

MCN: Green said, “One of the reasons I wanted to join the industry is because I was so impressed by [Robbins].”

Robbins: He’s crazy but it’s OK. [Laughs.]

I guess I learned in the Navy — one day I came up to muster in the morning, when all the troops line up and get counted. We were on the ship somewhere, and one of my deck kids had two really good shiners. And I asked the chief boatswain’s mate, 'What happened to him?’ And he said, 'He had a blanket party in the chain locker last night.’

I said, 'Well, what’s that?’ And he said, 'Lt. Robbins, you don’t want to know. He was bad; he got punished.’ And I learned there all about delegating, and the chief boatswain’s mate was a 30-year Navy veteran, and he knew how to run things. And I was a [Navy Reserve Officers’ Training Corp] graduate and six months on active duty in the Navy and placed in charge of 50 kids who performed the labor on this ship. And I learned about delegating and trusting people and stuff like that.

MCN: You started out on the broadcast side of the business, at WBZ-TV in Boston. Why go into the cable business? That was a left-hand turn.

Robbins: Established business, rulebook written. You want to go to the bathroom, go to page 90 of the Westinghouse [Electric Co.] policy manual, and it’ll tell you where the bathroom is. I guess I took a different track from the time I went to high school.

My brother went to one place; I was supposed to go there. At the last minute, I decided I’d do something different. He went to work in a bank, came home two or three years into it and said, “bank-blank.”

I always wanted to be Walter Cronkite. I went into broadcasting, at WBZ. I was managing editor. They said, 'You want to go on the air, go to Bangor [Maine] or Burlington [Vt.], and I was chasing my girlfriend — now wife, of 33 or 34 years. I didn’t want to move.

So sitting at WBZ, this opportunity in cable came up, and I said, 'What the heck. I’ll try that.’

MCN: Who do you consider some of your mentors?

Robbins: I really learned the business from Continental [Cablevision Inc.]. That’s where I really learned the business. I learned some negative stuff at Adams-Russell Co., which was the first place I went.

MCN: What kind of negative stuff?

Robbins: I got fired from Adams-Russell two weeks before our first child was born, and I had done three rate increases for the three towns I worked in. I’d done three franchise renewals.

Rate increases in those days, you had to get them from the city council. I’d done renewals. I’d knocked out a union, and I’d imported some distant signals in 18 months. And that was a small ship that we turned around. For that I was told I was too aggressive, and I wasn’t going to fit in the company. And my boss was scared to death of me.

So I learned early on, go work for good people. Don’t waste your time on bums, and that was a huge blessing for me.

MCN: Do you have any regrets? Are there things that you wish you could have done differently?

Robbins: You know there are tweaks here and there. I had opportunities to go to other companies along the way, and I had no reason to leave Cox. I could have gone and made a bundle of money on any number of things, [but] that wasn’t what motivated me. What motivated me was intellectual challenge and working with fun, good people.