Running the Risky Businesses

As senior vice president of Strategy and Development for Atlanta-based Cox Communications, Dallas Clement spends most of his day guiding the cable-TV provider through its deployment of voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP), a service that offers two-way voice over Web connections, such as high-speed cable. Last December, Cox rolled out its VoIP service in Roanoke, Va., with an offer that includes Enhanced 911 and features such goodies as call waiting, caller ID, and voice mail.

A good bit of the decision about where to deploy next will be up to this technology-minded finance expert and 14-year Cox veteran.

Holder of an AB degree in applied mathematics and economics degree from Harvard and an MS in engineering/economic systems from Stanford, the married, 39 year-old father of four young girls spends much of his time identifying and bridging the Venus-Mars world views that all technologically innovative companies contain. That involves how to balance emerging technology with empirical research. The end result is to come up with the right decisions for a proactive consumer-technology provider. Clement is so good at it that he's this year's winner of the Vanguard Award for Young Leadership.

Given Clement's experience in both the financial-management and technology worlds, you would think that he would have some inner conflict between the two perspectives. He doesn't. "When I was at Stanford [where he received an MS degree in 1990], I studied probability and statistics."

In grad school, one of Clement's major projects involved trying to figure out how cancer patients should balance their preferred treatment options against the side effects, cost, and likelihood of success. "All this can be plugged into a model," he explains.

Through these studies, he says, he learned about how to analyze and balance cost and risks. This information can be tuned into a model that, when it comes to Cox Communications' technology initiatives, "allows us to identify critical drivers and guides us along the decision path" on if, where, and when to deploy these technologies.

(Some risks are harder to ascertain. Five days after he accepted his job at Cox in 1990, he was riding his bike, was struck by a car, and broke his neck. Despite that, he started work two weeks later in a full "halo," his head immobilized by a metal ring attached to a vest. He had to wear it for three months.)

Before assuming his current post, Clement focused on Cox's financial-management and investment side. He had joined as a policy analyst and was later promoted to manager of investment planning and director of finance. He became assistant treasurer for Cox Communications in 1995 and was named treasurer in 1996.

Along the line, Clement was very involved in key corporate decisions, such as tabling a $5 billion merger with what was then Southwestern Bell in 1994 and completing the $3.2 billion acquisition of Times Mirror Cable in 1995.

Then, in 1999, came the appointment to his current post, where he oversees development activities and strategies related to new broadband-platform services for the MSO's more than 6.6 million cable subscribers. As in Roanoke, VoIP will be a major component of these new services.

"Voice is a huge differentiator for us," Clement says, adding, "We can provide it in such a way that it is more convenient for the customer. They can get one bill, and a nice discount." He regards VoIP as a logical extension of Cox's already successful circuit-switch telephony initiative in 12 markets, which collectively claimed slightly fewer than 1 million customers at the start of this year.

For Clement, and for Cox, building out the VoIP offering involves jousting with some high-profile competitors. The four major local-exchange carriers (SBC, Verizon, Qwest, and BellSouth) have or will have VoIP services soon. Specialized providers like Vonage Holding Corp. are already marketing VoIP at prices from $15 to $35 a month.

"Vonage is marketing to everyone with the 'cool' factor, but we're going to market to everyone with a phone," Clement says of Cox's eventual system-wide VoIP rollout.

Clement's charge is to make Cox's VoIP "higher quality" than competitors' offerings and to err on the side of slow rollout to ensure that the service exceeds subscriber expectations.

Clement is also working with Motorola Inc. on integrating a digital video recorder with a set-top box and a branded program guide. The main benefits to subscribers, he says: built-in compatibility with HDTV content and interactive-TV applications. "It won't require a second box," he says, "and, because of that, will minimize the number of boxes in your home-entertainment center stack."

Robust video-on-demand, with thousands of hours of movies and other content, is Clement's other major tech priority for Cox. He intends to have approximately 1,000 hours of VOD content available in eight Cox markets by the end of this year.

Clement does not see this service as an end unto itself, but only a start.

"I will tell you I wish the technology worked a little better, that the customer interface worked a little better," he says candidly. "The technology is extensible enough to easily provide 10,000 or 20,000 hours [of VOD], but we need to do a little tweaking to provide the customer with a navigational interface that won't make fast-forward and rewind tricky."

Fifty- to 60-hour workweeks are not uncommon for Clement, but the work doesn't always end at the office. Sometimes, he gets a little focus-group help on the side. "At home, I have a focus group of six," he says, counting himself, his wife, and their children. At age 8 and 6, two of his daughters are already at an age when they can share their opinions about what technology works and what doesn't. And by virtue of his background, Clement is programmed to listen: He grew up with three sisters. "Because of that, I communicate well, and I think I'm probably more patient than a lot of men," he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution
in April 2002.

"I spend part of the day thinking about today's fires that have an impact on tomorrow's future," he adds, "and much of the rest of the day visioning a road map." It's a road map he looks forward to following.