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Thom McKinney: Espousing Ethics in Charlotte

Thom McKinney left the cable industry in the mid-1990s and decided to become a corporate motivational trainer. He ultimately ended up specializing in business ethics.

So McKinney — the former president of the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau, and now the head of his own management-consulting firm — has his own theory about the criminal-fraud scandal surrounding John Rigas, his family and Adelphia Communications Corp.

"I was surprised that it was Adelphia," McKinney said. "But I wasn't surprised that something like that was happening, because we [cable] were always the wild, wild West, with a lot of hip-shooting going on.

"I was surprised it was Adelphia, because when I look at John Rigas, I see a little minister."

McKinney, 60, today is founder and operating manager of Thom McKinney & Associates LLC in Charlotte, N.C.

He spent much of his early career in the television industry in advertising sales, with stints at Tempo Television, Group W Cable, Group W Broadcasting and Sheridan Broadcasting Corp. But McKinney's profile rose on the cable side of the business when he became president and CEO of the Cabletelevision Advertising Bureau in 1991.

McKinney left that trade organization in 1994, moving to Rainbow Advertising Sales Corp. — the huge advertising arm of Cablevision Systems Corp. — as president and CEO. He was at RASCO for 14 months, and left in 1995.

He then spent about five months at home in Stamford, Conn., mulling what to do.

McKinney said he decided to get into "the training and motivation business," in part because of what he described as "the evil things" he had seen during his career.

"I watched managers just make decisions about people's lives without concern of consequences for those people, or looking where the organization was going," he said. "I thought I could make a difference in at least getting employees to believe they had choices."

In 1996, after of a winter of "13 weeks of snow," McKinney said he decided to move to a warmer climate than Stamford. Apart from more hospitable weather, he also wanted a city with a good airport.

He chose Charlotte, and now says, "It was a better decision that I'd ever thought."

He's become one of Charlotte's biggest cheerleaders.

"It's a great city," he said. "It's an open city. I've found if you get involved in this city, people get involved with you and they're very helpful.

"I've found this city very open to small business. I've been able to do work for Wachovia [Corp.] and Duke Energy, just a host of Fortune 500 companies. Trying to make those same inroads in the New York area would be a lot more difficult."

He made connections by becoming involved in the local chamber of commerce and speaking "at every conceivable function I could."

While McKinney said he's "hung his hat" on business ethics, he's also done training in leadership, team building, diversity and executive coaching. McKinney's clients have also included Cox Communications Inc., where he's done facilitation and training for the Baton Rouge, La., operation.

All the recent corporate scandals have been good for his consulting business, which also includes two trainers and a part-time marketing person, according to McKinney.

"In the last year, there has been a lot of demand because of Enron and WorldCom and Adelphia," he said. "There's been a lot of interest in business ethics. It has to do with the power of reputation.

"Are you handcuffing that reputation by doing unethical things? A lot of folks will say, 'Well, it's legal, therefore it's alright.' But of course, we know that legal is the lowest form of morality. So a lot of companies are getting people to think about the choices they make on an everyday basis."

To make his point about the power of reputation, in one speech McKinney noted that it wasn't likely you'd find anyone in that audience — or probably any other — with the name "Judas." That's because the name of the Biblical traitor still carries such a stigma.