Vanguard Award for Cable Operations Management

Dinni Jain may have had a lot of influences in his life, but the Insight Communications chief operating officer can trace a lot of his business philosophy to two unconventional sources: boredom and basketball.

The basketball part is easy: Anyone who knows Jain is well aware that the cable executive is a die-hard University of North Carolina basketball fan, and especially admires legendary former Tar Heels coach Dean Smith.

But Jain’s admiration for Smith doesn’t end with his winning record. A native of Chapel Hill — his parents were both professors at UNC — Jain said it was what winning allowed Smith to do in other areas that was most admirable.

Smith was an outspoken critic of racial segregation. He helped integrate local businesses in Chapel Hill and he awarded the first scholarship to a black player at UNC in the mid-1960s. All that, Jain said, was made possible by his success on the court.

“He uses that good will to take all of his black friends to every establishment in Chapel Hill that has a sign that says 'Whites Only,’ daring everyone in those establishments to throw him out,” Jain said of Smith. “That happened the year after I was born. These moments of Dean Smith lore were all about playing the right way. It wasn’t about winning championships; it was about playing the right way.”

The boredom part is tied to Jain’s love for basketball and for his admiration for another legend of that sport, former UNC star and Chicago Bulls legend Michael Jordan.

Jain was team statistician for the Chapel Hill High basketball team and his history teacher was the statistician for UNC. The teacher would let Jain sit in on Tar Heel practices and practice taking stats. It was there that Jain became a witness to Jordan’s famous work ethic. Jain said he would marvel as Jordan would mark out spots on the court with masking tape where he had missed shots in the previous game. Jordan would then spend hours taking shots from those same spots from every possible angle until he made 50 baskets in a row.

“It was a wonder of boredom,” Jain said. “The guy was the most boring person I ever met in my life. But what he was willing to do to win — when it is told in stories, it sounds dramatic and wonderful; when you actually see it implemented mechanically, it is mind-numbingly boring.”

But the intense focus on a goal and the willingness to do whatever it takes to achieve it is what impressed Jain the most.

“Michael was talented, but he wasn’t born with any particular gift,” Jain said. “What he has is determination. That is what makes so many elite athletes, elite athletes. It’s because they are determined.”

Jain said that kind of determination translates well into business.

“To be good at non-pay [disconnects] requires people within my team to be so focused on this and quid pro quo, what I have to give them is the ability not to be distracted by other things,” Jain said.

Insight has been one of cable’s top performers — it finished 2008 with 5% basic customer growth, its second consecutive year of 5% or greater subscriber growth, unprecedented in the industry.

But Jain didn’t graduate from Princeton — that’s right, he didn’t go to UNC — with an immediate love for cable or for finance for that matter. In fact the history major said that although his first job out of college was as an investment banker with Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, the finance aspect was the least exciting part of the job.

“All they cared about was money,” Jain said of his investment banking days, fully aware of the irony in that situation. “But every time I got put on a deal, I would fall in love with whatever company I was working with.”

Jain said that he became enamored of the processes, the inner workings of each business that he advised, adding that it was heartbreaking to have to sever the relationship when his time was up, usually in about six to eight months. After four years, he decided that he needed a change.

That took the form of working for a cellular company in the United Kingdom, which through a series of acquisitions became the U.K. cable giant NTL.

Jain started out in corporate finance, and a year later moved into operations. NTL started out as a small operator focused on operational excellence, Jain said, but later fell victim to what he called “corporate finance hubris,” which fueled a huge appetite for acquisitions that the company could not digest. By 2002, it had filed for bankruptcy protection. NTL emerged from bankruptcy in 2003 with new owners and lower debt.

In 2005, it acquired Virgin Mobile, the fifth largest wireless operator in the U.K. for about $1.4 billion, changed its name to Virgin Media and became the first cable operator in Europe to offer the quad-play of voice, video, high-speed data and wireless telephony.

Jain left for Insight before the bankruptcy, lured by founders Michael Willner and Sidney Knafel, who had owned the first cellular phone company that Jain’s company purchased years earlier.

Willner and Knafel offered Jain a position as chief financial officer, a job his initial reaction was to reject. “I had been in operations for 7 years and I didn’t like investment banking. Why would I go back to finance?” Jain said. “A number of people I talked to said 'You are an idiot if you don’t take this.’”

Willner said that he was well aware of Jain’s preference for operations, adding that was the quality he was looking for in a CFO.

“We would prefer to have a CFO who understands operations,” Willner said. “How you finance a company is often a whole lot better if you do it with an appreciation for operations. It was no question that finance was not his passion, operations was.”

Willner added that Jain’s claim of a disdain for finance is probably slightly exaggerated.

Whether Jain loves finance or not, Insight’s operations have been humming along nicely under his tutelage. Insight has reported two consecutive years of 5% basic subscriber growth, despite having to weather a since-abandoned sale process (in 2007) and the severing of its 50-50 partnership with Comcast, which cut its customer base in half. Insight has about 760,000 subscribers in Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky.

While Jain is obviously proud of Insight’s achievements, he joked that the basic subscriber growth could have been better.

“Our internal standards are so much higher than external. Everybody else was going, 'My God they did 5% [growth],’” Jain said. “We had a very realistic shot at doing 7% and we didn’t do it. There’s a good group of us that are kind of disappointed we didn’t make 7%, because we thought it would be even more fun. That is part of building a winning culture, it becomes self-driven. I have very competitive people working for me now who don’t need me to goad them on, they're goading themselves.”