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Vanguard Awards: Distinguished leadership: Passionate Leader

Through the years, Patrick Esser can cite numerous mentors and colleagues who helped him throughout his more than three decades in the cable business, but the Cox Communications president’s ascent to the top ranks of the cable industry is better traced to a single empty locker in Waterloo, Iowa.

Because it was that locker that led a then 20-something Esser to a career in cable sales, which, in turn, provided the tools to make him one of the top chief executives in the cable industry and the recipient of the sector’s top honor, the Vanguard Award for Distinguished Leadership.

Growing up in Algona, Iowa — population 5,500 — Esser did the typical things small-town kids do. But his life took a turn in the 1970s when his family got cable TV.

Esser’s fascination with the new medium drove him to pursue a media communications degree at the University of Northern Iowa. After graduation, in a tough job market, he took a position climbing poles and installing taps for a small operator in Waterloo. Then one day, he walked into work to find his locker cleaned out.

FOUND HOME AT COX

“I knew I fell down a lot,” Esser said as a possible explanation for what he perceived as his employer’s subtle way of telling him to find another career. “But then, the chief engineer looks and me and says, ‘Esser, you’re in marketing now.’ ”

He started that day selling cable door-to-door.

Esser’s manager in the sales division was a former Cox employee who could never stop talking about what a great company that MSO was to work for. Finally, after several months, and after his then-employer began holding back pay for workers, Esser threw his belongings in the back of his car and drove about 1,000 miles to Virginia, where Cox had just gotten a franchise in what is now Hampton Roads.

“I knocked on the door of the cable system and I got a job as the public-access director,” Esser said. “Everything I heard about Cox was true from the moment I stepped on the property.”

About a year later, Esser had the opportunity to go to graduate school and he took it, working as a graduate assistant as he earned a master’s degree in communications and business from UNI. There, he said one of his teachers, professor Joe Marchesani, who headed up the television and audio services part of the college, reinvigorated his passion for the cable business.

Essser worked for Marchesani his entire six years at UNI, the professor said in an interview, adding that the shy freshman transformed into one of his most reliable students during his tenure.

“I don’t think I ever saw such a big change in a person,” Marchesani said. “Until the time he left, each year I saw more potential. When he came back as a grad student, he took his personality and brought it up a couple of notches. I gave him all the difficult jobs.”

After grad school, Esser began working in Davenport, Iowa, for a Cox system there, working in ad sales and later in what was the beginning of Cox Media, the national ad-sales arm of the company. Two years later, Esser got a call from Cox corporate, asking him to come to Atlanta and work under senior vice president of marketing and programming Ajit Dalvi.

Dalvi, who retired in 1999, said he was impressed by the young Esser, adding one of the qualities that attracted him the most was the young executive’s willingness to be an aggressive budgeter.

“At Cox, budgeting was a real management tool. People lived and died on their budget performance,” Dalvi said.“The advantage of that was they knew their goals and exactly what they were going to do because they planned for it. The downside was people basically played the budget game — trying to be as conservative and be as unaggressive as possible so they would meet their budget and be a hero.

“I wanted an aggressive person who would try new things and wouldn’t be afraid of doing different things,” Dalvi added. “Pat definitely did not disappoint me.”

CULTURE OF INTEGRITY

The culture of the company was a big factor in his success and that of other executives, Esser said. The Cox family, led by chairman James Kennedy, was focused on the long-term health of the business and also wasn’t afraid to take risks. Cox’s longtime president, Jim Robbins, Esser’s predecessor, also was a mentor.

‘The [Cox] family, from its essence, is very pioneering,” Esser said. “The way they treat their people, the integrity and the respect of customers and employees; you’re allowed to do some things that probably some companies aren’t wired to do.”

A big part of Cox culture is the willingness of executives to not only mentor and assist up-and-coming employees further up the ladder, but to tap people for jobs that don’t always fit the traditional mold, Esser added.

“Someone took a chance on me; is there or are there people around me that I can take a chance on?” Esser said. “When you learn how to take chances on people, then you learn how to trust your gut. That has paid heavy dividends for me as I’ve gone through life.”