Why We’ll Remember Robbins

Jim Robbins, the CEO who led Cox Communications through cable’s rise to the top ranks of American business died from cancer on Oct. 10 at age 65. My contact with him was limited and brief — a conversation two years ago at a company event in Louisiana and subsequent e-mail correspondence regarding a matter involving his family. And yet I feel as though I lost a dear friend.

Thousands of others, whether they had more contact with Jim Robbins, less contact, or none at all feel exactly the same way. Why is that?

One answer is that he was real and utterly without pretense. He was truthful and balanced. He was efficient; no CEO accomplishes what Jim did without that. But he did not take short cuts and did not view business or life as a zero-sum game. A roll-up-the sleeves problem solver, Jim was open, inclusive and embraced and cultivated diversity. Jim strode through life with a profound empathy spiced with his legendary — and often unprintable — humor. But most of all he was a uniter and a builder — of people, careers, companies, and, ultimately, an industry.

At his core, Jim was a giver and not a taker. He was given a lot to work with to be sure. Brains, looks, wit, vigor (until these last months) and a constant family were some of his blessings. With the finest early-life advantages available — including an exclusive New England prep school and Ivy League education — the ticket, like many in Jim’s shoes, was his to write. However, a generation ago when Jim was coming up, the first ticket for many was a draft card.

But taking the easy path never was his style. Jim served two tours in Vietnam, came home, finished his schooling (with a Harvard MBA) and set to building an industry.

Jim’s accomplishments have been well-reported in these and other pages. While Jim was at the wheel, Cox more than quadrupled its size — from 1.3 million to 6.3 million customers. He knew that high-speed data was the bridge that would carry Cox and cable from primarily a residential entertainment medium to a full-scale residential and commercial broadband force. He also knew that whatever technological and management systems were necessary to make this happen, his company and industry ultimately needed to rely on their people at every level and in every market.

To do this, Cox and the industry needed these ranks to reflect the ethnic and social diversity of what for him was the ultimate prize: the customer. To Jim, that was just good business.

Jim’s presence built and strengthened connections, often across broad divides. While a panelist at an industry convention several years ago, Jim learned that a prominent municipal franchise lawyer in attendance had served on the Mekong River at the same time as Jim did. When Jim announced this connection, all the government-industry adversities and tensions evaporated — if only for a time. Who knows how much goodwill that genuine and spontaneous acknowledgment of common ground generated?

Why should we care about the good life of Jim Robbins? Because it shows us that privilege is not synonymous with entitlement, that you can do good and do well, and, that integrity, toil and generosity (not cynicism, spin and force) beget real vision, and real leadership.

Will the next Jim Robbins please step forward?