Interview Date: December 9, 2014
Interviewer: Jana Henthorn
Colleen Abdoulah is the board chair and former CEO of WOW! Internet Cable and Phone. In this interview, she describes her childhood in Canada, the influence of the values of her hardworking family, and the effect on her own career. As part of her job at Ta ft Broadcasting, she was introduced to cable through an assignment for Warner AMEX, assisting with franchise renewal requirements. Subsequently, she became deeply immersed in the industry, and created a highly successful marketing plan for Warner. She reco unts how she was promoted to the post of director of marketing sales for the new partnership between TCI and Taft, and then went on to work for TCI for fifteen more years under the leadership of John Malone. She initiated the corporate marketing division f or the Starz network, and also served as vice – president and general manager of Netlink, where she became exhaustively involved in operations. Under the direction of CEO Leo Hindery at TCI, at a crucial time when the company was launching digital technology , Abdoulah was also instrumental in bringing on one million subscribers by the end of 1997.She talks about joining up with Wide Open West (WOW!) as CEO of a portfolio company, and the excitement of now being a leader of an organization where she could effe ctively shift the work culture from what she characterizes as the standard hierarchical corporate model with few women leaders. She describes in detail her creation of a visionary re – structuring of the WOW! organizational model to serving others — supporting , motivating and strengthening both the workforce as well as service to the external customers. Under her stewardship, the company grew to 3,300 employees and $1.2 billion in revenue over 10 years. As chair of the American Cable Association, Abdoulah was a lso a steadfast advocate for small and medium – size cable operators at a time of huge mergers and consolidations in the industry. She concludes the interview by describing her non – profit work on behalf of vulnerable children and the elderly in America.
JANA HENTHORN: I’m Jana Henthorn and we’re here today taping Colleen Abdoulah’s oral history. Colleen is the chair of the board of WOW Internet Cable and Phone, and the former CEO of WOW. This is part of the Hauser Oral and Video History Program at the Cable Center and it’s December 9, 2014.
COLLEEN ABDOULAH: Hi, Jana.
HENTHORN: Hi. You grew up in Canada and you worked in your father’s restaurant at a very early age. And I’m sure that somehow shaped your experiences. Can you talk about that?
ABDOULAH: It was a small town in Western Canada, Saskatchewan, and Dad was of Lebanese background. And his family struggled with some prejudice. They used to have rocks thrown at their home, saying “Go back on your camel,” and it was really a tough upbringing for them. He was determined that the way you gained respect was you did well. You worked really hard. You took nothing from anyone. You helped other people and that’s the way you gained respect. So my father at a very young age—I think his first job was six. By eleven, he had the biggest paper route in town. And by nineteen, he had got some loans, opened the first drive-in in Western Canada. Just got an old boxcar, gutted it and all his friends and my mom and her friends got on roller skates and they would take the hamburgers out to the car and it became a big hit. From there he just built a restaurant business. He had four or five restaurants at one given time.
So all of us kids—there were five of us—we all had to work from the time we looked old enough. Not that we were legal, but then we looked old enough. And for girls, as you know, that’s around twelve. So I’ve been working since I was twelve. And what struck me about the way my parents operated and how they managed relationships, was very unique in that if you look at the restaurant business, it’s hard to keep people. I grew up with waiters and waitresses and when I went off to college, came back, they were still there. You know, my sisters got married, they were still there. He had people working for them for twenty years and it was always, I think, because of three basic principles. One is that my parents felt that you never treat somebody like you’re better than them. They should never treat you like that. Everybody is equal, no matter how much money you have or success you have, it doesn’t make you better than the next person.
The second thing I noticed is that they would share the wealth. If the businesses did well, everybody received an extra bonus. If a family got in trouble, people gathered together to help them. Lastly, I think it’s about knowing what you don’t know. My dad, you know there were a lot of aspects in the business he wasn’t that great in, but he knew it and he knew what he was good at and he hired the best of people that would complement his skills. So even though that was never said to me literally, it’s what I observed. So when I went off to work. I thought those were sort of the principles I would see modeled.
HENTHORN: Now before those first jobs, you went to college. How did you decide where to go to college?
ABDOULAH: I didn’t know what I was good at. I really wasn’t good at anything. I was just average at everything I did.
HENTHORN: That’s hard to believe.
ABDOULAH: It’s true. I remember at dinner one night, my sister’s now husband—they were dating at the time—said, “You’re really good at talking. Why don’t you do something that has to do with talking?” And I thought, “Well, I want to be Barbara Walters. So I’ll go to journalism school, I’ll go to broadcasting school.” There was a great school in Calgary, Alberta, Mount Royal University. So I went there and after about a year of journalism school, I realized I was just a so-so writer. I just didn’t like what I felt to be the intrusiveness of reporting. So I stopped that, went into broadcasting for a little while, realized how hard it was going to be to work your way up. You don’t just get a job looking cute on TV and reporting, you have to go out and slog it through a lot of small markets throughout Canada and I didn’t want to do that. So I ended up in public relations quite by accident and got my first job in Calgary at the largest PR firm in Western Canada at the time.
HENTHORN: Then how long was it until you transitioned into the cable industry? How long before you got into television? Possibly not Barbara Walters.
ABDOULAH: No, darn it. Now that she’s retired, there’s a slot there. I was in advertising in Calgary for about three years. Then I got a job offer to go to an ad agency in Cincinnati, Ohio. So it took it, thinking, oh, it’ll be a couple of years stint, it will be fun. I remembered in grade three having to go to a speech therapist because they said I spoke like an American. That was brutal in Canada. Because you see, in Canada, you say your vowels…
HENTHORN: You’re making me cry laughing already.
ABDOULAH: You say your T’s. You know in America, you guys say “Beddy.” No, it’s “Bett-ee.” So I had to learn how to enunciate my vowels and my T’s and everything so when I got this chance to go to the States, I thought, “Well, they said I spoke like an American, I might as well for a couple years and just have some fun and come home.” So I was around twenty-three years old. And I was in the ad business for about a year. And oh my gosh, I felt sort of like Dorothy, you know, from Kansas, this small time girl…
HENTHORN: Dorothy is from Calgary.
ABDOULAH: Dorothy from Calgary. It was just very different. It was faster-paced, it was more competitive, it was wilder. Everybody was sort of doing drugs and sleeping with each other and sleeping with the clients and I had clients who wanted to sleep with me and it was like, oh, my God, I got to go home. So I quit, first thing I’ve ever really quit and I was getting ready to leave when I got a call from a gentleman from Taft Broadcasting. It was a big broadcasting company, the largest at the time in Cincinnati. One of my clients, prior to leaving, was Warner Cable, which then became Warner AMEX and then Time Warner. They had become a client of mine in the fall of that year and they were coming up on a franchise renewal. They hadn’t met a lot of their franchise requirements. They wanted us to put this PR campaign together that would assuage the franchises and get people to sign up before year-end because they were missing their numbers. So I went on a crash course of cable. There was a fabulous man who ran their call center and marketing group and he just took me under his wing and I went on truck rolls, I went door-to-door selling. I listened to phone calls. I just got immersed in the industry. It’s right when that research came out with the “truck chasers.” Do you remember that research?
HENTHORN: I sure do.
ABDOULAH: It was like the first research done on how people were chasing the cable truck—they wanted it so much. So that’s right about when this was. I learned quite a bit about the industry. I wrote their marketing plan to meet their objectives. We met the objectives and it was a very successful effort. This gentleman from Taft had a friend over at Warner AMEX. Anyway, he read the plan. He contacted me and said, “Do you know of a company called TCI?” I said, “No.” He said, “It’s the largest cable company and we as broadcasters, went to them and said, ‘We want to learn about your industry, you can learn about ours, why don’t we partner on some cable systems?’” And that was the first partnership that TCI got involved in. There were many, right, that we know about but that was the first. There were about 200,000 subscribers involved in Michigan and New England area. So this gentleman said to me, “We need to somebody to go down to the main system in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. We’re losing customers, there’s problems. TCI’s been running it but we’d like to go in and see what’s happening. Would you do a five-week consulting gig for us?”
I thought, “Well, why not?” So I delayed the U-Haul and told my parents I wasn’t coming home. I went out to Cape Cod not knowing, really, what I was going to do. I’d never been a consultant. So I just landed and met the general manager and it was at the time when midband converters were being rolled out. You know the ones with the wire and even the remote had a wire…oh, my God. And they had spent no money explaining to customers what this box was, what this midband converter was, what these new channels were and why they were going to get charged more. So people were literally driving past the office and throwing the midband converters out the window, saying, “Take your converter and shove it!” I mean, it was not a happy time at the cable system.
HENTHORN: This is quite an opportunity for an enterprising marketing person.
ABDOULAH: That’s how I looked at it. So what do you do when you don’t know anything? You talk to the people who are doing the work everyday, right? So for the first two to three weeks of my five weeks I just met every person in the cable system. Every call rep, every technician, the data center people and interviewed them and asked them, what’s going on and what could we be doing differently? I put that all into a marketing plan, presented it to the board of directors and one of my recommendations was, “You don’t have the right marketing sales guy. He’s not doing what he needs to do, he should go and here’s what you should do instead.” And I presented, they thanked me, I was getting my bag, and I was leaving the cable system and one of them came running out and said, “Hey, listen, we’ve fired blah-blah-blah marketing guy and we’d like to offer you the job.”
Immediately, being a girl, I felt bad that I had hurt somebody else and someone’s career and I was like, no, I didn’t mean that. Because I really didn’t intend that at all. But they said, “We’ve done it and we’d like to hire you. Will you do it?”
So again, called my parents and said, “I’m staying, I don’t know for how long. It probably won’t be very long but I’ll be in Cape Cod.” And fifteen years later, I was still at TCI. So that was my entrée into the cable business. I worked as the marketing director for TCI-Taft Cablevision. It moved to Grand Rapids, then it moved to Cincinnati, and in 1989, Dr. Malone was buying up a lot of the partnerships and making them 100% ownership. He bought up TCI-Taft and I thought I was out of the industry at that point. I got an opportunity to come to Denver with another partnership called WestMarc, which lasted about a year. But I came to Denver to be the vice-president of marketing for WestMarc. That’s when I met Larry Romwell and a bunch of the guys at corporate. When that partnership was dissolved and going to be wholly owned, again I thought, “Now it’s time to leave.” But Dr. Malone came to one of the vice-presidents of operation, Rich Fickle—whom we all know—and said, “Look, I’ve bought some satellite entities in the C-band business and I don’t want to be the railroad with the airlines. I want to know what’s going on in this space so I want you to consolidate them and move them to Denver. And manage them at a reasonable loss until we know what’s going to happen with satellite.”
So Rich came to me and said, “What are you going to do?” I said I wasn’t sure, I was looking, maybe going back home. And he said, “Why don’t you come and do this with me? This should be interesting.” A lot of the entities were in Seattle. We went to Seattle for about nine months, got them consolidated and moved them to Denver, and that entity was called Netlink. Rich eventually moved on to corporate and to Liberty and I became vice-president general manager of that. Sharon Wilson was there for a short period of time when TCI bought United Artists. She came to Netlink to replace Rich for just a short period. She did something very instrumental for me in that she said, “I’m only going to be here for awhile. I’m going to be going to corporate so you should take my place.” I did the typical “Ohh, I’m not ready, I can’t do this and I’m not good at this.” And she was just like, BS. You’re going to do it. I said, “No, I don’t even have my Master’s.” Everybody we were hiring back then had their Master’s degree.
The next day I came to my office and there was a whole stack of books and enrollment forms from DU, their Executive MBA program. She said, “Go today. Sign up here. We’ll pay for it; you’re going.”
HENTHORN: Wonderful, wonderful.
ABDOULAH: Wasn’t that great? I was mad at her at the time but I’m glad I did it. And I got my Executive MBA through DU. It was a great experience, really tough. Because in that two-year time period, she left, I did become general manager and vice-president of Netlink and it was tough to be promoted, to be running an organization for the first time while I’m going to school. But the good news was you had an opportunity instead of writing a thesis, you could write a business plan for something. So I wrote mine on Primestar, the business plan for Primestar. And I worked on that till Barry Marshall and Brendan Clouston came to TCI corporate and I got a call from Barry, saying, “You know, we’re launching this network called Starz. We don’t have a marketing department in corporate and will you come and help with that?”
HENTHORN: Let me ask you something about that marketing. So you started up the first marketing at corporate and how have you seen that the whole aspect around marketing change, from the early days until today? So let’s take a quick digression and talk about…
ABDOULAH: No, absolutely. I think that’s a great question. Because back then, I mean it was still a fairly monopolistic environment, right? Satellite was a not a going concern yet. So marketing was sort of a misnomer. They didn’t even have it at an $8 billion company at the time. There was no marketing department. So when I came in it was—because Barry Marshall came from the West Division so he understood promotions and marketing, that you needed to be doing that to increase revenues, etc., and maintain low churn. To his credit, he said, “We need to get better at this. And we need to care about customer service. Oh, by the way, we’ve got this network we have to launch and there’s no one around to orchestrate it.”
So I think this was a major catalyst for the position—that we needed to do that. I think it was sort of a necessary evil in the beginning. Kind of like lawyers and HR was considered in the olden days. You had to have them. But they’ve all obviously been raised in credibility and importance. So back then it really was tough because talk about retention, money for retention, you got laughed out of a budget meeting for that. Where were customers going to go? I even had one executive say that to me, “Abdoulah, why do you want money for retention? Where are they going to go?”
So it was tough in those days. But the Netlink experience was great because I had to get immersed in operations. I had to understand all elements of operation. When you got into marketing—you remember this—in the old days, you had to understand the billing system because there were so many constraints. You had to understand what a trap was and what the different security configurations were in each system. Because TCI consolidated by buying, right? There wasn’t a lot of standardization. There were so many systems with different architecture, different security, different vendors that you had to know the difference between them. So that if you were going to launch a new promotion or launch a new initiative, could it be executed? Right?
HENTHORN: So you wore a lot of different hats at TCI. And that sounds like it created a lot of opportunity.
ABDOULAH: I loved those days. I remember at one point in time, I did interview with Time Warner and I couldn’t believe how professional and structured everything was because at TCI, bless our hearts, we used to get criticized we were a bunch of cowboys, right? At one level that was true. There wasn’t a lot of process and procedure and that did cause probably some conflicts and some waste of money and energy because different people were doing the same things because it wasn’t as organized as it could have been. But on the positive side, you didn’t have to accomplish this to do this. You didn’t have to have this title to do that. You didn’t have to be in this department to go to that department. It was just free and open and whoever took initiative and whoever worked hard and…
HENTHORN: And whoever raised their hand and said, “Let me try this.”
ABDOULAH: Right. You could do anything. I was never very shy or soft-spoken about stuff. I usually gave my opinion about things and I was willing to work hard. And I wasn’t married and I didn’t have children at the time so I was able to be there and to take initiative on things. So I got to do a lot of different things.
HENTHORN: I have a copy of an article here from Multichannel News, December 7, 1992. John Malone there, and he’s saying, in ’92 saying, “TCI will be completely digital in two years.” This is a big deal.
ABDOULAH: It was.
HENTHORN: Do you want to tell me a little bit—you’re so great at telling stories. Can you tell me a little bit of the back story of what happened behind the scenes for you?
ABDOULAH: When he did that first, everybody in the external world was like, well, it’s John Malone, so they listened. They knew it probably had some credibility because it came from him and he was such a visionary. But a lot of people were questioning it. Like what’s he talking about? Hundreds of channels? I mean, we have plenty now, which was around in what, the 58 channels and a lot of them weren’t very good…
HENTHORN: 330 [MHz] system. So even fewer.
ABDOULAH: Exactly. Even fewer than that, right? Twenty to fifty maybe we had at the time. So to talk about hundreds of channels. There wasn’t the content for that; people couldn’t get their arms around—who would even view all those channels. I mean, it was sort of seen as a bizarre thing but it got a lot of attention. It got a lot of attraction. Because obviously that meant a lot to vendors, all the people who were going to help create that new world got excited.
So two years later, we’re not close to launching anything. Because I mean this was right—the industry was creating this. It was being invented from nothing. So there were a lot of people involved. CableLabs, all the TCI engineers, all the vendor engineers were involved. Years were passing just trying to get the business rules. Everybody, to their defense, was trying to think of everything that this box should be able to do, everything that customers might want in the future. And you know you just can’t do that. You’ve got to at some point just cut if off and say, this will be it at launch and then we’ll add to the software and we’ll do upgrades. So by 1997, we’re all working on it and at that point, we had a major shift in our leadership and Barry and Brendan and most of the senior people left. Leo Hindery came in as CEO and Marvin Jones as COO. Because I was working on the teams as the marketing person, working on the digital launch in that capacity, I was not heading it all up at the time but I remember Leo walking into my office and I was intimidated. He had just started and a lot of people had been terminated so I didn’t know what to expect when he walked in, but he said, “Abdoulah! You’re involved in that digital launch.” I’m like, “Yes sir.” And he’s like, “I’m going out and I’m going to announce that we won’t only have it launched this year, we’ll have a million customers by year-end.” And if my recollection serves me, that was like February of 1997. I was like, “OK, Leo. I was pretty nervous about this because I just got a report from outside consultants that we’re about eighteen months away from launch.”
And he said, “Bleep-bleep the consultants. Get it done.” And he announced it a couple days later and so it was all hands on deck and to everybody’s credit, everybody just rallied around that objective. So to Leo’s credit, he knew how to get it done because he put a stake in the ground. And by having that stake in the ground, everybody rallied and we launched it on a shoestring with tape, a shoestring with tape, and our customers—boy, what they tolerated. I went out in the field, I felt such empathy for our people because we were talking six, seven, eight-hour installs to get this in a home and to get the box activated and it was brutal but we got a million customers by year-end.
HENTHORN: Wow, that’s great. Now during this TCI period you also adopted your daughter, Alex.
ABDOULAH: Yes. That was big.
HENTHORN: Really big transformation, big change.
ABDOULAH: And I really love and appreciate Marvin Jones, who has a whole herd of kids himself and now grandkids and great-grandkids, because he was very supportive at the time. I was a single parent, I was doing a lot of nonprofit work in the foster care system, social services and just how broken that process was. It was in a board meeting that I had heard—I started every board meeting with a case study. I had the on-staff lawyers tell us about one to two different cases so that as a board, we would always remember who our customer was and why we were serving this organization. And in this particular meeting they were talking about if children weren’t adopted out of the foster care system by five, maybe six, when they’re still kind of cute, they would get overlooked and they would be stuck in the system till they were eighteen and emancipated out. At which point at the rate of 40% to 60% ended up in prostitution or in jail because they just didn’t have a chance, right? So I make some statement like, “Jeez, people should adopt these older kids. You know, they deserve to be loved. They deserve a home and a family as well.” And one of the staff members took me to task and said, “Well, you could.” And I remember driving home that day thinking, “Well, I meant somebody. I didn’t mean me.” And then I just prayed about it, Jana, for about three weeks. So I made the phone call to an adoption group who did social services adoptions. It was a separate independent group and they told me about my daughter’s case. She was eleven. She was looking for a single mother, no other kids, just wanted a mom. If she didn’t get one soon, she was going to run away from the foster home she was in. She had been in a couple bad situations. Matter of fact she’d had a lot of really awful situations occur to her in her first eleven years of her life.
So I met her and ten days later she was living with me and a year later, the adoption was final. And she’s twenty-eight now and has a little boy, my grandson, Max, and thank God, she’s doing pretty well.
HENTHORN: That’s wonderful.
ABDOULAH: From a work standpoint, you’re right, you sort of had to adapt. I was used to being there ten, twelve hours a day. I remember many nights the security guard would come up and say, “Dear, you should go home.” So I couldn’t do that anymore. I had to leave. Matter of fact, a funny story—I’d had her about three days and I didn’t have a nanny yet. I had the privilege, unlike many single mothers, to be able to afford a nanny, but I hadn’t found one yet and so I remember being in a meeting and my assistant comes in and goes, “Colleen, can I interject?” I said, “Not now.” She’s like, “It’s Alex’s school.” I’m like, “Really? I wonder if she’s OK?” I go running to the phone and they’re like, “Are you picking her up?” It was like 4:30 and I was supposed to pick her up at 3:30 but I totally forgot I had a kid. I had to go get her from school so I picked her up and that was a tough night because she felt like I had abandoned her like everybody else had in her life. So I was never late to pick her up or take her to school after that and then the nanny came about six weeks later. But those first few weeks of being a single mother gave me such an appreciation for what women and men who are single parents have to go through. It is not easy, especially if you have a demanding job. And a culture that demanded a lot of time, right?
HENTHORN: You ultimately decided to leave TCI and take some time off and when I was thinking about our interview today, I thought, there is really only one question I had to ask you, Colleen, and that is, what are you passionate about? And then I could sit back and say nothing. But at this point, let me ask you that because you did a lot of interesting things during this time when you were kind of out of the industry but not really. You want to talk about what you were doing? It was about 1999 to 2002.
ABDOULAH: Right. And when I left TCI, it was AT&T Broadband. We had been bought and I lasted or survived about a year. I realized I wasn’t a big corporate gal. Some people might laugh at that and say, well, TCI was large. We were large, but we didn’t act it.
HENTHORN: Chair of the board.
ABDOULAH: We just didn’t act like a large company. And that’s what I loved about TCI, but once it became AT&T Broadband and you were traveling back and forth to Jersey a lot, it just didn’t feel right anymore. So I left in October, 1999, and my plan was to just let the nanny go and be a mom for awhile. I had saved up and again, had been privileged and blessed that I had enough financial security. I could take some time off. So for awhile I was just being mom and then I would get some phone calls from friends who had also left or gone to different places asking if I would come in and either do strategic planning with them or coaching of them or of certain individuals. I got enough of those requests that I thought I should look at it seriously. I called a friend here in town that had done some coaching for me of some of the executives that had reported to me and I respected her and her process. So I asked if she would tutor me and I paid for it. But I went and learned under Cathy Sunshine is her name, and eventually after working with her, learning from her, she asked me to join her firm as a coach. So I did leadership coaching for about two years. I was fascinated; one of her tools was geneology where you would map the executive’s family history as far back as the person knew. So you’d usually go to grandparents. Then their parents and their generation. And you learned a lot about the patterns of thought and behaviors and myths of the family that we as individuals take from our family system.
I was so fascinated by that technique that I went and studied at the Family Institute where a lot of MSWs get their Master’s of Social Work and I took a few classes there and I just really enjoyed that and was doing that when I got a call from the same gentleman who got me involved with TCI-Taft. We had remained friends and we had remained in contact throughout my TCI years and he was now in private equity. They had backed a gentleman who had a plan for a company called “Wide Open West” and they felt that things weren’t going as well as they could and that maybe I could come in as his chief operating officer. So I met with my predecessor and realized that he was a great man, smart, smarter than me in a lot of ways but that we wouldn’t really—the chemistry and the way I would sort of run things would be so different. So I got back to my friend and said, “No, but I do think you need someone in that role for this investment to be successful.” About two or three phone calls later, and a change in the business model, they decided to not build. The original plan was to be the overbuilder of the West and hence the name, “Wide Open West.” They were going to start here in Denver. It was going to be their flagship system and then they were going to get franchises and build out throughout the western states.
Well, 2000 hit and we all know what happened, right? And that didn’t get corrected. Everybody thought it would be done by that fall but as we know, the market didn’t bounce back until ’04-’05. So right in the middle of all this building and everything, the market crashed. They ran out of money and the private equity groups that owned Wide Open West at the time decided to buy some properties. So they bought the four Ameritech properties that were built by Ameritech in ‘96 and ‘97. They bought them in December of ’01. They were built for $1.2 billion. Ameritech—phone companies build things to last and they built some great plant. They built them to compete, they built them to be Internet and digital with all the bells and whistles and so they got a great deal. They bought it for about $208 million in ’01. So my predecessor and team were managing that for about eight, nine months. Then things weren’t quite where they needed to be so I came in in August of ’02.
HENTHORN: That’s quite a switch for you to go from being a cable person to what at that time an overbuilder…I would say the dark side. Over to the dark side.
ABDOULAH: Exactly. People said that to me. People said, “What are you doing, Colleen? That’s not a career builder. You don’t want to be a competitor to the incumbents and there hasn’t been a successful overbuilder. That’s not a really lucrative space. You should re-consider.”
HENTHORN: What was your thought process on that?
ABDOULAH: I was so enamored with the idea of being a leader of an organization. I was always what—second, third, fourth, fifth. I was always in leadership roles for—I wasn’t always—but I had been in leadership roles for quite some time, but I had never been in that first position where you could shape something to be the way you envisioned it to be. When I said to you early on at the beginning of our interview, what I noticed in my father’s environment and that I thought that’s what I would experience when I went to corporate. Well, it certainly wasn’t. What I experienced was a lot of top-down hierarchical sort of cultures, very male-dominated cultures, not a lot of women in leadership and really a focus on business saying, “I don’t care how you get there. Just get there. Make that number.” And everything was around making that bottom line number. People weren’t treated properly and process and procedure wasn’t reviewed and it just wasn’t to me the right focus. I always wanted to be somewhere where we valued the “how.” Because I feel that “how” matters in life. How we’re friends. How I engage with you. That matters. And so I was so excited about having an opportunity to go into a situation which was a turnaround situation and we had some really tough financial goals to meet within one quarter. We had to make more EBITDA in one quarter than they had made in the first nine months.
So it was not an easy task. That scared me for sure. I didn’t have all the answers. But I did what I did when I went into cable. I just went and spoke to all 600 employees at the time and said, “Here’s what you’ve got in me. Here’s what I think I’m good at. Here’s what I think I can do for this company and here’s where I need your help.” And I hired incredibly great people who were smarter than me in a lot of areas and so I just didn’t listen to the voices about an overbuilder, about a turnaround situation. I didn’t think about what I feared. I thought about what I was excited about and passionate about, which was creating an environment where people would flourish and love to be there and do their best. Because when we do our best, the results are the best we can generate, right?
The story around that when I first got hired, I guess it was August. I had to go to an investor meeting in October. And one of the first questions I got asked—I was the only female CEO of a portfolio company. I was a first time CEO. And I think my title at the time was “President COO.” So when I got asked the first question, which was, “What are your plans for WOW?” I said, quite naturally, “Basically when someone leaves WOW for whatever reason, they’ll say they’re a better person for having been there.” And you should see a roomful of financial analysts, what their reaction was to that quite soft intangible answer was just like the body language screamed like, “What the –? Heck.” So right away, I said, “Let me explain myself, why I say that.” And then I put the numbers to it, that “this is where we are today and if everybody rallies and is passionate and feels accountability and responsibility for our performance, we’ll get there. We’ll be successful.” Sure enough, we were. We had eight, nine, ten straight years of overachieving our budget. Today it’s a billion two revenue company with over 3300 employees and so the growth came.
HENTHORN: So you’ve talked about how you wanted to create a different culture at WOW. Talk to me about how you achieved that. What’s the process that you go about to create that culture?
ABDOULAH: It’s a great question. It’s never about one person. While I was maybe leading the initiative, it was everybody at WOW embracing it, especially from a leadership perspective because all leaders have to model it, embrace it so that those that they serve will also model it. It starts with a mindset, Jana. If you as a leader think, “I deserve what I’ve got, I worked hard to get here, people are going to listen to what I say. They’re there to serve me.” If that’s your mindset, if that’s your value, then creating the kind of culture we have at WOW won’t happen. So you have to start with a definition of leadership that talks about serving others. For me, leadership is simply serving others in a way that brings out their best and the best in you. That’s what a leader does, to me. And so if you start with that premise, you’re there as leaders to serve others so that they can serve the end customer who pays for all your salaries, by the way. Then you truly have your priorities straight. There’s an internal customer in an organization and there’s an external. And the internal customer is most important. So in forming a culture that cares about the people and cares about their performance, that’s where you start. You define your team members, your employees as customers. And you create—what we have is called the internal service structure. And you literally map every function in the organization to one another. Who serves whom in order to serve the end customer.
And in our organization—that will look a little different in every industry or every company, right? But for our organization, that place, the call center and the field, is the primary customer inside our organization. Because everybody—from engineering, marketing, finance, HR, the knock, dispatch—everybody who’s involved is supporting serving one another in order to serve them so that they can serve the end customer. And when you have that kind of structure in your organization and you have a set of values that you just don’t put on a poster, you have to operationalize those values, meaning you hire based on them, you recruit and orient and train and develop based on those values. You base part of their merit and bonus increase on how they model those values, you promote based on them and you terminate based on somebody purposely violating them. If you do all that, have a set of values, operationalize them, have a service structure that defines “we’re all there to serve one another,” then you will have a culture that is based on being good to one another, putting people in the right place doing the right things, holding them accountable. It’s the thing about corporate and business today, isn’t it? Or maybe always, not just today. People are not held accountable enough in a productive motivating way, not in an intimidating way, but in a motivating way. I think that’s what is lacking in a lot of corporate environments. From the top all the way through the organization is a lack of accountability and ownership and passion for the goals. You know, “I own this. I’m a technician, I’m a warehouse manager and I’m a general manager.” Whatever you are, you’re as passionate about meeting those goals as the next guy. That’s the kind of environment we wanted to create at WOW and I believe we have. It’s because, like I said, everybody rallied together.
Now when you try to say, how can you condense that, Colleen, into something that is easy to understand. We brought in an artist from Alchemy and we told them about our culture and we described it and they experienced it and we asked people within our organization if you had to come up with a metaphor about how we operate on this internal structure, what would it be? And we came up with something that sort of looks like Woodstock. It’s like a concert. So you have the call center and the field guys onstage performing. You have the engineers and the knock and dispatch all doing the lighting and the sound. You’ve got HR worrying about the talent. And you’ve got marketing selling the tickets. It’s a really cool illustration that everybody’s got up throughout the organization—this poster of the concert that represents the banner as the WOW service structure and how we operate. It’s a beautiful thing to experience. It’s not perfect; we have our ups and downs as a company like every organization but overall, when we have scored, our happiness quotient is in the high 90s. So it works.
HENTHORN: That’s great. What’s the happiness quotient?
ABDOULAH: It’s where you evaluate four or five key areas of the culture: from engagement to accountability to strategic importance. The survey we used depicts five different areas that evaluates the effectiveness, the productivity, the engagement of your people. And as a result of it, how happy are they in that environment. And it’s about EQ. we do a lot of work with our leadership on emotional quotient because we’ve come to realize as research has shown that it’s not just about IQ, the best leaders—the leaders who get the best performance—are those with the higher EQ than an IQ. So that’s something people really need to pay attention to: it’s not just what you know, it’s how you show up, how you implement what you know, it’s how you engage with others that is really, really important. We at WOW have not promoted, not hired people who are brilliant at a particular thing that we might need, a particular skill, but they weren’t able to sort of engage and work within that cultural environment of serving others. We’ve passed them over because you’ve got to have both.
HENTHORN: So that’s really a great explanation of a company culture that you wanted to build at WOW. And that you did build at WOW. During this time you were also the chair of ACA [American Cable Association] and one of the momentous things that happened during that time was that you testified before Congress on the Comcast merger [with NBC Universal]. So what was that like?
ABDOULAH: It was a little nerve-racking.
HENTHORN: I believe you were testifying right after Brian Roberts or—
ABDOULAH: No, I was at the table with him. It was the first hearing, the House hearing, then we went to two Senate hearings right after that. So we did three in one day.
What I loved about it—ACA is a really, I think, first class organization and they were very clear about the message. We were not about to try to stop or criticize the merger itself because we knew it was beyond us. The FCC, all the groups that need to approve it, would likely approve it. So our position was what is it about that merger, that new company, that could be detrimental to the small, medium-size operators and could we try to get conditions placed on the merger that we knew pretty much was going to be approved. So that helped to be going into it because a lot of the other people sitting at the table were people against. Consumer groups and other groups that were against the merger and took that strong position. I was able to take what I thought was to be a very fair, reasonable position and with a really equitable specific ask that framed the message which basically said, “Look, it’s probably going to get approved so we’re not asking you to not, but when it does, here are some things we want you to be aware of in our marketplace. And that can be really difficult, competing against a company that is so vertically and horizontally integrated and the power that they’re going to have. So please consider that and consider the following conditions.” And I thought it was a reasonable message.
So your question about what it was like. It was a little nerve-racking because the personal ego side of you says, “Oh, my God, what if I screw up and they ask me a question that I should absolutely know and I don’t know. Or they ask me a question, I should be very articulate about it and I’m not. You know, if was just a lot of ego insecurity that was running through my head as I was walking down the corridor and you saw all the cameras and people. The room was so crowded, people were standing. You had to stand outside the room with the doors open so they could hear because there wasn’t enough room for all the people who wanted to be at the hearing.
So that in itself can be intimidating. And then I walk in the room and Brian Roberts says, “And you are—?”
I’m like, “Colleen Abdoulah…”
“We’ve never met, have we?”
And I said, “No.”
And he said, “This is my father.” [Ralph Roberts] So I shook his father’s hand and his father sat directly behind me and Brian was beside me. So it was quite intimidating at first. Then I just took a breath and thought, “I know this industry well. I’ve been in it a long time. I know I know it better than most of the Congressmen that are going to be asking—and women—who are going to be asking questions.” I had met a lot of them in advance. Before a hearing you do go and try to meet; for about a week before I was on the Hill, trying to meet most of the people that were going to be at the hearings, the Representatives and Senators. I had met some of them so that gave you some comfort. I hadn’t met all of them but some of them. So I got through it pretty well.
HENTHORN: I watched it on television, Colleen, and you were cool as a cucumber. And you looked—
ABDOULAH: I looked—my heart was beating. And that’s the other thing is, I’m on the board of C-SPAN now but at the time, I was so caught up with what I needed to say and they have this big clock that gives you your five minutes. Well, none of the Congressmen stick to their five minutes. They all go over. When it comes to the panel, the first two went over. Roberts went over a little bit, NBC went over a little bit. So I’m determined to stick to my five minutes and watching the clock and trying to do eye contact with the Congressmen. And I completely forgot there was a camera because the C-SPAN cameras are sort of hidden in the bottom—so I completely forgot about it, which was great. Because then I wasn’t thinking camera and TV, which would have made my insecurities go wild. But I was in the restroom in between the House and the Senate and a woman walked in and said, “I just watched you. That was great.” I’m like, “Watched me?” And then I realized I had been on TV. At that point it was over, it so I was OK.
HENTHORN: That’s great. We could refer that back to your Barbara Walters—that was your moment there.
In terms of regulatory issues, so there you were testifying about a huge merger between a cable company and a network. Who would have “thunk” that back when you started in the industry? Can you talk about the contrast regarding regulatory issues in the beginning of your career with today?
ABDOULAH: I think what I’ve learned through the ACA is that—I’ve had the opportunity to work with a few lawyers who represented the cable industry back prior to the Cable Act in 1992 and the Communications Act of 1996. And I’ve heard some great stories from those folks because today the cable industry does a great job of being on the Hill, of respecting the relationships with the various compliance groups and oversight organizations and spends the time and money on it. I think that’s important.
Back in the 90s, back then, I mean we were building and growing and the industry was just killing it and spending a lot of money doing it. I think the leaders of TCI and other organizations, that’s what they were focused on. “We’re getting it done. We’re making the investment. We’re putting this country on the map. We’re doing what it takes. And you guys in Washington, we don’t have time for you.” Sure enough, what happened? Consumers’ voices were heard in ’92…
HENTHORN: The Act of ’92.
ABDOULAH: Right. The Act of ’92. And then that didn’t cure all ills and Congress again got involved in 1996 and said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. This still isn’t working. We need more competition.” Which I think was a good move and phone [companies] could now get into our business and we could get into their business and we all know what happened then. VOIP and a lot of other wonderful things came to be and the triple play was born.
HENTHORN: So in terms of contrast, let’s stick with that theme and talk about relationships between the multisystem operators—the MSOs—and programmers.
ABDOULAH: I miss that. I miss the old days when we were operators and they were programmers. And we were partners, we were strategic partners. The fun that we had with programmers, you remember. I mean, the HBO strategy meetings we used to have. And new product launches. When new networks would come in, there was all the excitement around launching it and all the “tchotchkes” and all the promotions. I mean, it was fun. We were helping them build their business and they were building ours and yeah, I think cable held a little too much of a stick. We hammered the programmers for either no fees or very minimal fees for a long time. And when that leverage shifted, two things occurred, I think. The leverage shifted where now they have the eyeballs, they’ve got the brand recognition. They’ve got the viewership. They started to sort of give it back to us and say, “Remember those negotiations? Now we’re going to tell you how much you’re going to pay.” And then the consolidations. So between the leverage shifting and the consolidation of media companies to the top five we experience today, it’s become so adversarial and it isn’t about growing each other’s businesses. It isn’t about a strategic partnership. It’s about direct costs that are hurting a lot of, in my case, in my area of the world, small and medium-size operators who can’t negotiate the lowest rates. Because if somebody says to you, “Give me what I want or you’re going to lose tens of millions of customers,” you’ve got the attention of the programmer. If you’re someone that has 100,000 subs or 5,000 customers or even 500,000 to 1,000,000 customers, it’s not enough for a programmer to care today.
The gap between the large, medium and small is kind of like our economy. The middle-income households are going away. The middle-sized operators are going away. It’s because of consolidation. You have some still in the middle and then you’ve got the rest of us.
HENTHORN: Comment if you care to on everything that’s going on today with over-the-top, where networks are going direct to the consumers. Where do you see that going?
ABDOULAH: I wish I was smart enough to say where it’s all going to land. I can say what I feel about it right now and what I felt about it a couple of years ago when you could see it coming. Change is inevitable. I think when business models are forced into a change, that’s not always a bad thing. I think it’s better when industry players are able to anticipate it and make the changes, I think it’s better for the industry and for organizations. But I get it. Programmers aren’t going to change this business model until they absolutely have to, right? And it’s not going to come from pressure from operators. It’s going to come from where it is today: the consumer. And the consumer is saying, “I want you guys to be agnostic about where I get my content. And what content I get. Just make sure I can get it.” So as an operator looking at how can we be an aggregator of that experience, how can we be a little more video-agnostic, so to speak? Content-agnostic. And just make sure that the customer in the home gets what they need. And it’s a smooth integration for them. Whether they want to watch it on their iPad or their TV or their computer.
HENTHORN: I know that giving back to the community is important to you. And you are very socially involved. You’ve been involved with many local organizations, national organizations, both inside the industry and outside. Could you talk about your not-for-profit work?
ABDOULAH: I think it’s important for those of us—I mean, I’ve often said this, I don’t know why I wasn’t born a poor African child. Or born in Juarez. Or pick it, in poverty here in the States. I don’t know why I wasn’t born into that kind of family but I wasn’t. I’ve been given privilege my whole life. So I just feel all of us who have had the ability to have an education, to have food on the table, to have clothes, to have the basics in life—we owe it to those who don’t, that for no fault of their own, were born into difficult circumstances and are hard for them to get out of. So I think it’s really important just philosophically from a life value standpoint, Jana, that we should all give back of our time, our talents, our gifts and if possible, our money. And if possible all of those things. So for me, I have focused over the years on children. Since my twenties, when I started working, I started those sponsorships. They were ten dollars back then, then fifteen dollars and twenty dollars, so I’ve always sponsored children in distant countries. I’ve also gotten involved with women and children in the States as well.
But across the world I think that women together have to do a better job of coming together and supporting women. Nothing against men. It’s a truth that you help a man, you’ve helped an individual. You help a woman, you’ve helped a community. Statistics show that, that when women get educated, when women start businesses, when women can work when they weren’t able to, they not only take care of their families, they take care of those around them. So the whole community, the whole ecosystem benefits from that. That’s where a lot of my nonprofit work goes. To abused children through the social services system, women and children in poverty and a lot of microlending activity that I think is really important that I love doing because that way you’re just giving and giving them a chance to create something. So that’s why I do what I do in volunteering. I could do a lot more. I need to do more than what I’m doing and I plan to. And as I age is something I’d like to focus on. I live in Wash Park and there’s a program called—forgetting what it’s called right now—something “Help,” where you adopt an elderly person in Wash Park and you just help them. You help them go get groceries, you take them to a movie, whatever. I want to do that now that I’m not traveling as much. Because the elderly and children, they’re on both ends of the spectrum when they shouldn’t be. They’re oftentimes the forgotten ones. We have more children living in poverty in our country today than ever before. More children are going hungry in the United States today than ever before. More elderly are being housed and warehoused in places that don’t honor the fact that they’re not all the same. A person who has completely lost their mind versus one that just needs medical help—they’re all in the same place. We just don’t honor our elderly and honor our children the way we need to. So that s what I’m passionate about.
HENTHORN: I see that. And you personally, Colleen, have won a lot of awards. I can tick a bunch off for you and for WOW. Wonder Woman, J.D. Power, Cable Pioneer just last year. Congratulations on that. When I was doing my research for this interview and talking to people, there are so many people, Colleen, who have been inspired by you. Just the stories are endless and so let me ask this as our closing question. How do you do that, Colleen? How do you inspire people?
ABDOULAH: I don’t focus on that. I think I just love people. I love the relationships of my family and my friends and my business associates who have become friends. Because you know, you come in the world bare-ass and alone and that’s how you’re going to leave. So the awards or the accolades or the material wealth of the world doesn’t matter. It’s really how and who I’ve touched and how I’ve engaged with people and how they’ve touched me. And what we’ve gained from being in each others’ presence. That’s what I think really matters. If that’s inspiring, great.
HENTHORN: It clearly is, it clearly is.
ABDOULAH: Thank you. It’s what I care about.
HENTHORN: It shows, Colleen. Thanks for being part of the industry and thanks for doing this oral history with the Cable Center.
ABDOULAH: Thank you for having me. It was an honor.
HENTHORN: It’s our honor.