Interview Date: July 30, 2018
Interviewer: Lela Cocoros
Dick Beard recounts his start in the cable industry with Sammons Communications and then Continental Cablevision. He describes his progress from installation to the engineering and construction side throughout Illinois. He discusses tube amplifiers, the era before earth stations, and how WGN got to be a superstation. Next, he explains how he started his own construction company, and the various contracts he won, including wiring buildings in Missouri, contracting with the military, and installing coaxial networks in car factories. Beard names important colleagues and notes that St. Louis was a hub for cable operations. He goes on to the era of franchising wars, and how companies would scramble to engineer the systems. He reports on his progression to senior management and the position he held at the time of the interview, operations director at Ervin Cable. Beard explores his substantial involvement with both SCTE and ACA. He explains the difference between the local chapters and the national operation of SCTE, and the intensive training programs that offer excellent opportunities to participants. He mentions many colleagues in both SCTE and ACA. He concludes with diverse memories of how to set poles, his work after Hurricane Katrina struck, and ends with reflections about why cable employees remain with the industry.
LELA COCOROS: Hello. I’m Lela Cocoros and it’s July 30, 2018, and we are at the Independent Cable Show in Anaheim, California. And I’m here today with Dick Beard, who is operations director for Ervin Cable Construction. Dick, how are you?
DICK BEARD: I’m doing well, thank you for having me.
COCOROS: OK, so let’s start with how you got into cable. What was the story behind that?
BEARD: In 1972, I was just out of school. It was a trade school, and I could not find a job. So I was living with parents, and our neighbor across the street was a chief technician for a small cable system in my hometown. That was a system owned by Sammons Communications. So that summer I spent digging ditches and poking holes under 360 trailer park pads to put cable TV in. And I was there for about six months and then went from my active duty training for the Illinois National Guard, and upon return from that in 1973, I went to work for Continental Cablevision in Quincy, Illinois. I was with Continental that portion of time until 1985. During that time, I progressed from installer to technician. Then I get involved on the engineering and construction side and started building small towns throughout Illinois.
COCOROS: So this was in the early 70s that it started, and then through 1985, did you say?
BEARD: Through 1985. So I started out with amplifiers that were tube type, so when you serviced the amplifiers in those days, you looked like the TV repairman with your little box of tubes. And you would climb up the pole and replace them until you found one that worked. No earth stations, of course. My first system had six channels. Eventually built a town called Lincoln, Illinois, and we were on a United Video tower and that’s how WGN got to be a superstation; they microwaved their signals all over Illinois. So that particular system had the local channels plus United Video out of Chicago. Big Cub town, so we had a great penetration there.
COCOROS: I heard somewhere that you are a big Cubs fan.
BEARD: I am a huge Cubs fan, yes, I am, although I have had St. Louis Cardinals season tickets for 32 years.
COCOROS: Oh, my goodness.
BEARD: But I am a Cubs fan.
COCOROS: Great, great. Well, they do play each other a lot.
BEARD: They are playing each other as of yesterday…
COCOROS: Well, from there, what prompted you to go to your next stop, which I think is Millennium?
BEARD: There were a couple of stops. In 1985, I started my own company, called Broadband Engineering Technologies, or Brentech. This was right as fiber was starting to kind of hit its period of development. It was multimode fiber and they were using it mostly for interconnection. So I was working for Continental, and I had been transferred down to St. Louis, so I was one of the first employees in St. Louis. So we franchised the St. Louis market and built a number of towns there. And I was involved in local origination. We had our own local channel, which was huge in those days. That was what kind of differentiated us from being able to just get things off air. That is, you could watch your kids play grade school Little League and that type of thing.
So in 1985, a manufacturer approached me and asked me if I was happy with what I was doing, and would I want to start a construction company, and build systems they were getting the contracts for. I bid a job for the state of Missouri, wiring all of their buildings in Jefferson City. I thought I was bidding as a subcontractor to the manufacturer and ended up winning it as the prime. I am a guy who has never owned a business and has nobody working for me suddenly has a contract with the state of Missouri. That led to probably one of the most interesting times of my life because very early on, I got hooked up with a defense contractor. And I was the construction side of their projects and at that point, coaxial cable and broadband were very big, for instance, in the automobile industry. Ross Perot and his EDS company worked for General Motors, and they were wiring coaxial networks in all the car factories to automate the manufacturing. So in the course of the five years I owned the company, I worked for two automobile manufacturers. I had a contract where I wired every dorm room at West Point Military Academy. I put a video monitoring system along the St. Lawrence Seaway. It’s things I never would have dreamed I ever would have seen, let alone did. And after five years, I became more of a manager and less of an engineer, and with a whole lot of employees. I ended up selling the company to a construction company that I went to work for, U.S. Cable. And shortly after that, I was re-approached by Continental and went back to work for them for a few more years.
I worked in St. Louis, Missouri, for a few years, and then transferred to Chicago, where I was in charge of a 5,000-mile upgrade. That was probably the busiest time in my life. Multiple employees, 5,000 miles in three years. But, like I say, Continental, I would still be working for them if they were still here. They were one of the best companies that anybody that worked for them had ever worked for. My wife was from St. Louis, became somewhat homesick for St. Louis, and I was approached by a good friend of mine, who was starting a new cable operation,
Millennium Digital Media and asked if I would be interested in working with them. So I interviewed with them, I took the job and basically, we acquired systems around the country. Our headquarters were in St. Louis and our systems were in Washington state, Michigan and Maryland. So there was nothing centralized about our operation. There are a tremendous number of people in the industry who continued on to very lucrative jobs out of the Millennium family. Steve Weed, Steve Friedman, myself, Steven Cochran, who was the CEO. We were all Millennium alumni together, and then branched out to our own different ways.
COCOROS: It looks like St. Louis really was a hub for a while for cable operations.
BEARD: It was, and at the time that we started the franchising—it was franchising wars. There were eight different companies that ended up with franchises in St. Louis. And it was a new experience for everybody. We would go in to city councils and we would be promising bandwidth that the manufacturers didn’t have equipment to do yet. This is where some companies would actually build side-by-side cable systems. Instead of a 300 megahertz system, they would have two of them side-by-side. They’d have 600 megahertz of bandwidth and you had a little A/B switch that you would switch back and forth in your house, depending on what channels you wanted to get. And just as how things kind of have changed through the years, when a company like Scientific Atlanta or Jerrold or Motorola would bid on your construction project, they would actually design the entire project for free, and give you the maps as part of their bid. You know, nowadays, you pay engineering, you pay make-ready and all that. That was all part of the original bid back them.
BEARD: So they would design the entire thing, give you a finished product so you would end up with four different designs for your system using each individual company’s electronics, and then you picked the one that made the most sense and was the most reasonable.
COCOROS: So, you were kind of promising everything to the—
BEARD: To the franchises to the cities to win it—
COCOROS: …then they had to promise you and provide you all these things before they actually—
BEARD: But everybody was doing it. So the manufacturers were scrambling because everybody was doing it. Everybody was overpromising what they were going to have, and you know the things you gave them. We gave, in St. Louis for instance and a number of towns, we gave what we called our institutional network. So you built an entirely separate cable system with the amplifiers and power supplies and everything that connected nothing but schools, public buildings, and that type of thing. To be honest, the majority of those systems never got activated because you never ran out of bandwidth on your normal system that you couldn’t handle it.
COCOROS: But that was what was required.
BEARD: That was what was required.
COCOROS: Indeed. So from Millennium, which I guess was then sold eventually?
BEARD: Millennium was sold. What happened and how I ended up in my present career path of construction was that a very good friend of mine, Bill Mullen and his wife—Bill was my best friend, I was the executor of his estate—he was president of U.S. Cable, which I worked for several years before. And U.S. Cable had sold to Orius, which at that time, there were companies that were consolidating all the construction companies in the country. So Orius, for instance, bought about 20 or 25 smaller construction companies, and they were trying to build these one-shop construction companies that could do everything for you and work across the country. There were several. There was Argus, there was MasTec, which is still around. There is a company called Dycom, which is my parent company. There was Orius. While I was at Millennium, Bill and his wife were killed in a plane crash. And they were kind of in a transition. He was the last president of U.S. Cable at that time and they were kind of in a transition. With the kids’ estates and everything being tied up with the company, depending on the success of the company, they came to me and asked me if I would come and assist with that transition. So I left the operator side, and became a contractor, and was the last president of U.S. Cable before Orius disbanded it and merged it into their operation. From there, it’s been construction pretty much ever since.
Orius, we worked across the country, we were one of many companies. My opinion was there were some mistakes that were made, and one of them was that when Orius bought a company like ours, they paid off the owners and the owners went away. Then they would change the name of the company to Orius. Well, you lose two things. You lose your name recognition, and your reputation you built up, and you basically lose the brain trust of every one of these companies that knows what they do, how they do it, where the customers are and that. So Orius went through a few years, they kept getting leaner and leaner and eventually they were going into bankruptcy and at that time—the bad thing about a bankruptcy is some people make out, a lot of your subcontractors and employees and that don’t, and so at that time, I decided that I needed to find something else. I went to a good friend of mine, Gary Ervin, who owned Ervin Cable Construction. He and two of his brothers had started years before. They had also sold out to a consolidator, Dycom Industries. But Dycom was much smarter. They sold 15 years ago, I believe, and all three brothers still work for the company. They have the same name and the nice thing about Dycom is, as long as you’re successful and making money, they don’t bother you. If you stop making money—
COCOROS: You’ll get a knock on the door.
BEARD: —they bother you. But we’ve been very successful in what we do. So I went to Gary and I had a short period of a non-compete that I had to fill out and went to work for Gary. Worked for them for five years. Did a number of projects. They had been very successful at that time, but the problem at that time is that we had a number of kind of next generation people to fill corporate roles. Ervin Cable is located in Sturgis, Kentucky, which is a very, very small town in northwest Kentucky. And I always like to tell the story that if you’re not working for Ervin Cable, you’re working for the Casey’s or the gas station. We kind of got to the point that as the leadership was changing, there were too many people. And I lived in St. Louis. And Gary and I kind of came to an agreement that I would find something else to do if he would keep me on until I was able to find something so I didn’t lose health insurance from them. So I went from corporate management to running some projects in the field, which was, that was like throwing me back 20 years in my career. I loved doing it, I knew I couldn’t do it forever because I was overqualified. Through Gary, I made contact with a former Ervin manager who worked for a company called Perfect Vision. And Perfect Vision was a unique company because they were one of two major suppliers to DirecTV. But the owner of the company—it was privately owned—wanted to get into cable television. And so myself and a gentleman named Eric Sittloh, who came from Belden, we were kind of the two leads that were kind of starting this process. And it was basically, it was Chinese-manufactured drop cable and headend cables that we were trying to sell into the states against companies like CommScope and Times Fiber and that. The price point was very good, but that is a tall hill to climb when you’re trying to sell drop cable made in China against people who had been in the business for 30 years. The concept that the management had trouble with was it doesn’t matter how cheap your cable is or how inexpensive your cable is, nobody is going to bet their career on saving a few dimes someplace when it needs to last 25 years. But it was a great group of people, and I was with them for about four years. Then Ervin came back to me and knocked on my door and asked me if I would consider coming back. Their business was growing, and they needed a person in St. Louis as opposed to Sturgis so I didn’t have to travel. So I came back at the regional level in my current job as operations director and have been very successful at that ever since.
COCOROS: Excellent. Let’s move along and talk a little bit about your SCTE [Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers] and ACA [American Cable Association] involvement. Your association—you’re very active in both associations.
BEARD: The thing about the cable industry, I always joke, that once you get in, you can’t get out. And it really becomes a family. Very early on, before I came to St. Louis in the late 70s, I was going to SCTE meetings with one of the good friends of mine, Tom Jokerst. We worked together several times in our careers. Tom introduced me to the SCTE, and when we went to St. Louis, of course, the franchising was just starting, so there was no cable television there. Tom and myself and several people from the other companies all started a meeting group. And that meeting group and now chapter is still going strong. So I was on the board there for many years, served as president for a number of years. When I went to Chicago, I was on the Greater Chicago board of directors. I’m currently on the Gateway Chapter in St. Louis and the Five Rivers Chapter in Bloomington, Illinois. The thing about the SCTE and I’ve been very involved for many years, know the national people, but always been involved in nothing higher than the local level. I’ve had many talks with the corporate people. There is really two SCTEs. And it’s not a bad thing, but the national SCTE is standards and it’s white papers and it’s courses and it’s that. And it brings a level of order to all these different chapters. But the chapters I’m involved with—and I’m sure all of them are—your real goal is training local technicians and local installers who don’t have the ability to go to the shows, don’t have the ability to go to the schools and that. I’ve always said that when I started with no college, I advanced to senior vice-president of Millennium, running their entire operations. There are engineers in St. Louis working for Spectrum that were warehousemen for me in the early 80s. So I can look across my years and look at people I hired in entry level positions and they are all in very high spots right now. And it’s still that way. You can hire on with cable television, and if you have a good chapter that’s training you, you can work your way up through their certifications and everything and become very much whatever you want to be. You can be an engineer, you can be a manager, and that ability is in very few industries these days. It still has that ability to where you can move from entry level up through the ranks and you work hard and do the right things and are willing to learn and put the time in.
So we do a lot of training. Our Gateway Chapter—most chapters do about training every other month. At Gateway, we have a vendor day in May, we take November, December off. We have training in two different cities every month besides that. So we are doing that would be 18 training sessions a year is what we try to get in. We normally get in about 12. But you know, the ability to get to these guys early and bring in the industry experts in, whether it’s meters or whether it’s drop cable, or whether it’s data and that type of thing, that opportunity wouldn’t be there. And these days as companies have cut back, they don’t have the internal training that they used to have. So it’s really the only place these guys get this. And I personally put on what I call a “Cable 101.” It’s kind of a throwback. These days, to me, the large cable companies, you hire a person to do a certain job, and that person is kind of given a meter and if the green light comes on, you call this guy, and if the yellow light comes on, you call this guy, and if the red light comes on, you do this. You don’t really get an overall concept of how the system works. You’re either a fiber splicer or you’re construction—
COCOROS: It’s much more specialized.
BEARD: It’s very, very specialized. And it’s interesting because where you see that is in the SCTE Cable Games, where you have seven or eight stations that will be drops and coax and fiber and troubleshooting. You’ll have eight teams from a large company like Spectrum and you’ll have one team from a small independent operator. And that independent operator will always win. Because their people do everything as opposed to—they have to. So what I do with the Cable 101 is I take all the new employees from Spectrum and—Gateway is about 90% Spectrum—and about once a year, I give them a course. It’s really a throwback. So I go back to the six-channel cable system days and kind of walk them through coax and then earth stations and then satellites and forward return and data and compression, and really spend time going through all the mechanics. And I’ve always said, one of the most unique pieces in the cable television plant is the coaxial cable that’s in the ground. Because some of that coaxial cable has been out there 30 years, and it’s still plugging away. And people think of it as the most simple part of the system, but through the years, it has just sat there like the backbone and it just keeps plugging away with fiber to the node and that. You still have the drops and the distribution coax. It’s been there for 30 years.
So I really enjoy the SCTE. I’ve been very successful. Again it’s just a smaller family within the family. About fifteen years ago, they came to me and asked me to be an associate member of the ACA. And I knew about the ACA because a number of people who had worked for me—Steve Weed, Steve Friedman, Steven Cochran—these guys had all been involved in it before we bought the companies they were working for. So I knew kind of about it. And I agreed. And I tell you, it has been one of the most rewarding things of my career, because you’re representing a great group of people, it’s small and midsize cable operators. They are a real throwback to what it was like when I went to work in Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1972. They’re still connected to their communities, they are connected to local politicians, they’re hiring local people to work for them. The people stay there. And so just to get involved in that and through the years with the re-transmission consent, and the lobbying in Washington. Like I said, Matt Polka and his staff and the board are some of the best people I’ve met in the industry. And everybody’s doing things for the right reason. No board member is in it for themselves. When you talk to members of the ACA, nobody really takes selfish interest of them above others. It’s really like what’s good for one is good for all. Like I said, I think that we are making a huge difference. I think Washington is very interested in what rural communities have to say. Other than the people whose only constituents are in large cities, people who have St. Louis, they’re very interested in what the rural people around St. Louis have to say. It’s just kind of a common denominator in Washington that always piques the interest. How does it affect rural? How does it affect farmers? And so…
COCOROS: Exactly, exactly. Is there anybody you haven’t mentioned that kind of influenced you throughout your career?
BEARD: There’s a few. When I was first hired, I was hired by an engineer at that time in Quincy called Dick Ashpole. And Dick Ashpole has been a cable legend for years. At times, I worked with people who went on and I learned a lot from them afterwards. Bill Schleyer and I worked together and Ron Cooper in the Continental days. And Tom Jokerst, I mentioned. My boss for many years was Jim Wand, who was the vice-president there in St. Louis. And you just continued learning. Wendell Woody was a great friend of mine before he passed away. If you go back and people who’ve been in cable for 40 years, they’ll always remember a guy named Len Ecker. And Len Ecker, he went around and gave training sessions, he gave two days of training and I mean, he would spend the first two hours on a piece of coax cable explaining how it worked. Then he would put that into the system and explain every piece part of that system to you. And like I said, people who knew him will never forget his training sessions. People like Matt Polka are just visionaries in what they do. Probably the only other one would be Roy Boylan. He was an engineer in Chicago for a long time with Continental.
COCOROS: That’s great. Anything else you want to share, any story you want to share?
BEARD: Like I said, you are sitting there working every day and then people will, you’ll start talking about stories and just getting back to the old days, you know, we never had bucket trucks. And when I give these Cable 101s, I tell people how we used to place poles. And you basically, dug the hole for the pole and one side of it, you slanted at an angle and you would put the end of the pole into that slant. And then you would life the pole up and you would put a guy on the front of the truck and he would hold that pole above his head and you’d slowly start driving the truck forward. And he would have to kind of bounce the pole as he went down. These are small poles; these aren’t the 80-footers. But just for drop poles. I tell people that story and they just can’t believe it. That’s how we used to set poles.
Some of the places I got to work, like I said, West Point, and the Kennedy Space Center. I did work in Washington, DC, for a year; I had my own company. I went to New Orleans after Katrina. We flew our first group in two days after the storm and landed when they were still trying to figure out what had happened and what was going on. And we ended up, Ervin ended up spending about six months there total, working for Charter. Just a massive mobilization of manpower and equipment. And just going through—I said, it was an adventure for three days, and then it was just a pain in the rear for the next six months because it was hot, and it was muggy and there was no—you know, you lived in tents, you lived in trailers you hauled down, there were no stores, you were hauling in gas. But just to see everybody coming together like they did, across all, first responders and utilities and that was pretty amazing. But it was pretty amazing. But like I said, it’s been a lifetime of memories. The most rewarding thing of this has been the people. It has been seeing people that you hire and when we went to St. Louis, there was no trained cable people in St. Louis. So probably out of the first ten people I hired for Continental in the town of Belleville, Illinois, which is near St. Louis, I mean, one of them was a bank teller, I had a couple of carpenters, I had a couple people who had just had odd jobs. And this became our labor force. Three of those people are still in engineering, management levels, in different—
COCOROS: People tend to stay in the industry once they jump in.
BEARD: I don’t think you can get out. You get in and you can’t get out. But again, advancement is always there. My success is completely based on the people I had working for me. I was talking to somebody last night. I’ve always been identified as an engineer. I know very little about engineering, but I hired the right people. And I always said, a good manager at a certain level. I said I was akin to the orchestra leader who played no instrument but knew what the music was supposed to sound like so you know how to get each part out of each instrument. And that’s basically—sometimes I think I lived my whole career on a bluff because I really don’t know that much about engineering. But my mother and father taught me to treat people right and to just use common sense. It is amazing how far that will get you in life, just those two things. And you can learn the rest of it.
COCOROS: Well, thank you very much, Dick. It’s great. Thank you for sharing it.
BEARD: Thank you.