Interview Date: January 31, 2023
Interviewer: Stewart Schley
Interview location: Denver CO
Collection: Cable Center Hauser Oral History Project
Stewart Schley: Ahoy, greetings, and welcome. It is a chilly day in January 2023. We’re at the Cable Center’s Denver studios. I’m Stewart Schley and for the Cable Center’s Hauser Oral History Series I have the privilege of being here for an hour or so with Teresa Elder. Thank you and welcome.
Teresa Elder: Thank you so much, Stewart. It’s such an honor to be here.
Schley: We’ve tried to get you here a couple of times and the weather hasn’t entirely cooperated, but just thrilled to be able to talk with you. Partly because your career so aligns with and touches up against so many kind of seminal developments in the industry itself. And, Teresa, normally I start as a throwback, I say where did you grow up, but I’m going to do it backwards this time. Maybe backpedal a little bit. You are the CEO of a company called WideOpenWest. For the uninitiated, what is WideOpenWest?
Elder: So WideOpenWest, or WOW! as we like to call ourselves, is a broadband company that serves primarily markets in the Midwest and the Southeast. We’re about the sixth largest company in the US and what I love about WOW! is that we really pride ourselves on our customer experience and our innovation. I’ve been so privileged to be part of this company now for five years. I started just after the company went public and it’s been very exciting. I knew a lot about the legacy of this company and it just needed a little bit of a transformation as we entered into the next wave of broadband and new technology and it has been so exciting. And I’m even more excited now than ever about the future of the company.
Schley: I noticed in the most recent quarterly conference call you guys held as a public company you talked about in the first nine months of 2022 you had record additions in this category, broadband. When you just described WOW! you used the word broadband company. You didn’t say cable company. Why is that?
Elder: A couple of years ago, ironically not knowing the pandemic was coming, but right before the pandemic we made a shift in our strategy to what we call “broadband first.” So we’re kind of agnostic when it comes to video for our customers. More and more are cord cutting and going to streaming services and rather than fight against that and force customers into a bundle to get our best pricing, what we do is embrace that and say, “We’ll help you get to the streaming partner that best serves your needs.” We still offer a video package if that’s what the customers want, but moving to broadband first we’ve been able to really launch new speeds and even new markets. In fact, just last week we launched our newest market. Customers have embraced this and it has really helped us in terms of new customers as well as our financials which are very strong.
Schley: It’s not a modest pivot. This is a pretty big deal. You and I, we grew up sort of in and around this business called cable television and to sort of — I wouldn’t say eschew video, but to sublimate it a little bit to broadband, kind of a big change. Was that a revelation for you or did it come slowly or how did you get to that point?
Elder: One of the things that has always been a principle for me throughout my career is that you have to listen to customers and really let the data speak and learn what it’s saying. The customers were telling us what they wanted. They told us, “We’re tired of these programming increases.” And what we did with our customers, we said, “We’re tired of them too. We totally empathize with you. How can we help?” So customers might take on a streaming package, increase their speed that they have in their household so they get a great streaming experience, and their overall spend per month would go down, but what they’re spending with us would actually go up as they have faster streaming service, they probably have whole home Wi-Fi throughout their home and we found those customers are actually even more loyal to us. So we’re at record low churn.
Schley: Teresa, did we get to a point either with WOW! or maybe categorically where video became almost breakeven or even unprofitable? Or how tight did the margins get on video?
Elder: We haven’t gotten quite to that point yet. It still is a bit accretive or positive —
Schley: You make some money from television?
Elder: We make a little money. We do make a bit of money, but it’s certainly not like the old days when I first started in cable when it was really all about video and pay-per-view and how we can make sure that we have that content. That was driving everything. And that broadband or the high-speed internet was really an afterthought. Things have really switched and now it’s all about broadband and higher speeds.
Schley: Well, let’s do talk about those old days in cable because, not appearing on your resume, you were just mentioning off camera that you actually had an introduction to cable television as a student at Creighton University, right? Tell us just a little bit about that.
Elder: So I grew up on Omaha, Nebraska, went to Creighton University there, and when I was a senior in business school, they had a program where they would let alumni borrow a student to help them with a project. So there were a couple of entrepreneurs in town who were radio disk jockeys and had a show in the morning. They wanted to do an animated show and sell it to a cable company. And so they didn’t know where to start so they hired me. I went to the local Cox Communications office and I wish I still knew the name of that very kind manager who was there who somehow took a meeting with me and kind of explained how I might get in touch with Hanna-Barbera and put these people together. Not sure that anything ever came of it, but I just remember what a great experience that was getting to go in and have this professional meeting at the Cox office there in Omaha.
Schley: Great. And this was when? Just put us in a timeline.
Elder: So that would have been probably around 1982. So a long time ago.
Schley: And it’s interesting because you didn’t actually work in the cable industry right away. What was your first kind of introduction to the corporate world?
Elder: So right out of college I was hired by US West. My degree was in management and especially organizational design was my area of focus and management information systems or computer science was my minor. And I had a couple of choices, IBM and some others. What I liked about going to US West was 1983, the year I graduated, was the year of the divestiture of the Bell system. Everything was going to be broken apart. I thought that management turmoil, the disruption, to see what this technology company would do, would be a very interesting experience. So I thought I’d do that for a couple of years, then go back, write a dissertation, and teach college somewhere. So that’s what I thought would happen and of course that’s not what happened.
Schley: You mentioned the divestiture. I can’t remember how many regional Bell operating companies were created, seven maybe?
Schley: But US West —
Elder: It was one of those. And I was hired in to create a computer system that would allow them to do competitive pricing. So it was really about helping to change the culture of this organization, make it more competitive, and enter a whole new phase of its existence for a company that was 100 years old. So that’s why it was enticing to me.
Schley: Not to disparage US West or its — but competitive pricing was not something that was on the radar of the telephone industry for a long time.
Elder: No, it was a monopoly. That’s why they were broken up.
Elder: Yeah, so this was really a cultural change.
Schley: So you were sort of a techie or a software person or you were attracted to computer and information technology?
Elder: I was. I remember vividly a course I took in college that was called Computers and Society and it was all about the coming information age and how the power of information and being able to understand data was going to change the world. And it just resonated with me and I knew I wanted to work somewhere in information technology. That was my calling.
Schley: And you talked about your plan was to be exposed to this world and then write a dissertation. What actually happened? Like did that come to be or?
Elder: No, it didn’t. I loved what I was doing in the business world. I was moved around a lot. I was a product manager for consumer electronics, for launching new products, working in marketing, working in sales, and I ended up with a very entrepreneurial unit of US West which was US West Cellular in the nascent wireless industry. So this was the early ’90s and the networks were just being built. We were doing our transition from analog to digital and most markets had two wireless providers. So here in Denver, which is where I was at the time, there was US West Cellular which became Verizon and the other provider which became AT&T. So those were the two and —
Schley: Also, my choices. I was in Denver at the time.
Elder: I hope you were with US West Cellular. We had about 70 percent market share actually.
Elder: We trounced them. It was a lot of fun. I remember one of our top distributors was the local grocery store here, King Soopers. We sold a lot of phones through King Soopers.
Schley: No kidding.
Elder: We did.
Schley: I can’t remember the year of the famous Gordon Gecko scene with the brick phone — the movie was Wall Street I think — but what was the sort of consumer technology at the time that we were using for wireless?
Elder: I had a brick phone. So that would have been in probably ’93, something like that. I remember we thought it was so cool. We had a very large event that we were hosting here and I was on camera with a local news channel and I had my brick phone and I was so proud that the bumper sticker with our name fit across the whole phone so I could be on brand.
Elder: Yeah, it was pretty funny. It was very heavy. Good for working out. And we had the bag phones and then we had the Star Tech, the first wearable phone.
Schley: I remember that.
Elder: Those were fun.
Schley: Some of the people who watch these oral histories are students and academics and they’re people who are beginning their careers and what did you take away from that experience? You’re now CEO of a pretty prominent public company. What did you begin to learn or to get exposed to?
Elder: In that role it was my first role really being the general manager with a full P&L of multiple markets and had a large employee base. And so it was really about knowing your numbers, knowing your metrics, hitting those numbers. I think it’s so important to lean in and take on those challenges where you can be measured. We had to be very creative and always be watching for what the competition was doing. We tried to make it fun along the way, but it was definitely the wild west of the wireless days. Very entrepreneurial. Very much in parallel with a lot of what was going on in the cable industry at the time. They’re very similar in many ways. I loved the experience in wireless and being a GM back then. It was great.
Schley: It’s interesting to hear you talk. You’ve mentioned the word competition a couple of times and just kind of bouncing around, WideOpenWest is known in some circles as a competitive broadband company because you’re not afraid to challenge incumbent providers in markets like your new Florida buildout. But maybe just can you give us a sense of the posture of WideOpenWest and your personal philosophy about competition in this business?
Elder: Absolutely. One of the things I love about WOW! is that we are what I like to call a challenger brand because the cable companies originally started out kind of having the monopoly, really did, and so what we do is we go in and challenge those brands and provide an alternative for our customers to have a provider who maybe is a little more agile. We generally are priced as a little bit better value. We give our customers many choices. Like I said, we’re agnostic when it comes to video and really let customers help decide what they want. So our brand promise is really about the company that you can trust and I think our churn results, the loyalty we see from our customers, definitely comes through. So I love a situation where you can compete and challenge the big guys.
Schley: I remember in the olden days we weren’t supposed to use the M word, monopoly, but really wasn’t the old bromide, Teresa, that you just couldn’t afford to build out more than one telecommunications system in a market? And if so, what happened? How did we figure out how to do it, right?
Elder: Right. I mean I worked at some of those very big cable companies too so I ran the Los Angeles market for what was the provide Continental Cablevision and then MediaOne before the bidding war that ended up selling it to AT&T. And so that was the nature, I think, of the analysis back then is that you really could only afford to build out one major network and maybe the telephone company was the other one, but generally they weren’t very competitive especially as we got to higher speeds and I’d say that’s still kind of the case. So now things have changed in that consumers really have found that broadband is critical. Homes must have it and have that Wi-Fi in their home. Certainly the pandemic accelerated that further and I think the sophistication of our technology, how we’ve gotten, I think – we’ve been able to do it in a way where it still provides a great value for the customers too. So we do it in a way that customers can afford it and who can live without their internet in their home? You just can’t.
Schley: No. I don’t want to gloss over the fact that you managed to earn an advanced degree from Stanford University in between the wireless work that you did, but I do want to talk about your introduction to cable and I guess to Continental?
Elder: Continental had — when I was away at school my company sold all of our wireless —
Schley: This is US West?
Elder: US West sold their wireless company and that’s where I was. So I went away to school, my company had sent me to Stanford for master’s program, and while I was away they sold the wireless company and bought a cable company. So they changed industries while I was away. So it’s kind of like a kid going to college and they sell the family home. It’s like wait, where am I supposed to go home to?
Schley: How did you learn of that transaction? I’m just curious. Where were you when you got the news?
Elder: I was at school. I was in Palo Alto —
Schley: Somebody call you or?
Elder: Yeah. I got a call, “Hey, new industry now.”
Schley: Okay, let me finish this degree.
Elder: And I said okay. I’m still coming home. So we talked about what opportunities would be best as I reentered the company. And after a number of back and forth I ended up as the head of operations for the Florida based market, the southeast region of former Continental, MediaOne. And so my first job in cable really was running a 1,000-person organization with call centers and trucks and going into customers’ homes every day. I certainly had had some of that experience from wireless, but I was humbled by the differences between the industries.
Schley: I just, you took my question, but what did you observe about how these industries were alike but how these businesses were very different too?
Elder: In terms of the P&L and motivating people, making sure you have the right people in the right jobs, those things I think were consistent. Both industries so entrepreneurial and so focused on customer service since everything’s about getting that subscriber and not losing them, reducing churn. Those kinds of things were very familiar to me. The things that I think were very different that I had to learn about is that we were in all these customers’ homes every day and what could go wrong there? There’s just so many variables to make sure that things go well when you’re in a customer’s home and the passion that people have for video. Shortly after I was in Florida — I wasn’t there very long — I was named the senior vice president of the Los Angeles or southern California market and that market I remember I learned the power of pay per view boxing events like [Oscar] De La Hoya. And we would literally have customers on a Saturday night pounding our door so that we could get them a set top box and get them installed in time to watch the game.
Schley: For that night’s —
Elder: For that night, yeah. And I had experienced what I thought were passionate customers in wireless, but certainly nothing like that. And we talked about the brick phones, but the other difference I would say, in wireless your phone matters so much and you want to upgrade it all the time, you want to show off your phone.
Elder: There’s not quite something like that with cable. There are set-top boxes, but people usually don’t brag about them and now with smart TVs do you even need them much anymore? So there’s some differences certainly.
Schley: You talked about the differences. It wasn’t just that there was passion for video, but television was on and being used for, what, eight hours a day in a user’s home? Wireless, not so much. So that was another pressure you guys had to contend with.
Elder: Absolutely. Being able to be so reliable with the network. Because especially back then with wireless phones, people expected that you’d have a dropped voice call. Data was used a lot less back then. And so people, they didn’t like it if they dropped a call, but they kind of expected some of that.
Schley: Much more tolerant though of imperfection.
Elder: Absolutely, and certainly with the cable industry it needed to be on all the time. It was a companion for people. It kept people from being lonely and getting information. Still does.
Schley: I want to talk about technology in a moment, but you mentioned you were responsible for call center operations in addition to other aspects of the business. You’ve — as an executive in this business I think your sort of heritage has always been this customer-first mentality. Kind of looking at the business outside in, in one respect. What does it feel like from — but what did you learn about call centers and the customer service obligations tied to call centers?
Elder: Oh, I have such respect for people who work in call centers. And of course, now more and more of that care is going online with chat or self-help for customers, but there are still many people who like to talk to a person. Probably one of my most vivid experiences in a call center is in Los Angeles where we had such a diverse customer base. In that call center we spoke 14 different languages and had access to people who spoke even more and just the power of being able to help someone in their own language and serve their needs well. And I remember one of the things I was most proud of is that at the time, because many of these people were parttime, they didn’t have health care and we were able to bring health care insurance to all of those people.
Schley: To those employees.
Elder: And we had many people who were single parents and had kids and so that’s the other side of my life that I’m really proud that happened. But call centers are so powerful and of course now we have a mix of onshore, offshore, and since the pandemic many of our people at WOW! are working from their homes.
Schley: Are at home, that’s what I’ve come to understand. And Los Angeles for a while, and I think when you ran that group, was carved into different chunks of geography. What was your territory in Los Angeles?
Elder: We had a lot of the places that were some of the more challenging markets and probably not as wealthy of customers. But interestingly, the markets that I had there were also some of the most loyal customers who would buy very high-end packages because perhaps they didn’t have as many choices to travel or go out so their television was their primary entertainment. I remember going on a truck roll and we were trying to figure out what was wrong and we found out the cable was slung over the open raw metal of the person’s trailer and had worn through. And this was a customer that was top tier buying —
Schley: Spending a lot of money.
Elder: Because this was very important to them. So it’s always interesting to walk in your customer’s shoes and understand what their lives are really like.
Schley: Softball question, but one worth asking. You could have sat back in your office and run the business. Why did you go out on truck rolls? Like what was the point?
Elder: Oh, you have to know what’s really happening and see what your front-line people are doing, be able to get to know them, know your customers. I love doing that.
Elder: Years ago, I even climbed a pole once, but I wasn’t really supposed to. Yeah, I wasn’t supposed to. That was —
Schley: Much respect (laughter) for anybody who’s been in a bucket truck or climbed up a pole. As your career progresses you pick up things through intention or osmosis or whatever about leadership, what it takes to motivate people, what it takes to be respected by people. What did you start to kind of pick up on in terms of management leadership?
Elder: I think the number one thing is back to perhaps something I said earlier and that is listening. I’ve started and gone into a lot of new organizations and that’s always the first thing I spend a lot of time doing is listening to the employees, listening to customers, and another way to listen is to look at data and really understand —
Elder: Because if you let the data speak, if you listen to the data, it tells you what’s really going on versus maybe what people think is happening. So I think listening is key. Then communicating, communicating, communicating, with authenticity and engaging people. And I can say probably early on in my career I was especially concerned, you know, everything always had to look right, be right, and you didn’t ever want to show anybody anything was wrong and I’ve learned along the way that it’s okay to be authentic and share, “Hey, I’m worried about this. I’m being challenged by this. What do you all think?” And just being who you really are.
Schley: And that opens up new ways of communicating and engaging with people, I’m sure, when they know you’re not perfect and you’re not pretending to be perfect.
Elder: I think so. And clearly the last few years of the pandemic has stretched us all on that. I have definitely learned a lot. I like being a lifelong learner and so I’m always trying to pick up more things.
Schley: You talked about using data as a signal to understand what’s going on and I think some of us immediately think well, she’s talking about cash flow margins and revenue per subscriber, that’s data, but I suspect you’re talking about different looks at the data.
Elder: I’m talking about those things and customer metrics. Our customers increasing their usage. What kinds of things are they doing? What’s happening with the time it takes to answer calls? Are we doing first call resolution? There’s just so many metrics. One of the things that we happened to start a couple of years ago when we were shifting to broadband first was customers self-install. And the insight we had was you know all these people in customers’ homes? Customers really would prefer to just do it themselves if they could because they didn’t have to take off time from work even if we were on time, which we always were. Customers like to do these things themselves. And what we learned was some people were more comfortable with self-install than others. We kept changing and adapting the instructions we gave. We gave a hotline that they could get through to and talk. And that’s been a great learning experience on both sides. A win-win for the customers and certainly it also helps those cash flow and bottom-line numbers.
Schley: You were hiring people obviously at this point. You had people reporting to you and groups to manage and oversee. What were you looking for in terms of qualities of candidates?
Elder: Yes, I have done a lot of hiring. I think one of the most important things a leader can do is get the right people in the right jobs at the right times. And so what I look for in a leader are people who I think haven’t — I really think back to the values of WOW! I think is a good list. People who are respectful of others, who operate with integrity, who have that spirit of service, that you don’t have to train somebody how to think about customers.
Schley: That’s a great point.
Elder: But also have that spirit of service towards other employees too. And the last value of WOW! that I really believe in is accountability. That they don’t make excuses, that they take on challenges and sign up for hard things to do.
Schley: But here’s a how-to question. How do you know this in the context of an hourlong interview with a candidate or how do you go about discerning these qualities?
Elder: Since I’ve been around so long, I do have a network of people that I can rely on that I’ve worked with before and so I’ve relied heavily on that. I also have a trusted colleague in the industry that’s certainly here at the Cable Center she’s well known and that’s Ann Carlsen who has helped me many times with staffing of —
Schley: In identifying talent?
Elder: Identifying talent, vetting people, really understanding. I also have a team of people who help me with interviews and background checks.
Schley: So it’s not just one person?
Elder: No, not at all. Because what I’m always doing is putting together a team and so you want to make sure that the team fits. Not that everybody is just saying yes to each other, but that there’s a healthy conflict that people aren’t afraid to challenge each other and challenge me for sure too. I learn a lot from my team.
Schley: I want to talk about technology because there was an enormous transformation that was starting to burble up around this time or the late — mid to late 1990s and it was this thing called broadband. In fact, your company MediaOne I think was first to use the word broadband kind of overtly in its — what was the tag line?
Elder: It was “MediaOne, This is Broadband, This is the Way.”
Schley: Talk about your introduction to this notion that cable television systems could be used for something very different than their original purpose. How did that dawning day occur?
Elder: If you think about the timing of this, 1998, ’99 in there. This was right at the time when companies like Google were being founded. We didn’t even know that name yet. eBay, Netflix. And they were so nascent and the question was, would there ever be a network that was accessible to enough people that could support these kinds of things? And our cable networks were really perfect for that with the way the technology was evolving. And so I was in Los Angeles at the time and we started launching and really deploying lots of construction capital throughout southern California, which is not an easy place to build, and launched broadband there. I vividly remember being with our friend Rob Stoddard. He was with MediaOne as well. We cohosted an event called The Broadband Developers Conference that was on the set of Wheel of Fortune. Because you’re in LA, you’ve got to go, right?
Schley: Was this in Burbank or where was this?
Elder: I think it was. Yeah, somewhere right in there. And we invited hundreds of broadband developers, which I’m not even sure if that was a thing yet. We kind of labeled it that. Because we were worried we were spending all this money launching a new network and would there be enough applications or things to do on the internet that would justify it? Isn’t it funny?
Schley: Well, it is because I remember people thinking that broadband was subservient to telephony, to voice service, was going to be — because we knew everybody talked on the phone and broadband, maybe, right? Was that the kind of attitude that prevailed or?
Elder: Right. And I think there was also a feeling, would people trust the cable companies to do this too? Because that’s not as — you know. That’s a serious thing that the telephone companies had to do, you know, because they had probably, what, DSL then. Or just were kind of starting all of that.
Schley: Yeah, for sure.
Elder: So it was an interesting time to see if we could really gain share and show customers what they could do with this network. And it was in the early stages, but boy, it felt like cutting edge technology and it was at the time.
Schley: It was and you remember the quote that was bandied around the industry, supposedly from a customer, was you can take — you can have my cable modem when you pry it from my cold dead fingers. So the customer sentiment was really on your side.
Elder: Absolutely. And once customers got it, they didn’t want to go back. It was a great service that we started launching really all over the place.
Schley: When you talk about sinking capital into the buildouts what were you buying? What kind of devices or what kind of technology required this investment at the time?
Elder: I mean it was plowing up the streets, putting in all the equipment and the cable, and there were the devices in the customers’ homes. So I mean in many ways it’s new technology now and WOW! is now launching fiber to the home in our new markets. Much has changed, but much has kind of stayed the same. You still have to get the pole permits, you still have to do the underground trenching —
Schley: It’s hard work.
Elder: You still have to do all that hard work with many contractors and getting all the equipment and getting the trucks to the right places. I remember having to go to a city council meeting till like 1:00 in the morning in Santa Clarita because they didn’t like the way the fake rocks that we were putting over our boxes looked in the streets.
Schley: Oh, my gosh.
Elder: Yeah, the communities would —
Schley: This is the underbelly of broadband and telecom deployment. It’s not for the faint of heart, right?
Elder: And we still have to be respectful of those communities today as we do those things.
Schley: Sure. But it was — fiber was a big transformation, right? You had these hybrid networks, some fiber and then coax and then two way amplification, right? You had to make your system talk both ways.
Schley: And that was important.
Elder: That was new. Some new monitoring. Definitely challenged our engineering talent. So it was an interesting time. We also launched in Los Angeles the first ever digital telephone system in California. We did it at the California Science Museum and we felt that was very groundbreaking. We also were launching 911 services so that was a big thing to be trusted with as a cable company and make sure you had that kind of reliability.
Schley: Because you had to attend to — people forget about this, but in the event of a power outage the phones still had to work, right?
Elder: Yeah. There were so many challenges with trying to make that work and interface with the 911 centers. So yeah, that was an area definitely that made me worry.
Schley: But did you feel like you had mastery over the technology requirements of running a cable company? Everything’s changing so fast and a lot of our engineers grew up in this analog era and now they have to transition to the digital. So how did you like keep it all together in your head?
Elder: Oh, no, I didn’t feel like that. I don’t even know if I still feel personally like I have the mastery, but I am surrounded by very talented people who know what they’re doing. And I was running Los Angeles. We also had a talented team at our headquarters that were some great folks as well so —
Schley: Here in the Denver —
Elder: Yeah, here in Denver and all over so that helped, but with any new technologies there’s always growing pains along the way. That’s just the nature of it, whether it’s wireless or cable.
Schley: I love — I’m so great you worked in the rock story because that is so emblematic of the arduousness of building out these networks. Who were you learning from? Who at this point was sort of instrumental in mentoring or helping kind of guide your career?
Elder: At MediaOne I worked for Ron Cooper who had been at Continental and went on to run Adelphia after that. He’s still a dear friend and a wonderful member of our cable industry. I also had really been coached from the wireless industry into cable from people like Chuck Lillis, Jan Peters, who were very instrumental in helping me along the way.
Schley: Okay. And then you made a career — let’s just talk about the corporate progression. You ended up working for a company called AT&T Broadband which was what? How did this company get created?
Elder: So AT&T Broadband was the result of AT&T deciding they wanted to be in the cable business. They bought TCI and so that was a big deal. Then they decided oh, let’s buy MediaOne as well, but Comcast also wanted to buy MediaOne. So we were in the enviable position sitting there in MediaOne at having an offer from Comcast, then AT&T came in. There was a bidding war between the two which was very good for the price and AT&T ended up being the winner of that tug of war back and forth and Comcast got the walking-away money and then came back of course and bought it a few years later and sold off some piece parts to Time Warner.
Schley: It was the big transaction in an environment of lots of transactions because we were consolidating this industry at the time, right?
Elder: Yes. It was very large. AT&T Broadband then was the largest and they asked me to stay on for a while through the transition and so I ran the western US.
Schley: I guess, Teresa, that’s my question. Some amount of upheaval and who’s going to write my pay check and how did you kind of guide the troops through that transition?
Elder: It was interesting because having the western markets I really only had one former MediaOne market and that was mine, Los Angeles. And I was fortunate to have Debbie Piccolo on my team who’s a wonderful leader and customer-focused person so she took over that role, but then I had all these other markets, about 15 million customers I think it was, something like that, in the west and we had TCI markets that we were looking at finding the right leaders for in most of those markets. So it was really creating I think it was nine leadership teams at once, assessing the talent who was there, recruiting some new folks, putting those right metrics in place, having one overall culture and set of values and doing that cultural change. That’s the kind of messy stuff that I originally back when I was in college thought someday I’d get to do. Well, I did get to do it and it was a challenge because the culture of AT&T was so dramatically different than the entrepreneurial cable companies of TCI and MediaOne. It was just very different cultures.
Schley: There’s a wonderful book called The End of the Line by a former Wall Street Journal reporter, Leslie Cauley, and she describes this culture — I’ll use the word — clash. You don’t have to, but there was —
Elder: I’ve not only read it, I lived it. (laughter)
Schley: Okay, but just so our audience understands, it wasn’t just people and cultures but technologically it’s not like all these systems are the same. You have to deal with a lot of diversity.
Elder: Very much so. And we were very separate. It’s not like we were trying to really mesh our networks together, but it was a challenging time. And so for the part that I was responsible for I wanted to get all of our leaders and all of our markets on the same page with the right metrics and those cultural changes, what I found is if you have a few key levers that you keep these things all aligned then people will believe you and believe it’s authentic. So it is around how you measure, who you hire, who you fire, who you promote, how you reward people. And putting all of these things together — the things you communicate about too. What you put the spotlight on. If those things are all aligned and you keep saying the same things people believe that this cultural shift is for real and they’ll get on board with it very quickly. So that was a wonderful opportunity to be able to do that with the markets that I had and help kind of change some of that culture. We had a dramatic improvement in results and improvement of the customer experience, but we were only a portion of the company and we were definitely pushing a snowball uphill.
Schley: That bullet list you just recited, who you hire, who you fire, what gets rewarded, that’s like a business school lesson in itself. That’s a really telling argument. What happened to Teresa Elder careerwise after that experience?
Elder: So then at the end of 2001, which of course was a challenging time for the country after 9/11, the other part of my life became I think the priority and that was my own family and a focus on work that I have done with the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. So after 9/11 most of the charitable giving in the US really, appropriately, went to the 9/11 Fund. I think the whole country was very much traumatized by much of what had happened, but at the time for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and I got involved because my oldest son has cystic fibrosis, they were seeing a lack of funds coming in right at a time when the science and the technology for CF research was taking off. And I thought I’m not a scientist, I’m not a medical person, but I know how to raise money. This felt like a better use of my time and my husband had been doing much of this work along the way so we teamed up and did that and it was extremely fulfilling.
Schley: You talked about in the case of your son how massive computational prowess and the technology investments were absolutely vital in coming up with remedies and treatments. And I think that’s — the point you make about receding investment at the same time that the technology needs a boost, it’s not unique to cystic fibrosis, but it was a big pivot point, I suspect.
Elder: It really was. Supercomputing allowed high throughput screening of the many, many different chemicals and compounds and assays of information that were out there to all be looked at at once versus the old slow process. And so suddenly they could look at hundreds of thousands of compounds and see if there was any that would help on the specific genetic mutation that was the source of cystic fibrosis. And what happened, flash forward a few years later, was that there was a ping or a hit out of a little company in southern California that really did something to help one small mutation of cystic fibrosis. And there’s only about 30-40,000 people with cystic fibrosis in the US, but this was for 4 percent of the people so at the time it was like 1,200 people that had a possibility that this compound would work, and my son was in that 4 percent. So eventually he became a member of the phase two trials and then it was approved as the first of a whole class of new medicines which we now know as precision medicine that are tied to a certain mutation. The medicine worked so dramatically for him that literally from 8:30 at night when he took his first pill till 3:30 in the morning he could breathe and his life changed from probably a life expectancy of maybe early thirties to what now is probably a normal life expectancy and he’s now a family medicine doctor. So it’s just a miracle I can’t believe.
Schley: That needle in a haystack story is amazing.
Elder: Right? So technology once again. When I think about the impact of technology and the right people having access to the right technology, how life changing, world changing, it really is. And I feel like, kind of back to broadband, that’s what our industry does for the world too.
Schley: And then so one day you wake up and say, “I think I’ll go run a company called Vodafone out of Ireland because why not?” What happened? How does that segue come about?
Elder: So I kept my finger in the industry. I was doing some consulting. I continued to work with some startups and always kept in close touch with my many friends and contacts through the industry, many of whom are like family to me. And an opportunity came back in the wireless industry and I remember I said I really like living kind of in the western US, I’d rather it be in the West, but this opportunity came up that was in Europe and I thought oh, what the heck, I’ll go talk to them. I was being recruited by the leader of the company at the time. The global leader was Arun Sarin who had run AirTouch and been in the US prior to that. I went over there and I just loved it. I was excited to go to Ireland because of many of the reasons I was excited by other things I’d done in my job. It was a CEO so running the P&L of the country. It was a time of innovation. Ireland was the place where there was the highest data usage in Vodafone globally and I think it — for a couple of reasons. One is that they didn’t have the landline infrastructure of either cable or telephone just because of the way the country had been built out. So mobile was everything and, like me, the Irish like to talk. (laughter) So they like to communicate. So I knew there would be lots of chance for innovation and it didn’t disappoint. So I remember the recruiter I was talking to, I had said, “I only want to look in the West,” said, “Teresa, Ireland’s not exactly the West. What are you doing going to Europe?”
Schley: Look at a map.
Elder: Yeah. But it was a fantastic experience.
Schley: What was happening with data transmission over wireless at the time and in your subsequent job that we’ll talk about? What was going on in the market?
Elder: We launched the first 3G mobile broadband network in Ireland. So having broadband — once again another theme in my life, right? — was having mobile data. We actually had mobile TV and that was —
Schley: This is when?
Elder: This was 2004 to —
Schley: Mid 2000s, okay.
Elder: — early 2007. And so it was such a high-tech thing to do. We were the center of innovation for Vodafone globally for things like data storage. So think photos were just coming on where you could transmit photos and text things back and forth. It was an exciting time and it definitely had some elements that I had learned from cable because of the TV component, but back to my days of wireless as I saw broadband and wireless coming together a little bit.
Schley: Did you theorize that maybe — because who knew at the time that wireless would sort of usurp or take over wireline broadband. There was sort of this healthy tension between the two technologies, I think.
Elder: I didn’t think that — I thought that over time they would continue to merge and people would get used to the kind of broadband that they have at home and want that to take with them everywhere and I think we still continue to see that, that people don’t want to have a difference between what they can do when they’re sitting at home or in the car or walking down the street.
Schley: I agree.
Elder: You want to have everything everywhere, right?
Schley: Then I thought there was a company called Clearwire that you were lured by or went to work for and it sort of relates to what you were just talking about. What was Clearwire’s mission? What was that company all about?
Elder: So Clearwire was an interesting company and I was recruited by my former boss that I had worked with for a while at Vodafone. That’s Bill Morrow who’s now back in the US at DIRECTV.
Schley: That he is.
Elder: Small world. This is kind of a small industry in many ways. Clearwire is a company that had the largest holding of spectrum, wireless spectrum, in the US at the time yet they were struggling with how to monetize that. And it had an interesting ownership profile. It was partly owned by private equity, Craig McCaw among others, and by Sprint, Google, and then there was a consortium of cable companies that also had a strategic partnership like Comcast, Charter, Bright House, Time Warner were also involved.
Schley: Did not remember that.
Elder: Yeah, so there was this interesting struggle when you had sitting around the board room table Sprint as well as some of the others that were there as well and I came to really try to help monetize the spectrum holding. So launched the wholesale division and what we were selling was the first 4G in the US to Sprint, but also trying to teach the cable companies about how they might be interested in selling mobile down the road. Now that was one of the first forays into mobile and it really has taken quite a few years later —
Schley: I was going to say this is 2009, 2010.
Elder: Eleven, yeah.
Schley: But you were addressing these very issues that would come to be paramount really in the way the market —
Elder: Yeah, we were probably a little early on some of that, but what we did in selling those wholesale agreements did dramatically help the company and allow it to have the leverage it needed to eventually be sold and was sold to Sprint and now it’s part of T-Mobile.
Schley: But, Teresa, was there ever a point where Clearwire thought about maybe being a retailer, doing a retail broadband play?
Elder: It was. It was also doing a retail play at the same time. And the retail side of the business was run by Mike Sievert. Mike Sievert is the T-Mobile CEO. So once again it’s just funny how we all kind of bump into each other one way around. But yeah, it was an exciting time for little Clearwire as we were trying to figure out how do we teach people about 4G? We had these hotspot devices that —
Schley: See, I remember this.
Elder: — that were unlimited. Yeah, you probably — it would have been great for you.
Schley: My question was, did your cable company partners have a little bit anxiety around are we going to get, if you will, overbuilt by a wireless data service? You have this exploding broadband business and you wanted to keep it, right?
Elder: I don’t think we were that scary yet. (laughter) Maybe. I think they were mainly trying to figure out okay, how do we incorporate this into our sales channels? Is this really going to be accretive? Does it make sense? And I think it took a couple more iterations between wireless has really caught on at the cable companies.
Schley: I guess if we learned anything it’s a restatement of this idea that spectrum is really valuable, right? I mean it’s limited and you guys were able to monetize and leverage that holding. And then Clearwire ultimately went away, was sold?
Elder: Was sold, yeah. It was sold.
Schley: You wrote about wireless and maybe some of the rationale for cable companies to be in wireless before it was cool. This is like 2010.
Elder: That’s my thing, before it’s cool.
Schley: Literally just this week we’re seeing in the fourth quarter reporting period companies like Charter and Comcast praise their wireless operations as they create stickiness, they create loyalty, they help you bundle products. What did you see in 2010 that was promising?
Elder: I saw the same because I really have grown up in both industries.
Elder: And I love both industries and their entrepreneurial spirit. What they do for the customers I think is just such a game changer. So I think I’ve always had that passion for both coming together, but now the technology and the timing just is right now. So maybe, what, 10 years ahead of my time there?
Schley: It’s been interesting. I listen to the radio now and then when I’m driving and Comcast has been running a series of commercials that are trying to discourage people from using their 5G wireless connection as a replacement for home broadband. And I thought do people really do that? But do people really do that or is there a potential for that to happen?
Elder: That’s not what we’re seeing. I don’t think so. I think it’s so much more efficient for a cable provider to offload the wireless data onto Wi-Fi and onto their landline networks in the customer’s home that we’d always rather customers use the Wi-Fi in their home than use the 5G. And if you think about it, the cable companies are reselling Verizon or AT&T or T-Mobile service.
Elder: So they are really the reseller of it so their margins aren’t going to be as high as if they were selling their own broadband network. So that’s part of it too. It’s more efficient for the network too.
Schley: Trying to manage the proper allocation of spectrum and how it gets used regardless. How did WideOpenWest find you in 2017?
Elder: So I was in northern California working with a variety of boards, doing a lot of work with Stanford and my friend Ann Carlsen called me up and said, “Are you interested in maybe coming back to Denver?” Because Denver’s definitely home for me, lived here many times. “This cool company has this cool job, is that something that would be interesting to you?” And I didn’t think I would be interested.
Elder: But Ann has such an infectious way about her and I did know about the company and I knew its history and legacy of customer service and I thought gosh, coming back to Denver would probably be a good thing. My husband was very open to that. After many, many moves — he’s phenomenal — but we thought okay, maybe I should at least take a look at it. I also talked to my friend Colleen Abdoulah who had been the previous CEO and she was very encouraging and asked a lot of good questions and gave me some good advice so I decided to give it a shot and go do an interview.
Schley: And you liked them, they liked you, obviously.
Elder: And I have to say I also really liked these Cable Center’s histories that they — and video histories. I watched Jeff Marcus’ history before I went to my interview in New York with the whole board.
Schley: Really? That’s very good homework. You should take that as advisement. What was your take on WOW! at the time? Was it a public company or would you say that you went public commensurate with your arrival?
Elder: The company had been public for about five, six months and so I came in right after they’d gone public. And the company was still, I think, learning how to be a public company. The employees had always worked for a private entity. The company was not even 20 years old yet at the time so still a pretty young company. And so I like doing things where I can be challenged, where I’m working with great people, and maybe I have some unique skills that can be helpful and have some fun along the way and this seemed to check all those boxes. I really liked, of course, Jeff Marcus and the board and knew that there was the essence of just a great company here that needed maybe some ability to work through some of the technical debt and put some new things in place, some new products, and it’s been a fun ride.
Schley: And, Teresa, how did you regard the opportunity — both the blessing and the curse of being a public company and now you’re — you have shareholders, some of them love you, some of them don’t love you as much as others, like how did that sort of strike you?
Elder: I actually embraced that opportunity. I wanted to do that. I had been a CEO of a company in Ireland and we had to report out our individual earnings even though we were wholly owned by Vodafone Group. I was having to do those kinds of things and I hadn’t been a public company CEO in the US and it’s one of those be careful what you ask for. I thought why not, let’s try this. And I also just — I liked the board, I liked what this company could do. I understood the space that it was in and thought it would be a fun challenge. I always like a different challenge —
Schley: Understood. What space was it in? It was — WideOpenWest was not always the best understood company in the category because you crossed certain lines, but how did you sort of dope out what this company was all about?
Elder: I think people thought of the company as oh, those overbuilders, they can never be successful.
Schley: Some did, yeah.
Elder: I took it as coming from industries where there’s competitors, competition is good, choice is good for customers. We had a great network that was reliable, high speed. We could be agile and serve our customers in a way that maybe the larger companies couldn’t. So for example, if you look at a market, if one of my competitors has the whole market, I just have this slice, I can do something that’s unique and more specific to that market and it would be very difficult for my competitor to completely compete. And —
Schley: That’s smart.
Elder: We really enjoyed it. People think of WOW! different than some of the counterparts. They view us as the little engine that could.
Schley: I love the challenger brand label that you put on the company, but you’re still part of, I’ll call it the club. You’re still part — you’re on the board of C-SPAN, for instance.
Elder: I am.
Schley: You have friends and colleagues all over the cable industry, correct? So it’s not like you’re an outsider coming into storm the gates of the castle in every respect.
Elder: I don’t think I am, but there’s always a healthy competition. I’ve always had friends throughout the wireless industry that we compete with as well. So I think it’s a healthy competition and good for our communities and good for our customers for sure.
Schley: Going forward what do you need to do to maintain not a dominant but a competitive position in the market as more people put more devices on the network? And what are your forward-looking plans?
Elder: There’s so much ahead of us at WOW! that’s so exciting. We’ve just launched into our new greenfield markets with our fiber-to-the-home network offering three gig and five gig services which are symmetrical and the fastest that are out there. This is all because we were — we kind of looked strategically at what should we do with this basket of assets that we have and we made the hard decision to sell off some of our assets a couple of years ago at one of the highest multiples certainly in this company’s history. So we took that money, deleveraged the company so we didn’t have all that debt on our balance sheet and invested it into greenfield, into markets where we saw that customers didn’t have as much choice, didn’t have the kind of speeds that we knew that they would enjoy and could really gain penetration and make those customers happy. All the same while we’re also looking at our legacy footprint of the markets we have remaining. We’ve upgraded those speeds. We’ve launched new services. We really take care of the customers in the market that we operate.
Schley: I remember when gigabit internet service became a thing, not that long ago, and now you’re talking about five gigabit internet service. What’s — just from a behavioral standpoint what’s driving that demand?
Elder: I can’t let it pass to say WOW! was the first operator to have one gig speeds throughout our whole network. We’re the first operator to have throughout our entire network done. We were the first ones. So that was a lot of fun and we finished that, I think, my first or second year here. But there are many things that are driving those speeds. So certainly the customers had a huge uptick in data usage at the beginning of the pandemic with all the video conference calls, with working all day long, then having all the streaming services to try to fill in your time. And what we found is the volume of data usage has never gone down. The path of the growth has backed off a little bit, but it’s still growing, just not at the steep pace that we saw right at the beginning. So the things that are continuing to drive that are the streaming services, the video conferencing. The gaming is becoming a bigger and bigger piece of the growth as well.
Schley: You mentioned the pandemic a couple of times and it seems to me that was a terribly dark moment, but a shining moment for the nation’s broadband network and even internationally. Was there ever any concern that, you know, we’re not going to be able to fulfill this concurrent demand, it’s going to overtax our network? Or what did your engineers say to you about performance?
Elder: That’s when I was so proud and happy to be at WOW!. Our engineers said, “We’ve got this.” Now, we had planned to do node splits and some things of maybe a couple of hundred areas where we thought we needed to enhance the network in 2020 and we ended up, I think, doing over a thousand. So we did lots of things to ensure that we never had an issue for our customers. Our network has performed beautifully throughout and we continue to spend the money, smartly invest, and do things right by our network. So we didn’t have that issue. I don’t know about the others.
Schley: We hear about this term, node split, a lot. For the uninitiated we’re basically kind of compartmentalizing our cable plant to smaller and smaller serving areas.
Elder: That’s one of the things we do. It’s one of the many things that we do to try to —
Schley: One of the tricks you have.
Elder: Tricks. There’s lots of tricks up our sleeve. We also have the benefit of having fiber very deep into our network.
Schley: I was just going to ask about that.
Elder: To the node, to the neighborhood. And we also have now fiber to the home in some of our communities as well.
Schley: So your new greenfield buildout near Orlando, is that a fiber all the way to the customer?
Schley: Okay. Is that inevitably the direction our networks in this country are going to go in?
Elder: I don’t think it has to. If it’s a new build, by definition that’s what our greenfield is, it is economic and makes sense to use fiber the whole route now because of the way the prices have come down with the electronics and the fiber itself. For our existing legacy network it is HFC and we’re on the path to DOCSIS 4.0. Our network is all DOCSIS 3.1 which are speeds upload and download that really take care of anything a customer might want to do right now and we can continue to enhance those speeds and so that makes more sense for those markets. So we have a mix and I think that will be the case.
Schley: And you mentioned gaming and I know there are — engineers are addressing this issue of latency. You know, if you want to beat the kid who’s playing you from New York City you’ve got to be able to ping pretty fast. Are you working on that as an aspect of sort of again your bag of tricks?
Elder: We always are looking at things like that. We haven’t launched anything with low latency yet for those games —
Schley: I don’t know how you advertise it or make it — make customers aware that —
Elder: Gamers have ways of knowing.
Schley: They know.
Elder: Yeah, we know how to find them and talk to them as well.
Schley: You’ve talked about some people who were influential in your career. One thing that I think is remarkable about your career is you have zigged and zagged. You’ve pivoted a bit. In terms of guidance or advice for young people coming into the workforce is that a risky thing to do? Is that an opportunistic thing to do? What was your attitude about moving about a little bit?
Elder: Right. I think it’s highly risky, honestly. I don’t know if I would recommend it. It’s not for the faint of heart. I would leave — I’ve left a couple of key roles because of my work, the nonprofit work and cystic fibrosis, at various times and because I felt like that was a better use of my time and then I’ve been so fortunate to have great friends, networks, and connections to be able to dive back in and dive back in in some pretty wonderful jobs.
Schley: It’s been interesting to hear you talk about some names that I recognize and you said it is a small industry. Well, in some ways it sort of is, right? The telecommunications business?
Elder: It feels like it.
Schley: Talk about — you’ve been active in the Women in Communications and WICT organization. Early in your career there’s a very male-dominated industry. It’s still tilted toward male at the executive ranks. How have you navigated just some of the issues around leadership and getting noticed and being seen as a candidate to be a CEO as a woman?
Elder: I think I’ve been very fortunate to have just incredible mentors as well as role models. So men and women. Men who saw promise in me and gave me exposure to be able to be in the right meetings, to be able to observe what does a senior executive team do, and how do executives operate, just being a fly on the wall in some of those meetings. Being able to be a fly on the wall in some board meetings and tough negotiations between companies. So those things certainly prepared me for okay, this is what it looks like and gosh, they seem like kind of normal people, maybe it’s not that scary. But then also women who have gone ahead of me that have shown me that this is what women do. And I mentioned Jan Peters. Certainly, Colleen Abdoulah and others. Even with that though I have been the first a couple of times to be the sole woman. I was the only female CEO of any Vodafone company worldwide and so that was interesting. But I have a husband and two sons. I like working around guys, I guess, too, so both.
Schley: This is the point where we need to give some props to your husband who has been kind of instrumental in this whole journey, right?
Elder: He really has been. I married him when I was still in college and we’ve been married over 40 years. He’s a lawyer and when my son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis we were — my son was eight years old, we’d been married for quite a few years. He was a partner in a law firm. I was on my way in my career. But we made the difficult decision that we needed to follow one career or the other because we knew how difficult this illness was. It had hospitalizations and medical visits and treatments every day and part of the reason we made the decision was that I was working for a big company that had way better medical insurance. This was before — back when there were lifetime limits on what you could get from insurance.
Schley: Gosh, that’s right.
Elder: So it was pretty scary in many ways and so we went with my career. And he has been so supportive and moved so many times and also done so much work for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, for our kids’ schools, so many things.
Schley: Talking about career, is there any guidance or advice you would give to a young person who’s interested in this field of broadly speaking telecommunications? What do you have to be good at and what do you have to pay attention to?
Elder: Oh, I would definitely recommend it because it just offers so many interesting problems to solve and challenges. And one of the things I love about this industry is that it’s ever changing so that you’re not going to get bored. There’s always new technology, new competition, new regulations, new customer groups, new applications. It’s just such an exciting place to be and you don’t have to spend your whole career in one spot. It’s a great jumping off place. It’s about leading people. The people that you meet are passionate about customers, listen to data, all those things that are so important to me. You have the ability to have jobs that are meaty where you can show results and really show what you can do. You can take this metric from here to here because of strategies you’ve implemented.
Schley: It really dovetails. There’s a big theme at the Cable Center around intrapreneurship which is sort of the ability to be creative and to be entrepreneurial within the context of an organization. It sounds like that’s sort of what you’re alluding to with the cable and broadband business.
Elder: I think that’s right on and WOW! is definitely a big fan and user of the Intrapreneurship Academy here at the Cable Center. So we’ve had a number of people go through and you’re exactly right. We try to select people who are up and comers, who have creative ideas and maybe just need to bounce ideas off of others and learn some skills on how to really implement those things. When they come from their graduation, myself and the other executives meet with them and hear about their projects and really celebrate them.
Schley: One career opening that I’ve observed for cable is we used to not be such a software-oriented business. I remember when it was unusual to have people who coded. Now I mean you have the biggest company in this industry has an entire building devoted basically to people who code software. But that transition from analog to digital sometimes gets lost in the history of cable. It was a pretty big chasm to leap back in the day.
Elder: Oh, absolutely.
Schley: When we went to digital television and then obviously to high-speed broadband. Teresa, any parting thoughts, reflections about this wild ride that you’ve had and kind of what you’ve taken away from it in terms of leadership, I guess?
Elder: I just feel so lucky and honored to get to be part of this industry. I believe these last let’s say 30 years have been historic as we’ve built a new infrastructure not just for the US but really across the world and I see more coming together with broadband and mobile. And what we’ve been able to do to really impact people’s lives has been phenomenal. Providing them that connection to other people wherever they are and in ways we never imagined back when this all started so many years ago.
Schley: Never. And I think to have a front row seat has been —
Elder: It’s been great.
Schley: Yeah, pretty amazing. Thank you so much for sharing some of your history and your observations about the future too. Greatly appreciated. Thank you for joining us for the Cable Center and the Hauser Oral History Series with Teresa Elder. I’m Stewart Schley.
END OF INTERVIEW