Interview Date: Tuesday July 30, 2019
Interview Location: Chicago, Ill USA
Interviewer: Lela Cocoros
Collection: Cable Center Hauser Oral History Project
Note: Audio Only
LELA COCOROS: Hello, I’m Lela Cocoros for the Cable Center. It’s July 30, 2019, and we are in Chicago at the Independent Show. This the Oral History of John Gdovin. He is the EVP Chief Administrative Office of RCN, Grande, Wave, Patriot Media. He is also a Board Member of ACA Connects. And this oral history is part of the Hauser Oral History Program. So, John, welcome.
JOHN GDOVIN: Thank you. Good to be here.
COCOROS: Yeah, looking forward to hearing your story. Okay, so, let’s just start with maybe your early years, where you were born, and what your educational background is, and where you grew up, that type of thing.
GDOVIN: Sure. I was born in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. And went to grade school at Catholic school in Wilkes Barre, and then Catholic high school, Bishop Hoban. And after graduation I had planned to become a pharmacist. (laughs) And so, I went to Kings College, which is also in Wilkes Barre, in a pre-pharmacy or pre-med kind of program. And my first semester I decided I didn’t really like chemistry and biology. I’d rather math and economics. So, I switched by major to math and economics. And did well, graduated in four years with a degree in math and economics. And I was going to go to graduate school to study econometrics, applied to a couple places. But in the meantime, my dad was a banker, and he introduced this program at the local telephone company, Commonwealth Telephone, which helped employees with banking needs, got loans, this was back in the late ’70s. So, he was aware of like an entry level management position at the phone company. And it was in the same city so I wouldn’t have to move. And back then if you got a job at the phone company in 50 years you got your gold watch and you retired. (laughter) So, I interviewed for the job, and got in the job as a management trainee kind of position.
COCOROS: And was that at — what company was that?
GDOVIN: Commonwealth Telephone. It didn’t pay a lot because it was an entry level position. Actually, it paid less than I was making when I was working at the drug store. But it was a career path move. And I was working at the phone company for about a year, and Commonwealth Telephone decided to diversify and get into the cable business. And that was exciting for me because I love cable TV. We had cable TV installed in our home when I was a teenager, early teens. Actually, not even a teenager, I think I was like 9 or 10. And I just found that very exciting and entertaining. So, I volunteered for all the work I could in the startup cable business. And that grew into Commonwealth Cable Systems, and they became part of C-TEC, the phone company diversified and became telephone, cable, and cellular company. And so, I did a lot of work with the startup of the cable business, and the mobile business, the cellular business.
COCOROS: Wow, so you’ve really been in the cable business pretty much since you’ve graduated from college. So, it’s kind of like a full life career.
COCOROS: And I can relate to that because I did the same thing, only took a different path. I started out right out of college as well. So, give me a little bit of history of C-TEC and RCN, and just kind of how those companies started to move into the broader company that it is today.
GDOVIN: Sure. Well, the early days of starting the cable business was doing a lot of franchising. So, I think there were only three or four of us that worked in the cable division of the phone company at that point. So, we were out doing a lot of franchising. We ended up in all parts of the country, and in Puerto Rico as well, with applications in. And at some point, the board looked at all the places where we had applied and figured out that they didn’t have enough capital to build all of these systems. So, we narrowed the focus down to franchises in New Jersey and New York. We were successful at putting together 31 franchises in Central New Jersey, Somerset County primarily. And 10 franchises in Putnam County, New York. And that became our company. We built it out. Did a lot of new build construction, and fresh marketing, and people were excited to get cable. We were delivering all these new channels.
COCOROS: The truck chasers I called them.
GDOVIN: Exactly. It was a lot of fun, and exciting. But it was challenging too because it was a startup business, and so we were, you know, we had to make our numbers, and reach our goals, and develop the business. So, we added people along the way. My primary role there was doing franchising early on, but also picking up, they called it budgets and results analysis. That was my title. Which kind of took care of everything. I did the budgets, and reviewed the financials, not as accountant, but I analyzed what the numbers were saying. And then started negotiating with programmers, oversaw a lot of our corporate HR functions, and then was part of the team that looked at strategic planning and forecasting out to the future. We built these franchises out, and then in ’89 we looked at our customer service facilities in the markets and decided that we would consolidate our call center. The telephone company had just completed a consolidation project. They pooled all their customer service functions into one place, which wasn’t done at that time. And they called it a consolidated call center. So, that was my project. I was assigned to create the call center in Wilkes Barre, right outside of Wilkes Barre in Dallas, Pennsylvania. I hired 40 brand new people. You couldn’t find a lot of people who had cable experience, but you could find people who had customer service experience. So, I was able to hire a veteran call center manager from the phone company. She was willing to come over and join us. And several supervisors. And then a team of 40 people that we trained, taught them the cable business, trained them to take calls. And in March of 1990 we opened the call center and took our first call, which was very exciting and challenging.
COCOROS: That’s a big deal.
GDOVIN: Yeah. And we operated, continued to grow. And in the early ’90s the phone company Commonwealth Telephone was a public company, but one family owned the majority shares. So, kind of controlled the board and so forth. And they decided to exit the business and sell their shares to another party, which became RCN. Peter Kiewit was the investor, David McCourt was the CEO. And they came in and decided that we were going to be over-builders. So, that’s how we got in the over-build business. That was in the early ’90s. In ’94 they moved our headquarters from Wilkes Barre to Princeton, New Jersey, where we had a cable franchise. We moved my family, and many others.
COCOROS: Many other families, yes.
GDOVIN: I don’t know if it was 100, but it was a good number.
COCOROS: How was it to go from being the incumbent basically to an over-builder?
GDOVIN: It was interesting. (laughter)
COCOROS: I have no doubt.
GDOVIN: I remember calling, because I was doing programming agreements, so I was calling programmers and saying hey, we got a new system, we’re going to launch in a couple months, we need to do a deal, and add that to our contracts. And they would say where? And I would say where it was, and they’d say well, there’s already an operator there, what you mean? And I’d say yeah, we’re going to be the second one. I received different responses depending on who I was talking to. Some were very reluctant to —
COCOROS: To play with you.
GDOVIN: Right. And others were fine. But those who had connections with incumbents were — or had exclusive arrangements with incumbents or whatever. They knew it was going to be a rough road in their dealings with the other parties. Yeah, it wasn’t my choice to become an over-builder, but I was acquired and brought into it, so I embraced it, and rolled with it.
COCOROS: Well, it gives you a chance I think to really be more competitive. It forces you to be more in that mindset, right?
GDOVIN: Yeah, it does. But at that time over-builders were like — I’m putting my fingers together crossed here. But some people didn’t want to talk to you, you were like outsiders to the industry, some associations you weren’t invited to go to. You felt like you were in cable business.
GDOVIN: You were outcasts, right. (laughter) It felt like you were in the cable — you know you were in the cable business, but you felt like you weren’t part of the family anymore.
COCOROS: Or you were the black sheep of the family, whatever.
GDOVIN: Right. But we were both because we still had traditional franchised communities, we were incumbents in New Jersey and New York. In 1995 we acquired an over-build situation in Pennsylvania in Lehigh Valley, where there were two operators, Service Electric, and Twin County Cable. So, we thought that acquiring Twin County would give us the experience of competing against another cable operator, and learn from that, and bring some talented people into the company that had been doing it for a while. So, that was like a first taste into being competitive. And in that market, all of the — generally all the franchises were competitive. That anybody that was one of our customers tomorrow can call the other company and change over and become cable — have the same services from them. So, you had to distinguish yourself and become unique, either with local programming, or the way you provided service, you had to distinguish yourself as the choice for the customers in the market.
COCOROS: Why should I take your service versus the other one.
GDOVIN: Right, exactly. And sharpens your customer service skills.
COCOROS: And marketing too.
GDOVIN: Yeah. Exactly, yep. That was a big thing. So, we acquired that system in ’95, which kind of pushed us into the competitive business. And where we were over-building were not little towns, say we’re New York City, Boston —
COCOROS: Right, I remember that.
GDOVIN: — D.C.
GDOVIN: Chicago. Chicago came later in about 2000. But in the mid-’90s, late-’90s, we entered those markets. Boston, we built the systems. In New York we acquired a company called Liberty, which was a competitive provider, provided service in buildings by microwave hops. And had several thousand customers through that operation. And it was run by the Millstein family. So, we acquired them. In D.C. we started building — getting — they weren’t franchises, but they were similar setups through the FCC to a franchise. And in those two markets, Boston, and D.C., we partnered with the power company to accelerate our build-out.
COCOROS: Great. Well, that’s quite a story. (laughter) So, you were basically in the cable business, and in the over-build business simultaneously.
GDOVIN: At the same time, right. Yep.
COCOROS: So, that’s quite a challenge. Then in the late ’90s then you went over to Wide Open West, is that right?
GDOVIN: Yeah. As I said, the company was acquired, RCN was acquired by the Kiewit company, transferred us to Princeton. So, I moved my family to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Stayed in Pennsylvania, but 20 miles south of Princeton. That was in ’94, so worked there for five years building these new competitive systems in the big cities. And one of the partners, or friends, a friend of mine that I worked with very closely, Mark Haverkate, came to me in 1999, and said that he was thinking of leaving. It was kind of shocking, I’d been working with him for 20 years. I said, oh. So he’s telling me the story, and I’m like sorry to hear that, I’m going to miss working with you, and good luck with everything. He said I’m going to start a new company that does competitive, a triple play provider, but we’re going to go in different markets than RCN is in. And we’ll do things I think better, and be more successful. I said good luck, and he said I was hoping you’d join me. I said, oh, well that changes the story a little. He said, yeah, I’m going to move to Denver, and we’re going to bring some people with us, and hire some other people, some people I know outside the business, and here that started at C-TEC with us. And I said well, I moved to — I had four kids, this was ’99 so my kids were under 15 years, four kids under 15. I think they were between 7 and 15. I thought our whole family is here in Pennsylvania, it’s probably not going — and I had a good job, I had no reason to want to leave. I was EVP of the cable division. So, I had all of the traditional incumbent operations, the New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. And we acquired Centel’s Michigan properties.
COCOROS: You were expanding into other markets.
GDOVIN: Right. So, I think we had just under 400,000 traditional cable subs. I was EVP of that division, so it was —
COCOROS: Pretty nice.
GDOVIN: Pretty good, yeah. I didn’t really, I wasn’t really looking to leave. But Mark talked to me about it, and then the move to Denver I thought that’s probably not going to work out for us. I went home that night and spoke to my wife and about it. And she asked are you crazy? Move to Denver, why would we do that? I said, yeah, I thought that. I was just confirming everything. It’s what I thought too. I went back to Mark and said, good luck, I’d love to join you, but we can’t move to Denver. About a week later he came back and said John, I’ve got another idea. I said, what’s that. He said I think maybe we should have two offices, one in Denver, and one in Newtown, Pennsylvania, which is where I live. (laughter) That changed everything around. And there were about 8 or 10 other people that would join him, but who didn’t want to move to Denver. And so, we set up a second office in Pennsylvania by our house. It was basically our back office, finance, HR, programming, marketing division was in that office.
COCOROS: Was in the Pennsylvania office.
GDOVIN: And then Mark, and our CTO, and some other people moved to Denver and started Wide Open West. That was part of the initial team that started Wide Open West. We had I think about 12 people in the office in Pennsylvania.
COCOROS: How long were you there?
GDOVIN: Until ’02. And then Steve Simmons announced that he was buying the New Jersey properties that I was franchising. It was a big — there was a big auction on it. It was a process that I think there were 10 or 12 companies looking to buy it. He was successful. And I saw that, and I knew that they were the systems that I knew very well.
COCOROS: You’ve come full circle.
GDOVIN: Right, exactly, full circle. And then even later on the story that’s even more prominent. I talked to Steve and he wanted me to join him right away. He only had a CFO at that point, so he was looking for a general manager, a president. And needed someone to get going on finding an office, and setting up a call center, and doing all those things. He was buying this system, but he didn’t have a call center.
COCOROS: He didn’t have the infrastructure.
GDOVIN: He didn’t have the infrastructure, didn’t have a call center, didn’t have a team, a corporate team other than the CFO. I talked to him, I joined him before we closed, we closed in February of ’03. I joined him in September. We drove around a lot, looked for office facilities, found an office. At the same time Steve was interviewing for the president’s position, which he hired Jim Holanda. Jim started in December, and we had a few other people. I recruited a call center manager. And we hit the ground running in February of 2003.
COCOROS: And so, from there you’ve basically acquired — you’ve built and acquired more and more systems, and eventually your company is now Grande, and Wave, and RCN, and you are overseeing what is essentially one of the top 10 MSOs collectively.
GDOVIN: Right. Actually, it’s sixth. Sixth largest.
COCOROS: Wow. So, how many subs is that?
GDOVIN: We’re close to a million customers. Just under. And we’ll hit a million customers very soon.
COCOROS: You have these three brands basically out there.
GDOVIN: I was going to say, so Patriot, Steve acquired the system in New Jersey, and we tried to acquire other things, but we always came in second place unfortunately. Or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, because I think we’ve been pretty successful. We ran the New Jersey system, and launched a high-speed data there. They had a one-way data system. We invested in —
COCOROS: Upgraded it.
GDOVIN: Upgraded it. And rolled out more channels, high speed data, and telephone, it really was a great success. And then in ’07 the board decided to sell to Comcast. So, we sold Patriot Media to Comcast, the Central New Jersey piece. And then we were trying to find other things to buy. The board wanted to keep the team together because of the great success we had with Patriot Media. And we found this system in Puerto Rico that we were able to acquire called Choice Cable. There were three operators there then on the island, Liberty, and Choice, and third one, San Juan. Liberty bought the San Juan piece, and then there were two, it was us and Liberty. We ended up selling to Liberty in 2015. But while we had Choice, we acquired and ran Choice from 2008, and did the same thing. We upgraded the system, introduced a service plan to provide good service to customers. Jim Holanda, our CEO, has a mission statement that he brought to the company that’s very successful. You follow the mission statement and you’re going to have success. Which is take care of the customer, take care of each other, do what you say you’re going to do, and have fun.
COCOROS: Sounds like a very good mission statement.
GDOVIN: Right. And it’s been very successful for us.
COCOROS: It’s a formula for success.
GDOVIN: Exactly. Introduced that at Choice Cable, we were very successful at growing cash flow for all the years that we were there. But then 2010 we were looking to grow, we had Choice. In 2010 RCN, the whole company became available, was for sale, was going through a process. So, we looked at acquiring the whole company. And actually did. And so, in August of 2010 we acquired RCN, and now we got a lot bigger. So, after we acquired RCN in 2010, then we were about to bring Grande into the group in 2013, and then last year we were able to bring Wave on board, into our group. That got us to be the sixth largest cable operator in the country, and now we have territory on the East Coast, West Coast, North, and South, so it kind of completed the whole country for us. And part of that, we added another member on our team, Patrick Knorr, who was with Wave, and now Patrick oversees all of our commercial business for the whole company, all three companies, all three brands.
COCOROS: This year you’re the Cablefax Top Ops Evolution Award winner.
COCOROS: Congratulations on that.
GDOVIN: Thank you.
COCOROS: Why don’t you talk a little bit about your role now with running the company as it is today? And as a board member of ACA Connects, what are your biggest issues facing your company and the industry?
GDOVIN: Well, my role is Chief Administrative Officer. And we have a wonderful team. Jim and Steve put together a great crew. We work well together. Our CTO is Pat Murphy, he’s been with us since the early days of Patriot. And Rob Rader is Chief Development Officer. They handle the technical side, new launches and so on. Chris Finger joined us as COO. We have a CFO that joined us when we acquired RCN, John Feehan. And General Counsel Jeff Kramp, who joined us after RCN, we didn’t have an inside counsel before, because we weren’t big enough.
COCOROS: Now you are.
GDOVIN: Now we are, right. We all have our various duties and responsibilities. Mine is as Chief Administrative Officer primarily is negotiating programming agreements, which takes a lot of my time. But I also oversee the human resources for the company, and regulatory. And back in ’06 we joined the ACA and had a board seat. And I’ve been on the board for over a decade now.
COCOROS: So, who are the people in the industry who’ve influenced you the most?
GDOVIN: Well, I’d have to say that the last 17 years with Steve and Jim have been the greatest working environment that I’ve ever been in. Actually June of this year was my fortieth year in the business, I graduated in 1979, and as I mentioned, joined Commonwealth Telephone. But Steve and Jim, Steve Simmons, and Jim Holanda, Chairman and CEO, have worked, as I’ve said, for 17 years now. We’ve had a tremendous amount of success, and I feel we’ve done it the right way. It’s really the best management team that I’ve been with during my career. They’ve created a very favorable work environment for our team to really focus on employee morale. Which is the mission statement that I mentioned before, take care of the customer, take care of each other, do what you say you’re going to do, and have fun. Prior to Patriot, to these 17 years, Mark Haverkate, who I mentioned began Wide Open West, who was my partner, and a good friend of mine, I still keep in touch with him. And he was a true visionary. And I had the pleasure of working with Mark for over 20 years, from the early days of C-TEC until I joined Steve and Jim at Patriot. And then earlier in my career, Mike Mahoney was the first president of RCN, and he was the head of our MSO at C-TEC in the early days.
COCOROS: Great. And what are you the most proud of in your career as it stands today?
GDOVIN: Well, it’s been a wonderful 40-year career, as I mentioned. Tremendous amount of success stories throughout that time, as you can imagine over 40 years, there’s a lot to look back on. And during that time I received several personal team and company awards, and trophies, and all of those things that you’re proud of, and enjoy the recognition. But I’ve especially enjoyed the ride for the last 17 years with Steve and Jim. During that time we really seen the transition of the business from video to data, and high speed. I’ve really only been with three teams, or companies during that 40 years, and that seems amazing.
COCOROS: That is amazing.
GDOVIN: We’ve been very stable. In the industry people move from place to place, states to states, and companies to companies. But I have been fortunate to have been only with three teams, and only one move for my family. As I mentioned before, I joined with Mark, and was part of the team that founded Wide Open West, which is now WOW. And that came after a 20- year career at C-TEC in the early days, and RCN startup days. It’s enabled me to balance these 40 years with cable, and stable home as well. With only one move. And that was only two hours south. My wife, Barbara and I, we’ve been married for 37 years now, and we have four children, three grandchildren.
GDOVIN: But it’s been fortunate to be able to go to work, and they have a stable home.
COCOROS: So, they’ve been in the same community basically for a long time.
COCOROS: That’s nice.
GDOVIN: Yeah. When we moved my oldest son was nine, and youngest was one. The youngest doesn’t even remember not living where we live now.
COCOROS: Being in the cable industry that’s pretty amazing.
GDOVIN: When I tell people that, or people meet my wife they say it’s amazing, because everybody moves. They’ve lived in the North, or the West Coast, or the East Coast, but we’ve been fortunate to be able to stay there. And the other thing that is important to me, and that I’m very happy about, is that I’ve been with startups for most of those careers. Small companies, the startup of C-TEC Cable in the early 1980s, which became a startup with RCN, as one of the first competitive providers in the industry in the ’90s. And then Wide Open West, which is now WOW, is a startup. Then when Steve bought the system to start Patriot Media, it was a startup again, and it’s been very satisfying. I really enjoy startup business cause it’s exciting, and very satisfying.
COCOROS: To get a chance to build from the ground floor up, basically.
COCOROS: That’s great.
GDOVIN: You mentioned ACA Connects. My work with the team there has been very rewarding, and enjoyable. I’ve been a board member for over a decade, as I mentioned. And spending time with Matt Polka, and Rob Shema, Ross Lieberman, as well as the other staff and board members, has really been a highlight for me. And also met a lot of good people along the way, fellow employees, association staff members, vendors, programmers, other industry contacts. Many of them are still good friends today. And part of my responsibilities, as I mentioned, is the HR group, where I’ve been able to influence our benefit plans and keep us competitive against others looking for work. Enables us to find and keep good people with our benefit plans. As I mentioned, I do the programming agreements, so much of that is — you know, they’re difficult deals to make with the programmers. But I feel that we’ve always been successful with favorable outcomes for our company. And yet I feel that they were very professionally completed, and final terms were good deals for both sides, which I think is important.
COCOROS: Yes. So what’s the big story of the cable industry that must be told?
GDOVIN: I think the cable industry is made up with a lot of good people that are very talented, entrepreneurial, and a strong work ethic. And willing to do what it takes to succeed. Many are in family cable businesses and have carried that forward from generation to generation. The industry as a whole has been able to overcome many challenges along the way over the years from the very beginning. Interesting to see members of the Cable Hall of Fame and hear their stories, and also see the exhibits in the Cable Center in Denver. It’s a trip down memory lane that really shows the industry from the beginning to now. And, for me, I’ve been fortunate to be part of the industry for the rise from the very beginning over the 40 years, and to see the development of the business of just building cable into all the cities to where it is today. And the transition from the video to the data business. Along the way the industry has had a lot of challenges from pole attachments, telcos, regulators, broadcasters, and each time the industry has just been able to overcome all those challenges and hurdles and succeed. And it’s been a great ride for me.
COCOROS: What impact, you know, from a legacy standpoint, has the cable industry had on society as a whole?
GDOVIN: I think the biggest impact is connecting people. In the early days, of course cable was invented to deliver TV signals to areas that couldn’t receive a signal. So, they were connecting people that were out of the range of antennas and television signals to communicate, or get information to them, and entertainment. Since then I think it’s been a vehicle to connect people all over the country and the world. The 1980s were exciting connecting new homes into the system, and the network. And delivering that new experience to homeowners with all the excitement of sports, news, entertainment, that cable was able to deliver. I remember seeing the high penetration rates coming in on a street by street basis, and town by town basis, and it was really a lot of fun. People were excited to get cable TV and experience in their house. Since then, of course, the development of high-speed data has just surpassed the entertainment value that cable provided. And it allows people to communicate with each other over the internet, and it’s been basically a success story in connecting people and enabling advanced communications.
COCOROS: That leads me to ask you what you think is the future of the industry, what does the future hold?
GDOVIN: I think it’s very bright. There’s nothing that beats the wire into the house, in my opinion. So, the industry is able to combine the technology with these talented people and be successful well into the future. And I’m very happy to be part of it.
COCOROS: Well, thank you very much for your oral history. And for joining us today. You’re very busy being one of the board members, and running around the show, so we appreciate your time.
GDOVIN: Thank you very much.
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