Interview Date: 1999
Collection: WICT 20th Anniversary Collection Project
HARMS: My name is Beverly Harms, B-e-v-e-r-l-y H-a-r-m-s. I’m Senior Vice President of Managed Investments at Communications Equity Associates in Tampa, Florida.
INTERVIEWER: How did you initially become involved in the cable business?
HARMS: I came out of broadcasting. I started out with NBC in television in their Programming Department in an owned and operated television station in Buffalo, New York. That’s where I met my husband and we decided that we wanted to set out on our own. So we began buying small radio stations and we wound up owning a radio station in the suburbs of Syracuse, New York. And after we had built, we bought that station, added an FM facility to it, and then bought and ran a broadcast facility in New Hampshire. And we became a little bored and everyone was talking about community antenna television, and we decided to begin franchising in the northern suburbs of Syracuse. We picked up four franchises in small communities, outlying communities north of Syracuse, and were going to build a twelve channel cable system when the FCC put a freeze on cable, and we sat there with the franchises for about six or seven years, about six years. And the FCC finally released, broke the freeze, and where we initially were going to have to build a twelve channel system, we then had to build a thirty channel system which involved significantly more money. So we felt when we steered the franchises that it was an extension of what we were already doing, that it was broadcasting. When we finally got into the business, we realized it was nothing like broadcasting. It was, funny to say now, like running a telephone company. I’ll never forget one of my first experiences; we were heroes in this small town. We were little broadcasters in a little community north of Syracuse, and everyone knew us and we were wonderful. We did all this community service and after we began building the cable system and we had turned on. I’ll never forget the first time somebody was at our front door angry because their service wasn’t working. It was a major, major change for us, but that’s how I got into the business and it was a long time ago and it was certainly, as Ted Turner used to say, before cable was cool.
INTERVIEWER: What was the most striking aspect of the industry when you entered it? You said it was very different from broadcasting.
HARMS: Broadcasting was a pretty sophisticated industry; cable was a very unsophisticated industry. It was primarily appliance people, engineers, technical people. The early conventions were about stringing cable. I came out of an industry that was all about creativity so it was much different than what we had expected it to be and quite a challenge. It was also the real women industry. I was probably, for me it was not as difficult I don’t think because when you franchise and build a system as we did, I wasn’t trying to work my way up through the ranks. When they got to me, there was nobody else to ask. So I was in a position of making a lot of decisions, I never felt inhibited in any way. There may have been some resistance on the part of some of the suppliers dealing with a woman, but there was nowhere else to go. If they wanted to sell equipment, they had to talk to me. So I really wasn’t sensitized to a lot of the restrictions or even then a very low glass ceiling for women.
INTERVIEWER: What do you think contributed to the success of your franchise in the early years? I mean what personal elements did you bring to the business to help it succeed?
HARMS: Well, I think we were successful in building the franchise because we really weren’t restricted in any way by any preconceived notions. Initially as I said, we thought it was just an extension of broadcasting so we brought many of the elements that we had incorporated into our little community radio station to our cable system. We did a lot of school board meetings and town broad meetings and we attempted to run it not unlike the radio station so we were in a learning process. Nobody really said what cable television was all about. For us, stringing wire was the mechanical side; we were really quite interested in the creative side of the business. As I said, it wasn’t until some people started driving up in our driveway and yelling at us because cable had been out for three or four hours in those early days, and we realized that there were elements of the industry that were more important to people. They cared more about watching their local television station than they did about watching the local town board meeting. So we had to switch our focus a little bit but nevertheless, we never lost that. We always felt that we needed to be a very important element in our community.
INTERVIEWER: Was customer service one of the greatest challenges for you in running your franchise?
HARMS: Customer service has always been a challenge. Customer service was a challenge from the first day you added a customer to your subscriber list. People are demanding. They felt that they were paying for a service that was new to them and they had a certain expectation. They turned on the television set before they had cable and they watched the local television stations. This was different and they were now paying for it and they expected something for it. The waiting time has always been a problem, how long you keep a subscriber on the line, helping them to understand their bill was always a problem. I mean the challenge has never gone away. We’ve finally reached a point I believe in the industry where customer service has been addressed as a very important element of our business. Unfortunately, I don’t think the cable business is any different than any other business. I think going to the department store today and you find that customer service is truly lacking, there seems to be a total disregard for the customer. As the cable industry has become more and more focused on the importance of the customer, it seems like the rest of the world has become less and less concerned about it.
INTERVIEWER: What would you say is your greatest professional accomplishment?
HARMS: To ask about a professional… I thought about that question when I saw the list. My greatest professional accomplishment I guess is becoming successful in a business that I have enjoyed, that I very much enjoy, and has allowed me to become independently self sufficient, and I consider that an accomplishment for myself and a goal for every woman.
INTERVIEWER: Would you have any advice for young women or young men entering the industry today?
HARMS: I do have and we’ll get into it, but I do and it relates quite directly to the question, do I have any advice for young people getting into the industry, and I’d kind of like to wait till we get to that question.
INTERVIEWER: Alright. Some women have said that it was easier for them to enter the cable industry during its formative years. Would you agree with this assessment?
HARMS: I believe it was easier for women like myself who entered the industry in an ownership capacity. It was easier to enter the cable industry, telecommunications industry at that time. I believe today it’s easier for a woman to enter the industry. I just think there are unlimited opportunities for women in the industry today.
INTERVIEWER: Well, obviously there have been many changes in the business lately, you know this obviously. Do you have any predictions for the future where cable and telecommunications may be going in the next few years?
HARMS: I do think that there is no such thing as a pure play in the industry any more. As far as where I think the telecommunications and the cable industry are going, they are becoming an integrated component of a much larger business, totally integrated business. At the risk again of moving into some of the things I do, it’s one of the reasons why I think it’s so incredibly positive for women in the industry. Women by virtue of how they think are used to operating their life on a multi-platform basis. They get Jimmy to the soccer game and they get the baby to preschool and they figure out what they’re going to have for dinner and they figure out what they’re going to do on Saturday night and they work on a project, they’re used to integrating their lives and keeping a lot of moving pieces moving together. The industries today are becoming multi-platform playing fields, and there are a lot of moving pieces that have to move together. You can’t just focus and you hear that so often when you hear focus on a particular part of the project and complete that and then worry about the next thing. Women are more inclined to focus on a lot of things because they’re used to making a lot of things work together for them so the industry has become that. It’s become an industry of lots of pieces that have to all work together, and you have to focus on all of them and make them work together and as I said, women are used to thinking that way. It’s a wonderful time for women in this industry.
INTERVIEWER: Could we talk about what you’re doing now? Could you talk a little bit about your job?
HARMS: Sure. My interest in the cable business after I left an ownership role has still always remained on the equity side of the business. When we sold our radio stations and our cable systems, I went to work for Communications Equity Associates and I was president of a cable group that we put together. I moved to Florida and we put together a cable system, bought some cable systems in the suburbs of Tampa, Florida, which ultimately was sold to TCI and I was president of that group but once we sold the group to TCI, I came back in house and I began, the group that I worked with was called Managed Investments. I now am the Senior Vice President of that group and what we do, we look for opportunities in media and communications either early stage start up or early stage entrepreneurial ventures, and we finance them through a small group of what we might call friends and family. The role that we, it’s difficult, the group that I’m involved with, our company originally started out as a cable brokerage firm, now it’s no longer a cable brokerage firm, it’s a cable brokerage firm but we do broadcast. We have offices all over the world. We also have been involved in putting together a series of funds for investment in various regions of the world but also in the United States. We have a fund called, we have a CEA domestic fund, my group Managed Investments, incubates small entrepreneurial companies who then perhaps might get pushed up to our domestic fund for second stage financing or might go off to a venture capital group and be financed. We finance up to say a million dollars, start ups, new people wanting to get into the industry with great concepts. We look for strong management teams and we support them and back them, and we bring the resources of our company to help them start a new business.
INTERVIEWER: How did you initially become involved in Women in Cable and Telecommunications?
HARMS: I believe I got involved with WICT… I think it was Gail Sermersheim who called and asked me to run for the national board. I was living in Tampa, there was no local chapter, and it was really my first awareness of the organization and I think that that’s how I first came in.
INTERVIEWER: Well, I read some of your columns from the ’80s and you talked a lot about career and identity.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think the issues of career and identity have changed in the last five or so years for women?
HARMS: The column that I wrote during my presidency had to do with women’s self awareness, and the ability or the comfort women had in standing up and being who she was without a business card, women who knew that she had enough self esteem, self confidence that even without a job, she could tell you who she was and what she was all about. I think today that most women are that way. I think when I wrote that column, that wasn’t necessarily true. Women felt pretty invisible and their identity was wrapped up in their business card. Today I think women know who they are, and they work very hard at not just being their business card. I think there’s something else too that’s interesting to me. People say, oh, balance your life. You have to integrate all these things and there should be a certain amount of fun in your life, I don’t always do what I preach. I found that a lot of the fun in my life is what I do and I enjoy what I do with my company. It gives me a lot of satisfaction so part of my recreation is what I do, and I think for a lot of people that’s true. A lot of people say, relax, think about retirement, enjoy life, well, enjoying life wouldn’t be going to the drugstore at 10:00 every morning, driving home and trying to figure out what you’re going to do with the rest of your day, or just the primary part of a lot of people’s lives is what they do and it is their work and their pleasure, and I guess personally I don’t see anything wrong with that unless it conflicts with your family, unless you totally dismiss your family in that kind of a relationship.
INTERVIEWER: Do you think that parity between men and women has been achieved within the industry?
HARMS: I don’t parity has been achieved between men and women, but I think it’s getting there, I truly believe it’s a matter of time. It’s just what’s happening and I believe that this is the year of the woman. We see high profile women running for political office, we see the amount of admiration for, recognition on the part of men on women’s accomplishments, an acknowledgement of their success. What was the headline in the paper the other day about she plays like a girl when they were talking about the soccer team. This is a wonderful time for women in business, a wonderful time for women. I think the interesting thing is going to be how women handle this period when I believe a lot of the obstacles have been taken away and they have reached a perch from which they can truly fly. Do they really want to fly or where do they really want to fly?
INTERVIEWER: Do you think women entering the business have changed the shape of the industry?
HARMS: I don’t think the women entering the cable business have changed the industry any more than entering any of the other businesses have changed those businesses.
INTERVIEWER: Well, I know you said before that your experience was different because you were an entrepreneur really yourself so you didn’t feel there was ever a glass ceiling preventing you from achieving success. Do you think in general there was ever a glass ceiling for you?
HARMS: Yes, I do think there was a glass ceiling. When I stopped being an entrepreneur, I was fortunate enough to come into a company that was very organic and I was allowed to perform at my own level there, but I saw women come into the company and we worked very hard internally to break down the barriers for women within our own company but there definitely were. It seemed for the most part that the only way women could, well, not the only way, but very often the best way for a woman to advance was to leave her current employer and go somewhere else and move up. It was very difficult I think for a lot of women to move up within their own organization. I think that still exists to a certain degree except I believe that women have become so much more confident in their own abilities where they now stand up for themselves, and they stand up for what they believe they deserve in terms of compensation and in terms of responsibility where I don’t think they were quite as comfortable doing that a few years ago.
INTERVIEWER: Maybe back to the WICT questions. Do you remember your presidency? Was there any memorable event in your presidential year?
HARMS: I would have to say that the most memorable event of my presidency was, well, not truly an event. I think the most memorable part of my presidency was the women that I met in the organization and the continuing friendships that I’ve had. I’m looking very much forward now to the leadership retreat because it is a reconnection with a lot of the women that I met ten, fifteen years ago in the industry.
INTERVIEWER: Would you say like fostering camaraderie is WICT’s greatest
achievement, or is there something else you see as WICT’s greatest achievement?
HARMS: I think WICT’s greatest achievement is the networking that they’ve created for women, the ability to connect with one another.
INTERVIEWER: Would you have any advice for young women entering the industry today about learning how to manage their career?
HARMS: I think I’d like to make, maybe this is a general suggestion to women or to young people in general entering the career, I see so many really bright kids coming into the industry and they’re so eager to learn, some of them coming out of Ivy League schools with lots of degrees thinking that they know everything and that work is a classroom, and I think I would advise them to find one or two people who they believe are successful, who they have some chemistry with, and allow themselves to use them as a guide. If these people are willing to mentor them, that’s wonderful, but in their eagerness to learn, many times they go out and they find a hundred people to agree with them, to tell them what they think they already know. All they want is for people to validate their own thoughts instead of going out and finding two or three really smart people who can help them, guide them and really make them grow. I’ve seen some terrible failures with this, very, very bright, bright young people who just thought they were too smart for themselves and it’s tragic. I know there could have been great success here, and unfortunately I have also seen a couple of cases where insanity is when you keep doing the same thing over and over again thinking you’re going to get a different result, and I have seen cases where a second chance has surfaced and the individual has pursued it and done exactly the same thing that cratered them in the first place. So my advice is to think carefully, choose your path, and then really find someone who is willing to be critical, not only guide you constructively, but critically constructively as well, and listen, listen, it’s really important to listen.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have any role models in your own career?
HARMS: I can’t say that I have role models in terms of finding someone to show me the way, but I certainly have many people that I admire a great deal, I think I admire Gail Sermersheim very much. Here’s a woman who I think is a remarkable woman. She’s had a very successful career, and yet she’s a very involved person. She takes on lots of things and is so conscientious that she manages to manage all of them. I think there are women like, certainly not in the category of Gail, but in a way, I have a tremendous amount of admirations for Hillary Clinton, I have a tremendous amount of admiration for Oprah, and I have a tremendous amount of admiration for Mrs. Dole. I mean there are just people, Kay Koplovitz, Maggie Belleville, I mean these are all women who have just accomplished, have just… Interestingly, I found a comment that I read that Mrs. Clinton made recently about never having been in her own light, always having to in a sense be a reflection of her husband or her law firm, it’s the first time she has ever emerged as her own person. I think that’s what every woman tries to do, wants to do, emerge as her own person, not be an extension of somebody else’s arm or a reflection of somebody else, but to emerge as her own vision. So when you say do I have people, there are just so many people.
INTERVIEWER: Did you have anything else that you wanted to add I didn’t have a chance to ask you about WICT, the cable industry, your professional success?
HARMS: No, I think and I’m not sure whether we, one of the things that we began talking about, I’m not sure this is where we stopped or not was the opportunity for women today in the industry, and as I say I’m not sure whether we completed that subject or not, but I just would like to say again, this is an amazing time, an amazing time for women in the history of this country, in the history of this business. It’s a time for women who have truly been trying very hard to reach a point where they felt they were at parity with their associates or their dreams could be realized or there were no obstacles in their way. I believe this is a time for women, there are no obstacles that cannot be pushed out of the way today by women, and there’s a great appreciation for as I say the female’s ability to manage a lot of moving pieces. This is a time in telecommunications where her skills are in a very high demand and as long as she can appreciate herself, a woman can appreciate her own abilities and stand up for her own what she knows to be true about herself, I think if the glass ceiling is there, it’s just going to be pushed out of sight, I truly believe it will.
INTERVIEWER: Do you have anything to say about opportunities for women in the industry?
HARMS: I think this is a wonderful time for women in the industry and as they say, timing is everything. The year of the woman has arrived. If a woman can only maintain her confidence in what she already knows about herself, that if she is tenacious and she is competent and she continues to fight for what she believes, she deserves and she does deserve it. She’s worked hard for it at this point that she can become whatever she chooses to become. If there is a glass ceiling, certainly she can push it out of sight. I would love to be a young woman coming into the industry today. I just think the opportunities are absolutely unlimited.