Interview Date: Monday, July 29, 2019
Interview Location: Chicago, Ill, The Independent Show
Interviewer: Lela Cocoros
Collection: Hauser Collection
LELA COCOROS: Hello. I’m Lela Cocoros for The Cable Center. It’s July 29th, 2019 and we are here in Chicago at The Independent Show. This is the oral history of Jeff Ross. He’s president of Armstrong Utilities, Inc., and an NCTC [National Cable Television Cooperative] board member. And this is part of the Hauser Oral History Program. So welcome, Jeff.
JEFF ROSS: Thank you, it’s great to be here, I’m honored.
COCOROS: So let’s start out with your background, like your early life, and just a little bit of where you’re from and your educational background.
ROSS: OK, great. Well, I was born in Buffalo, New York. And my family moved for me at a very young age to Wilmington, Delaware, and I grew up really in Wilmington, Delaware, and then just over the border into Pennsylvania, into Chester County, Pennsylvania. Educationwise I’m an electrical engineer. I have my associate’s degree from Penn State University. I went there for two years. A funny story about that. My grades in high school were not awesome, and so I had to get an associate’s degree before moving on to get my bachelor’s degree. My dad once joked that he wanted to know whether Penn State would accept tuition by the week instead of by the semester. Not necessarily a vote of confidence. But they did have a lot of confidence in me and encouraged me. But then I went on to get my bachelor’s degree at Northeastern University in Boston. And then after that I got my MBA at Clark University while working at Nynex New England Telephone.
COCOROS: Well, there you go. And yeah, Penn State University, the original home of The Cable Center and its collection.
ROSS: That’s right, WE ARE!
COCOROS: Very cool. So you started in the telephone industry, right? And working for Nynex. And then you went over to Time Warner Cable. So what was it about the cable industry that attracted you to make that move from the telephone industry?
ROSS: Yeah. Good question. I didn’t really even set out to join the telephone industry when I graduated from college. It just sort of happened. But I was working in Boston, Massachusetts as a manager of an outside plant engineering group. And this was in the late ’80s, early ’90s. And part of my responsibility was to approve the pole attachments for all the cable companies that were building networks. And my group also was responsible for approving attachments and conduit entry in downtown Boston for all of these new telecom companies that were coming up after telephone was deregulated, or the Bell System was broken up actually. And these new telecom companies were kind of kicking our butt. And it looked like a good time. These companies were growing, we were shrinking. And it just looked like a lot more fun to be on that side of the business than on the side that I was on. So I started looking around. I had seven years with New England Telephone, Nynex, and had some pretty interesting experiences being in downtown Boston, in that competitive area, the Central Artery Project, and all of that stuff. And I used to get the trade magazine which I don’t even think exists anymore. It was called Telephony magazine. And I saw an ad in the back of that magazine that said, “Looking for directors of engineering and operations. Opportunities all over the country. Apply here. P.O. Box blah blah blah.” I had no idea what company it was. And so I sent them my resume. It turned out to be a recruiter firm, Warren, Morris & Madison. And they were recruiting. Time Warner was recruiting. And I took an interview and ended up working for Time Warner Cable in Raleigh, North Carolina, at kind of the beginning of when telecom, telephone, and cable started to get together.
COCOROS: That’s great. So you worked in Denver as well, didn’t you?
ROSS: I did. So I was at Time Warner for — it was four or five years. And so started first in Raleigh and then I moved on to their centralized operations center. That’s when I became a vice president. And I ran that centralized operations organization in Denver, which was a great experience.
COCOROS: That’s great. And then you moved overseas.
ROSS: Yeah. So I was happy in Denver. If you’ve ever lived in Denver, I guess you —
COCOROS: I lived in Denver for 33 years, so —
ROSS: OK, yeah, there’s a lot to like about Denver.
ROSS: And we were there about a year. And the guy that hired me in Raleigh, North Carolina took an overseas assignment working for United International Holdings, which is now Liberty Global. And he started talking to me about maybe joining him in Amsterdam. And I had no interest in it whatsoever because we loved Denver. I just got this huge promotion and was really enjoying life. But he was persistent. His name was Joe Webster. And he kept on trying. And then I think it was probably Memorial Day weekend, leading up to that, he said, “Just come over to Amsterdam and check it out. You can do it over a long weekend. You only need to take a day off. And see what you think of it. And you can get back to work by Monday and nobody will ever know.”
COCOROS: What year was this?
ROSS: This was 1998. And so I went over and I took that trip and it was an amazing opportunity. And I spent the whatever, 12 hours, on the airplane on the way home thinking about how I was going to talk my wife into moving to Amsterdam after we’d just moved to Denver, Colorado.
COCOROS: So how long were you overseas?
ROSS: I was there for five years. I spent three years in Amsterdam and then the last two years in Paris.
COCOROS: So compare and contrast for me the difference between US cable at the time and European cable at the time.
ROSS: Yeah, I would probably actually — if I could go back a little bit —
ROSS: Just to talk about the original experience. I think what was attractive to me when I first looked at the opportunity is this was almost like a start-up in cable. When I visited Joe and looked at the opportunity, I think there were probably — and I won’t get these numbers exactly right– but there were probably 10 or 15 Americans working in this office in downtown Amsterdam. They had just spent a few years acquiring these cable companies all across Europe. And they had about 7 million customers. And it was just a wonderful opportunity to kind of get in at the ground floor of something. Because we hadn’t gone public yet. And we were about ready to go public. And it was just this again amazing opportunity to get into something that was risky. It was definitely risky to move overseas and do all of that stuff. But it wasn’t like they didn’t have any customers. So those early days were a lot of fun, just trying to figure things out. So what’s different? Back then, this was really at the beginning of when Internet was getting going. A lot of these companies were formerly owned by the countries. It was a state-run cable network in the Netherlands. And so they were just recently privatized. The Internet was just getting going. And telephone was also still very heavily regulated. And at that point in my career I was still very much working on telephone type things. And so back then it was entrepreneurial, but these things didn’t get started by entrepreneurs. They were really started by other folks. In some cases around Europe they were entrepreneurial at their origin. So I would say that was one of the main differences. And the cultural differences, the language differences. Those are the obvious differences. But at that age for me, and at that point in my career, it just looked like incredible challenges. Fun things to do. Fun things to figure out.
COCOROS: Any big surprises along the way?
ROSS: This is going to sound funny but surprising how little I knew for how big a job I had. So that’s easy to say.
COCOROS: You can say that in retrospect.
ROSS: I think so. Now when I look back, some of the things that we were trying to figure out and things we were doing. I certainly had a lot of relevant experience, but looking back now, yeah, surprised about how little I knew. But we accomplished a lot. That was a great time in my career. And I’m so glad that my wife and I had the courage to do it.
COCOROS: Yeah, definitely. That’s a great experience. So then you went from there to Armstrong, is that correct?
ROSS: Yeah. So I had a few jobs at — UPC was the operating company for United at the time. But my last job there was actually running the French MSO, which has now become Altice. And what is Altice has become here in the US. And that’s a whole other story maybe for another day. But I was running the French MSO at the time. I was five years into it. I originally had a three-year contract and did a two-year renewal. And I was at that point where I had to decide whether this is where I wanted to be forever or for the next long period of time. My family was young. And needed to think about what’s next. So I started looking for opportunities in the US. I had a pretty big job with the French MSO thing. So I wrote letters to the CEOs of the top 20 cable companies in the US and just said basically, “I’d like to come home. And do you have any opportunities?” And my resume landed on Kirby Campbell’s desk at Armstrong at the perfect time and this opportunity was created. Feel very lucky to have been able to do that.
COCOROS: So what struck you about running a smaller cable company, having worked for much larger ones?
ROSS: Yeah, I often get asked that question. It’s usually worded like this. You were working in Paris, France. What about Butler, Pennsylvania attracted you? But it was like coming home. I had grown up part of my life in Pennsylvania, went to school at Penn State. It was a way to come home, and it felt like it was a good opportunity for my family too, being just north of Pittsburgh there, is a great part of the country to raise a family. But this was 2003 and this company had gone through a lot of change, had launched Internet, had launched digital cable. They were thinking about launching phone and that was part of my responsibilities at UPC. And I had a lot of experience with that. So that was going to be interesting for me to do that there. And just the ability to take what I learned in Europe and along the way to apply it to this company. It’s also a family-owned, privately held company. That was attractive to me. UPC became a public company while I was over there, and there are definite benefits to being private and more long-term thinking. Interviewing for the job, too, meeting the Sedwick family and Kirby Campbell also. I could see that I’d be able to work around some great people. And it just felt like a good fit, it really did. And obviously it was. I’ve been there now over 16 years.
COCOROS: And that leads me to ask you what’s been happening lately at Armstrong. I know you had an initiative called the Customer Effort Score that you championed. And can you tell us a little bit about that? Plus just what innovations Armstrong has had over the past few years.
ROSS: Yeah. We’re a funny size. We’re a little over 300,000 customers. We’re too big to be small and too small to be big. And that’s a nice size to be. You can get suppliers to pay attention to you because you’re big enough but you can still be very agile. And I think our company over the years — and our company is an old company. I’ve only been around for the last little bit of it really, 16 years when you look at our history is not that long. But we’ve always been on the front end of a lot of technology. We’re usually not first but we’re always early. And so we launched telephone long before a lot of the big guys did. And we launched Internet in 1997 before DOCSIS and all of that stuff. We’ve always been early on a lot of things. But another thing I think that’s unique about our company — and I would attribute it really to our family ownership. There’s a lot of pride in providing good customer service. It is at the core of our culture, and I think the way it ties to the family ownership piece is that family lives in the community where we operate. They go to church and the grocery store and all of that. It’s very important to all of us, all of our team, to make sure that they’re always proud of what we’re doing. And not be in a situation where those folks feel like they are being pointed at as the evil people that run the cable company.
So customer service is super important to us. We started with Net Promoter Score. Gosh, it’s probably over 10 years ago. As a means of measuring loyalty. And it’s always helped us keep our eye on how we’re doing around customer service. But most recently we’ve been looking at how we can get to the next level. So we found this thing called Customer Effort Score and we thought that it worked well with what we were doing with Net Promoter Score. So Net Promoter Score is primarily a method of measuring loyalty. What Customer Effort Score does is it helps you find parts of your business where you are maybe difficult to do business with. And the reason why that’s important is that there’s a reasonable degree of correlation between being easy to do business with and high loyalty. But there is a very large correlation between being difficult to do business with and low loyalty. So what we set out to do is try to find where we’re not easy to do business with and improve that as a means to improve our loyalty. In this business loyalty is very very important. It’s hard to get customers. If you have to replace customers that you’ve lost because of mistakes that you’ve made or being difficult to do business with it’s very expensive. And again customer service is so important to us. We just want to do a good job.
COCOROS: So who are the people in the industry that influenced you most?
ROSS: Boy. There have been so many people that have helped me along the way and have shaped what has become my leadership style or the way I do business. It might be cliche to say this, but I would start with my parents frankly. My dad had a very good work ethic and very strong work ethic and has always been nice and fair to people. Everybody likes my dad. And my mom, she was a chemist. College graduate chemist back in the early 1960s. Back then females weren’t entering technical fields like they do today. And so I feel like I get my technical abilities from my mom and my work ethic and my fundamental belief in fairness from my father. But along the way workwise in my early days I’d say Peter Lojko and Henry Gamsby from New England Telephone took an interest in me when I was young and stupid and immature. They saw something in me and invested in me and gave me opportunities. When I worked in the Boston area these guys would probably laugh if they heard that I mentioned them, but Bruce Bader and Joe Bucciarelli. These guys scared me to death when I was a young manager but I learned about being assertive and pushing things through and just relentless pursuit of pursuing your goals.
From my Time Warner days, I would say Randy Fraser in Raleigh, North Carolina, he was our division president back then. We were kind of a start-up that took a lot of time and money away from our core cable business. And he was very careful and very disciplined financially. And it used to drive my boss crazy, but I always admired it while it was happening. My boss would come in. I was working for Joe Webster then. And he would sometimes complain about Randy. And I hope these guys wouldn’t mind me saying this stuff. But I would be like, “No, Randy is right.” And Randy had an impact on me. And then with Time Warner Telecom in Denver, Colorado, Larissa Herda. She’s an amazing leader. And I just observed again that drive for success and getting the team to follow your mission. She was very clear in what she projected to the team, and that I think helped everybody. And she communicated great. Some of the things I do today I stole from her. Again, an amazing leader. In my UPC days, Gene Musselman, an incredible operator. I don’t know whether he has an oral history at The Cable Center. He should. He’s incredible at what he does, and he taught me a ton. John Reardon. Again a visionary. Learned a lot from him. And then I’d be remiss in not mentioning my current folks I work with at Armstrong. The Sedwick family. Jay Sedwick, Dru Sedwick, really believe in their people and are so supportive in what I do. And Kirby Campbell also. Just so many people. And I should write it down. So many people have helped me.
COCOROS: As a board member of NCTC, what are the biggest challenges you see facing the membership?
ROSS: Our industry is changing. And we used to be cable TV companies and that is what has built our industry, really started with that. We’re broadband companies now. And that change, it’s not something that has just happened recently with all of the over-the-top options that customers have. It’s something that’s been going on for quite some time as the financial contribution of Internet has overtaken the video contribution. That happened a while ago in most of our businesses. So I think the challenge for us is how do we evolve as well to support our members in their pursuit of broadband as they deemphasize TV, which saddens me greatly. I grew up with cable. I remember the first time I saw MTV in 1981 or 1982, and it has made my career and fed my kids and put them through college and all of that stuff. So it pains me a bit to deemphasize video. But our evolution to supporting Internet and broadband I think is key.
COCOROS: What impact do you think the cable industry has had overall on the country and on the world? What contributions do you think the industry has made?
ROSS: Oh my gosh, yeah. There’s so many. I love this industry. I happened into this industry. Even my telephone company job, as I said earlier, that’s not where I set out to be. And I feel so blessed to be part of it. So I think just in the ability to communicate. Think about back — I don’t know how old you are, I’m not going to guess. But I remember when all we had were the broadcasters and PBS. And I’m a news junkie. So much of my life has been influenced by the things I’ve seen on TV, and primarily around education and news and all of that. So there’s that element of it. People are so much more informed now than they were back when I was young. And I think cable TV has helped with that. And how that media industry has now transformed into what is now over the Internet. I think all the content that you see on the Internet, I think its origin really came from the creativity and everything around cable TV.
COCOROS: Yeah, I agree, I think you can really draw a direct line from what we grew up with with television, with broadcast, and then the cable networks came in, and then the Internet came in. And the cable industry, broadband, has been part of all of that.
ROSS: Yeah. Absolutely. And then there is just broadband. When I joined Time Warner in 1994 the Internet was not even really a thing. I remember my first Prodigy account, dialing in and doing all of that. We weren’t really thinking of broadband Internet back then. What the cable modem has done, and DSL to some degree. At that point there was parity between the products. But the cable industry I think, it didn’t invent the Internet, it was already invented, but we brought the Internet and what is now broadband to all these homes in the United States. And it’s fundamentally changed how we consume media, how we learn, the educational aspects of it. I look at our employees as they use our tuition reimbursement program. Most of them are doing it online. And that online experience in the early days was going in and reading things. And taking tests online. It’s not that way anymore. I watched one of the guys that works for me who’s getting his MBA, he’s basically sitting in the classroom with the professor across from him. And all his classmates showing up on the screen. And you raise your hand. And the professor picks you. It’s almost like being there. And broadband has made that happen. And our ability to offer these speeds and the capacity. I think all of that really comes from the entrepreneurs that created our industry.
COCOROS: What’s your outlook for the industry longer term?
ROSS: I’m bullish on it still. I believe in this industry with every fiber of my body. I think that broadband keeps on going. I don’t know what the next thing is. But frankly in ’94, going back to that, I didn’t really know that cable modems were going to come along in ’96 and ’97. So I don’t know what the next big thing is. But I think all of these folks, many who are here at The Independent Show this week, we’re going to figure it out. And it’ll go on long into the future. Count me in as a believer.
COCOROS: That’s good to hear. Anything else you want to add? Or any stories you want to tell?
ROSS: No. You’d asked me about what we’re doing around customer service at Armstrong. That’s certainly a subject. There are other things that we’re doing that I think are notable and timely also. There’s a tremendous push in the US right now to get broadband into rural communities. And because of all the things that we just talked about. It’s practically an essential service now. And there’s so many parts of the US that are still unserved or grossly underserved. And Armstrong has always operated in these rural communities. We serve communities in West Virginia and Kentucky that the big guys don’t want to serve. So we’re big believers in that. There’s a lot of things that are going on now with the federal government and states to fund broadband projects. And we’re involved with that. So we’ve got a big project right now in New York along the Southern Tier. Many folks in the US think about New York as New York City. And there’s so many parts of New York that are actually more rural than even our systems in Kentucky and West Virginia. So we have a 4,000-mile project that we’re working on right now that covers much of the Southern Tier of New York. It is being done in partnership with the state of New York, with a state broadband fund. And I think it’s really going to help the folks that live in that part of the country. I think it’s a good model. And other states are looking at it and the federal government is looking at it too. So I think there’s a lot of opportunities for our industry to partner with government, to bring broadband where it doesn’t exist today. I’d qualify it a little bit just to say that I think we have to be careful about how we do those types of things, using federal or state money to create companies that compete with businesses that were created with private funding and equity and sweat equity. I don’t think it’s —
COCOROS: Public-private partnership.
ROSS: I think it’s maybe unfair for the government to create competitors. And I believe in competition, it makes everybody better. But I think that we need to work on directing our funds to communities that don’t have anything before we use public money to fund competitive things. There are so many parts of the US, and I see them in our communities, that don’t have anything. And it’s hard to imagine a world where you don’t have connection to the Internet. I would imagine you at home have it. I know it would be a big problem in my household if we didn’t.
COCOROS: Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, Jeff, thank you very much for joining us. And I appreciate your time.
ROSS: Yeah, it was my pleasure, thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW