Tom Rutledge & John Bickham

Interview Date: July 10, 2023
Interviewer: Stewart Schley

Interview Transcript

STEWART SCHLEY: Greetings, ahoy, and thank you for pressing play on this episode of the Hauser Oral History Series presented by Syndeo Institute at the Cable Center. I’m Stewart Schley. I have the privilege today of being in Stamford, Connecticut in the middle of the summer of 2023 with the dynamic duo of cable television. I have Tom Rutledge, most recently CEO of Charter Communications and a longtime executive in this industry, career traces back to the early ’70s, with John Bickham who began his cable career in ’86 and the two gentlemen, you guys have worked together for a long time in a lot of different guises. Thank you for being here with us. I am going to start our conversation, John, by picking on you. If there was a game — a heated game of Trivial Pursuit between you two gentlemen, who wins?


SCHLEY: Why do you say that?

BICKHAM: He has better memory.

SCHLEY: He has a better memory? Okay. He’s sometimes described as a trivia buff in newspaper articles. Is this true? Would you call yourself a trivia buff?

TOM RUTLEDGE: No. It happened because the History Channel used to have a trip every year where they’d invite all the cable operators and we’d all go and they’d have a history quiz and I would often win it. In fact, I won it so many times they canceled it.

BICKHAM: No one wanted to play. (laughter)

SCHLEY: Understood.

RUTLEDGE: But it only had to do with history and it only had to do with American history and I was the best of the slow class.

SCHLEY: And ever since you’re cataloged as a history genius.

RUTLEDGE: So no, I’m not a trivia buff.

SCHLEY: Okay, serious question, John Bickham. How did — what was the circumstance under which you first met a young Tom Rutledge?

BICKHAM: So I was in Houston, Texas working for a company called KBLCOM and at the time we owned outright some markets, one of which was San Antonio. And San Antonio had a new competitor in the marketplace. Back in the day it was called MNDS. And I had read that this particular company had also launched a business in Austin. And Austin — I forget how, but I knew Tom Rutledge, I knew he’d been there for a while, I knew he was dealing with a union issue. This is all before I went there. But I called him one day and said, “Hey, I’d like to talk to you about MMDS, would you mind?” So I drove to Austin, it was a nice break, and anyway that’s how we met. That’s the first time we met.

SCHLEY: MMDS was a wireless competitive pay television service, is that — multipoint, multichannel distribution?

BICKHAM: Yeah. I think they got the frequencies from school districts.

RUTLEDGE: Yeah, IFTC. A lot of that stuff is owned by T-Mobile now.

SCHLEY: T-Mobile. Tell me about your first impressions of this gentleman to your left?

BICKHAM: Of Tom? I don’t know. He’s sort of — he spoke with a lot of authority. He said, “They’re not going to be a problem here.”

SCHLEY: Which probably proved to be true.

BICKHAM: It did.

RUTLEDGE: It did, yeah.

BICKHAM: And he was not terribly friendly. Sort of nice, but a little gruff. And we had a nice visit and we talked about Austin and San Antonio and whatnot, but that — it was a short meeting.

SCHLEY: Inauspicious beginning. What are your recollections of the first encounters with John?

RUTLEDGE: It’s funny, I didn’t remember why he was there, the MMDS. I remember his background and coming out of the power industry, but having regulatory connections. And I remember thinking the guy made sense. You know, sounds like a smart guy. Good guy. That’s all I really recall.

SCHLEY: Fine. Then, John, how did the first professional collaboration come about between you two guys?

BICKHAM: Probably in Stamford, probably around 2000 would be my guess. I moved to Stamford in ’98. I was in Los Angeles working for Time Warner at the time. Tom was an EVP, I was an EVP. Later on, Tom became president, as I recall.

SCHLEY: This is Time Warner Cable?

RUTLEDGE: Time Warner Cable. And when Jimmy Dolittle left, as I recall. I don’t remember the exact year. I think it was ’98, ’99, somewhere in that timeframe. So that was the first time that I worked for Tom. And I don’t remember a lot of collaboration actually.

RUTLEDGE: No. You know, when you were in Los Angeles and I knew that Jimmy was going to leave and I was going to get promoted he said, “Who should we bring in?” And I said John Bickham.

SCHLEY: But you hardly knew him.

RUTLEDGE: I knew him. Remember I was just saying when I was talking to you previously that it’s all about the work and I saw his work and I thought he was running a good operation and I thought John was the best division president operationally that we had in the company. And so that’s why I said what I said.

SCHLEY: Los Angeles, complicated market, yes?

BICKHAM: Yeah, it was — I first moved there in 1986 and I don’t know exactly how many companies were in that market at the time. probably 30. More? There were a lot. And it was all balkanized from franchising wars and things like that. And it was not a great cable market because, one, cable came there late, and two, the broadcast stations sat right there on the mountains and —

SCHLEY: And there were a ton of them, right?

BICKHAM: And there were a ton of them. And so TV signals were easy to get. It was not like the rest of the country. It’s one of the reasons franchising happened there late because cable had a tough go of it. I mean the only places where cable had any foothold in that part of the world were places like El Segundo. You’d have to know a little bit about the LA coastline to realize that El Segundo sits down below and it doesn’t get a great broadcast signal, but there aren’t that many places —

SCHLEY: Right. And you’re at the time — you did what well, John? Were you an operations executive at the time? Was that your bailiwick?


SCHLEY: When you first met — when you first went to work with Tom.

BICKHAM: In Stamford?


BICKHAM: Yeah. You know, I was 10 or 12 years into the business at that point in time. I knew a little bit, but I was by comparison to Tom I was 10 years behind in terms of understanding the history of the business and things like that. My strength probably was in management of people and that was — but in terms of understanding the technology I had a pretty good understanding, but not the kind of understanding that Tom had at that point in time.

SCHLEY: But you needed, Tom, rock solid operations talent within your organization obviously.

RUTLEDGE: We did and Time Warner Cable at that point in time, in my view, was the best run cable operator in the country and it had good operations generally and it was because of the decentralized management structure where executives had real authority over the operations and could personally make a big significant change. And so both John and I had that experience.

SCHLEY: So what did you do? What were the major — some of the major initiatives, projects, systems, that you were involved in early on in that engagement?

BICKHAM: So back then all these systems were being upgraded and digital was being launched. Later on internet services were being launched, but fundamentally the big lift was to create a digital network and better compete with satellite companies. I mean the satellite industry was pretty powerful at that point in time and they were taking subscribers. They were a formidable competitor. They were a nationwide competitor, unlike cable which is typically very locally focused. I mean they didn’t call them MSOs for nothing. I mean they were multiple systems operators as opposed to a big cable network that was managed in a consistent way with consistent strategies and tactics and whatnot. So it was sort of a point in time when I think the industry started looking at — certainly I started looking at — whether or not a different management structure might work.

SCHLEY: What were our big hurdles, Tom, in making the digital conversion?

RUTLEDGE: It costs a lot of money and you had existing customers that already had service that was delivered in analog. And so in order to do it properly you had to first upgrade the network so it was two way interactive and you’d have a set-top box that could do more than a satellite box. And you had to switch out existing equipment in the cases where there was equipment or in the case where a customer didn’t have a set-top box because they had a TV tuner that tuned to the amount of channels that a cable system had, you had to put a box in. That was disruptive to the customer and it was capital intensive and it was time consuming because we had already created tens of millions of customers who were getting analog and then we needed to digitize them and any upgrade of a legacy operation is a difficult logistics effort. It’s hard to provide excellent customer service while you’re moving lots of parts around. And that’s the talent of managing a conversion and it’s actually quite difficult.

SCHLEY: Take us through, John, if you would from a technician standpoint, you’ve got a guy with a truck full of boxes and she or he’s got to go out and physically replace, substitute, the old converters and it takes time, right? It’s challenging.

BICKHAM: Yeah, most of that was done so-called on the increment. So if you sold a new customer, you would sell them digital services and on that installation you would install a digital set-top box.

SCHLEY: This is for a fresh customer or new customer.

BICKHAM: One of the great things about cable is that it’s — people move and they sign up for service when they move because the service is at a residence, at an address. You don’t take it with you, at least not until today. I mean you can take it with you today, but back in that timeframe you couldn’t. So that technician would install digital set-top boxes, make sure the signal quality was great, make sure those set-top boxes actually did a handshake with the provisioning network and the computer systems that ran billing and provisioning. And all of that was brand new to the cable industry. I mean analog set top boxes had been around for a while, but they were relatively unsophisticated by comparison.

SCHLEY: And you mentioned provisioning and billing. This is, maybe I would say, I don’t know if you would, John, the redheaded stepchild of the cable business. Billing systems have this enormous and influential role in how you organize your company and what you can do over the cable network.

BICKHAM: They do. And, as Tom points out, more people have lost their jobs over billing system swapouts than almost anything else.

RUTLEDGE: That’s right. There’s no percentage in doing it, but sometimes you have to.

BICKHAM: But yeah, provisioning and all the things that are attached to a billing environment are complex. Back in that timeframe probably didn’t get the attention that it does today.

SCHLEY: Weren’t there just a couple of primary vendors that lorded over that category? Or were there multiple partners you worked with?

BICKHAM: I don’t really — I mean CSG was a big vendor and who else, Tom? I can’t remember.

SCHLEY: There was the old CableData from the olden days.

BICKHAM: CableData.

RUTLEDGE: Which is now Amdocs, I think.

BICKHAM: They’ve all gone through — I mean Cox at one time created their own billing environment. I think they backed away from it.

RUTLEDGE: But there was usually one or two dominant ones and every once in a while we would try to stand up somebody.

SCHLEY: Did you ever try to home grow a billing or provisioning —

BICKHAM: Provisioning, yes, but billing, no. I mean almost all provisioning environments are homegrown, but billing systems, no. Today it’s a different story and we’re not talking about today. In that timeframe —

SCHLEY: It’s a lookback. When you think about that period, John, from your standpoint what was hard about getting all the trains to run on time within the Time Warner Cable organization?

BICKHAM: I had divisions in Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina. Those are states that Time Warner Cable was heavily invested in and the quality of the business in each of those locations would be limited by the quality of the people running those businesses. And so getting great leadership in every one of those locations on some sort of a strategy that didn’t have to be consistent, but it had to be proven and successful, was hard. I was a vice president who would travel to these locations. You’d sit down and review their business plan or review their results and look at the metrics of the business in a way that told you how healthy it was or unhealthy it was and try to get divisions to move in a direction that improve quality and fundamentally increase the number of relationships, billing relationships, because that was the end game. So doing that through visits and through phone calls and through — as opposed to this is the way we’re going to do business, here’s the box that we’re going to operate in, is — it’s a little frustrating, particularly when you have a national competitor like satellite. So the industry was, as I mentioned previously, I think at a point in time where it needed to rethink how it was managing these networks because they were multiple — the networks could have been integrated and connected to each other, but they had legacy technologies and legacy operating systems that were all a little bit unique. And so creating an environment where you could run a better business and manage a better workforce was not easy.

SCHLEY: I’ll pose this to both of you, start, Tom, with you. What made a great general manager in the cable business in this era where you’re starting to add new products and services?

RUTLEDGE: The interesting thing is that it changed and John alludes to, you know, you’re facing a national competitor. I spoke earlier about decentralization and the idea of having management be connected to the TV market and the political market at the local level and trying to be responsive at a local level and then it wasn’t just the competitive environment that changed, it was also the nature of the network itself. It became an integrated network. They weren’t just systems and it became one system and it became one system with lots of legacy underneath it, but it was an integrated network. And today the modern system is a single machine. And at one point in time, they were really separate and geographically and physically distinct, but as soon as we built the fiber backbone and created two-way interactive broadband services and telephony you had a single national integrated network and national competitors. And so you needed a new way of managing it as well.

SCHLEY: So that role changed, shifted?

RUTLEDGE: It did change and it was very difficult and Time Warner actually eventually decided it was going to try to centralize, but it did it in a very slow way and it was very difficult to do because the underlying systems were very different and you had to manage it in a uniform way. And you had to have enough knowledge about the inconsistencies to be coherent in the way you were approaching the marketplace with prices and packages and what you could physically do. And I think that obviously is one of John’s greatest strengths and it’s one of the things we did as a company really well.

SCHLEY: At Time Warner?

RUTLEDGE: Or acquiring Time Warner and —

BICKHAM: Even before that, at Cablevision was sort of a warmup.

RUTLEDGE: Cablevision was a company that on paper was centralized when John was there and I was there, but it was really 54 cable systems that had been assembled and said it’s centralized, but it had as much of an anomaly underneath as any big cable company. And those anomalies were created by acquisitions mostly. The cable industry was a mom-and-pop business that rolled up into a mass business and a lot of the technologies were bought at different times by different people with different strategies. So the thing that John’s career, and mine but John’s particularly, was really all about was the management of very complex integration of legacy platforms into a national uniform business. And that takes — it’s completely the opposite of what Apple deals with which is a singular business that starts and grows from a singular point — or a Microsoft. We’re the opposite. We’re a conglomerate of small businesses that have been put into a big business and it’s a different kind of managerial responsibility and skill.

SCHLEY: John, when you acquired or inherited or brought aboard a new cable system in any situation where did you start? What were some of the fundamental operating principles, technologies, systems that you would take a look at to try to understand this new beast that you now owned?

BICKHAM: If you were going to integrate that acquisition into something as opposed to bolting it on, if you were going to integrate it, you’d do that at a fundamental level and the billing system and the provisioning environment and the network management components have to be integrated into whatever you’re attaching it to. So there’s what I call management system technology integration that has to occur. There’s a network technology integration that has to occur as well. And then there’s the whole idea that you’re going to run the business the same way. So your policies and procedures that employees follow, at every level and throughout the company, have to mirror the parent company that you’re trying to integrate this asset into. And to do that you fundamentally go through a training process with employees. You put in management systems that allow you to find anomalies and things that are done improperly so that eventually over time they come together and they look like the same thing.

SCHLEY: And you talked, John, about the people dynamic early on. Is there tension, resistance, when I’ve just been acquired by a new owner and how do you resolve some of that? Is there naturally, eh, the new guy’s coming in, he’s going to change everything, you know? How do you resolve that?

BICKHAM: I think that’s true and every acquisition that I’ve ever been around there’s an element of sales at the employee level that you go through. And the biggest one we ever did was obviously in 2016 and we did it quickly. Doing it quickly is the key to success. I mean if you take 10 years to do something that should take three it costs a lot of money and you probably never get there. So yeah, there’s — most people think the way they’ve been doing whatever they’re doing is the right way to do it. It may be completely inconsistent with what your goals are so yeah, there’s a fair amount of — and you have to have leadership at every level that delivers that message. You know, that may have been the way we’ve been doing it, but that’s not the way we’re going to do it going forward and you just move through it.

SCHLEY: And Tom, from a CEO vantage point, why? Why bother? Why not just let a guy who’s doing pretty good with his system in Tulsa or whatever just continue to do it his way? Why does there have to be integration and consistency and harmony?

RUTLEDGE: It’s a good question because there is an inclination on the part of some managers to say, “Let’s let 1,000 flowers bloom. Let’s let everybody make decisions and do their best.” And you know, that’s better than bad management, but it’s not the best way to do things in a systemic business. And it really goes to we’re running a big machine and it’s a physically integrated machine and as part of that machine the products are delivered, but — and so is the service and they’re integral notions, the machine and the service around the machine. And it’s one thing and so you can’t do it two different ways and get the same result.
So yes, there’s some — there has to be innovation and there has to be a way for people to take their experiences and improve the way we do things and you want that in your organization. On the other hand, in a systemic business you have to have a method. And as I said earlier, we decided that we knew that some things would work. They might not be the best method in the world, but they will work and we can do them and we know what to do. And so in many cases we just did that and we said, “This is the way we’re going to do it and, yes, we know you’re smart and we know you’re capable and all of that, but this is the system and we’re going to run it and then we’re going to make it better.”

SCHLEY: John, I’m curious about operationally when broadband happened, when we started to layer on this high-speed internet service, at the customer level what were some of the challenges around introducing this new service? Not just video anymore.

BICKHAM: It’s been so long ago that the memories are fading, but.

SCHLEY: Do you remember having to crack open computers, for instance, right?

BICKHAM: Yeah. There was a time when some of that was necessary and there was a time when computers were hardwired to the network and to modems and eventually Wi-Fi changed all that. But those are vague memories for me. Maybe Tom has more fond memories.

RUTLEDGE: I don’t know if they’re fond. The whole idea of opening up somebody’s computer and putting in a card —

SCHLEY: It’s a little scary. Scary for them, I think.

RUTLEDGE: It was scary for us as a service organization. That would be like us in the early days of cable changing the tubes. Actually, I know people in our industry like Alan Gerry that did do that, but yeah, it was akin to that, opening up a TV.

SCHLEY: And it took a while. I think in the early days of broadband didn’t installations take half a day sometimes, several hours a day?

RUTLEDGE: Yeah, most any kind of — any time you introduce a whole new way of doing something usually there’s a longer lead time in the initial rollout.

BICKHAM: I would say it was a lot less difficult than the introduction of landline voice. Landline voice, because there’s internal wiring in a home and you tend to use that internal wiring, at least people still do use internal wiring for landlines, there was a level of transition there for technicians who had to understand how to take advantage of that internal wiring and where to find problems with that internal wiring and that took a while. But data was more about, you know, when computers were hardwired.

SCHLEY: What about, you mentioned landline telephony. We had powering issues, correct? Associated with sustaining service during a power outage with telephony. How did we resolve that in this industry?

BICKHAM: I think it went away.

SCHLEY: Just waited it out.

BICKHAM: Initially there were batteries that were — vacuum batteries that were put on modems and whatnot.

SCHLEY: I guess that’s my question.

BICKHAM: But you won’t find — other than commercial installations of that nowadays, you won’t find too much of that.

SCHLEY: John, what was the appeal of joining the Cablevision Systems organization for you when that transition took place?

BICKHAM: I didn’t particularly like where Time Warner Cable was at that moment in time. The AOL transaction had occurred, leadership had changed. Time Warner Cable was not — at that moment in time Time Warner Cable was not headed in a positive direction, at least from my point of view. And so I was at a crossroads to some extent. I remember looking around going, okay, John, if you don’t like what you’re doing where are you going to go, what are you going to do? And I knew Tom had left and gone to Cablevision and he said, “Hey, are you interested?” And I said, “Yeah, for sure.” For one thing it was a — I didn’t have to move. That was good.

SCHLEY: There’s that.

BICKHAM: I had moved, I don’t know, five or six times in the cable business and there was that issue, but there was also the allure of one big system. I didn’t look at Cablevision as an MSO even though Tom says there were 54 cable systems. I mean —

RUTLEDGE: The legacy, I mean —

BICKHAM: Yeah, you’d already —

RUTLEDGE: They were gone when I got there.

BICKHAM: You’d already begun to restructure the business in a way that could be nimble, could be — could introduce new products more rapidly than what Time Warner Cable could, could move quicker. It’s a big market. Mass advertising, I knew, could be successful in this marketplace. So it was a good time for me to do something different. And I knew Tom. I didn’t know a lot about Cablevision, I didn’t know a lot about the Dolan family, but I knew a lot about the metrics of the business itself and it was exciting.

SCHLEY: Were the metrics any different because you had more of an urban concentration environment? Or is cable-cable? Was it the same business?

BICKHAM: To some extent cable is cable, but I mean Cablevision had pockets of poor performance and pockets where it was great. I mean Long Island was the best cable system in America, I’m pretty sure. The Bronx back then was not very good. Over the next eight or 10 years though we probably created more value in the Bronx than we created on Long Island.

SCHLEY: How so though? I mean because you’d look at it and think this is going to be a tough go, you know?

BICKHAM: You have to get the infrastructure in place and cleaned up and you have to have a field organization that knows how to maintain it. It’s blocking and tackling, nuts and bolts. And people in the Bronx liked video services and data services and voice services. It was a matter of putting the right organization in place and getting them focused on running a quality business. It just so happened that the Bronx was the least penetrated part of Cablevision.

RUTLEDGE: Right, but our pricing was a value, you know? We made phone inexpensive and broadband was inexpensive relatively speaking to DSL and better, way better, and the TV was better than satellite. You know, it was just better and at a reasonable price and people bought it. And underneath it all was the service infrastructure that makes the relationship a quality relationship.
SCHLEY: John, can you describe — for a while, and I think this has changed and improved, customer service was just a real albatross for the cable industry. I’m thinking in the late 1980s. You know this better than anybody, but I’ll ask this in the most polite way. Why was it so hard to maintain, for instance, I’ll do your installation from 4:00 to 6:00 pm, right? We had an era in this business where you couldn’t even make that commitment for a while. But what was it about the business that was so challenging and so tough from a customer care standpoint? And still is tough from a customer care standpoint.

BICKHAM: There’s a lot to your question and there’s a lot of ways to answer the question. One of the things that makes the business different today than it was 20 years ago is that the network today talks to you every second. There’s a device in every home that’s giving you information about what signal levels in the home look like and whether or not there’s a problem in the home or whether or not the problem may be in the drop or whether or not the problem could be upstream in the tap. And that’s just the information coming out of the home. That didn’t exist 20 years ago. It didn’t even exist 15 years ago. So today your ability to monitor the health of the network all the way down to an outlet in a home is tremendous and that doesn’t have anything to do with whether you have two-hour windows or one-hour windows or —

SCHLEY: I understand, but it’s a revealing look.

BICKHAM: But it’s dramatic in the sense that it changes the information that you have and your ability to respond to it, your ability to deal with problems before the customer even knows they have a problem. And so service call rates come down because you’re dealing with problems before they become a service call and the more noise you can take out of the business, the more resources you can apply against preventative sorts of problems and prevent problems before they occur in the first place. So today the business is tremendously proactive in terms of taking care of problems whereas 20 years ago it was completely reactive.

SCHLEY: I only hear of a problem when a customer is mad or has an issue, calls me up on the phone.

BICKHAM: If you’re doing a good job of maintaining your plant you know about a lot of problems and you take care of those problems before they become customer impacting, but there are a lot of problems that you won’t find in maintenance.

SCHLEY: I’ve heard that expression, if you do a good job of taking care of your plant forever, since I’ve been following the cable industry. What does that mean? How do you take care of your plant? What are we talking about?

BICKHAM: It means a lot of things. Maintenance on the infrastructure requires a dedicated work force who’s looking at the way the network’s performing, not just the coax network, but the fiber network and all the elements of it. Today it’s a fairly sophisticated information driven work force. Twenty years ago, it was more related to a maintenance technician owning a piece of plant and going out and making sure that there weren’t problems in that piece of plant.

SCHLEY: That’s how we did it. You sort of had a territory assigned, if you will, if you were a plant technician, for instance.

BICKHAM: It was done all kinds of ways. Sometimes it was territory based, sometimes it was done in other ways.

SCHLEY: Tom, was the customer service pedigree of the cable industry, and it was poor for a while, was it haunting as a top executive? Was it priority number one or how did you dope that out?

RUTLEDGE: I got the ATC Customer Service Executive of the Year award in 1983. It was always my focus as an operator to try to have good customer service. And there were inherent problems in the way the business was structured and the technology we used and the visibility and impact of what we did. People were watching six hours of TV a day.

SCHLEY: All day long.

RUTLEDGE: They didn’t use the phone all day long. Your phone could be out and you didn’t get any calls, but an intermittent glitch in the middle of a two-hour movie that lasts 30 seconds ruins the movie. So the level of personal impact to TV service is significantly different, even more than the internet is, and still is. So there was that aspect of it, but also, we had a tree and branch architecture before fiber. We had microwave systems in the bigger cable systems. So like the system where I met John in Austin, in order to get any kind of distance more than 32 amplifiers you had to have a transmission system to get further out or another headend, another cable system. And so a market like Austin which had 80,000 customers had seven or eight microwave hubs and microwaves were subject to failure.

SCHLEY: Sure, and that’s going to affect a lot of people downstream, right?

RUTLEDGE: Yeah, it affected thousands at a time if there was a hail storm or — I remember sitting in the hill country of Texas looking at lightning storms and people would say, “Isn’t that beautiful?” and I was like “no, something’s going out.” And they were fickle. And the other thing with our business was that doing installations particularly were jobs of indeterminate length. And you know, everybody — and it’s a contract kind of job like plumbing or electricians. And if you listen to people today talking about service, people are complaining about making appointments. It’s hard to show up on time when you don’t know how long you’re going to be at the prior work. And so building a big enough systems and having sophisticated software systems to manage that work force — and you have to have enough people that if somebody gets stuck on a three-hour job, that the person who has a 15-minute job can be moved over to another job. The logistics of all of that in smaller operations are hard to do. So some of the inherent issues were fixed by the fiber optic construction.

SCHLEY: By ridding ourselves of some of those amplifiers?

RUTLEDGE: Right, that caused failure. And some of the issues were fixed by our ability to look at the 500 million devices that are connected to the network and see all of that data simultaneously and actually look down at the fitting level and see every component of the network. That we can do today, but the other thing that was required was enough scale in the service organization and enough tools to be able to schedule a work force. And you know, there were issues, labor issues, right? People don’t want to work shifts when customers are home. They don’t want to do maintenance in the middle of the night voluntarily. It has to be part of the job and it is part of the job, but getting from here to there was a challenge.

SCHLEY: John —

BICKHAM: The biggest problem Time Warner Cable had in 1983 — is when you got the award, is that right?

RUTLEDGE: (laughter)

SCHLEY: That’s what he said.

BICKHAM: The biggest problem they had was they didn’t have 46 Tom Rutledges. I’m making a different point. To really have that quality throughout the country, and I think there were 40 divisions or 45 divisions or whatever back then, would have required someone with your skills and your understanding of the technology and your understanding of the work force and how things happen. That didn’t exist. It didn’t exist.

RUTLEDGE: No, it’s true. I remember when I was hired as a manager trainee in ’77 a lot of the people that were being brought in to the industry were government people, city managers and people that had local relationships. Because, remember, franchising was still a big issue. We were regulated and that was considered the major strategic problem. So you had different kinds of managers and not all of them had the same skill sets or even view about what was important. And so John’s right, there was a difference, but some would say that the strategic initiative was to get the rate increase or to get the franchise and that was the right decision, but that changed.

SCHLEY: But that human devotion to the task needed to begin to infuse the system.

RUTLEDGE: Yes, it had to be throughout the business. And it takes learning. You actually have to know what you’re doing to be a good logistics manager and that’s part of it.

SCHLEY: And I’m curious, John, from your standpoint. He talked about tools and training particularly. How have you seen the training DNA of this industry evolve and what have we gotten good at doing in terms of work force training and education?

BICKHAM: Well, I’d like to think that we’ve gotten really good, but the trick is to bring people in to the company, give them the training and tools and supervision that they need to be successful and to hold onto them so that you’re not dealing with a brand new employee doing that in six months or nine months or a year or two years. And to create a career path for people to come into the industry and to feel like it’s a place where they can call home and they want to stay and they take pride in who they work for. I think, at least Charter, I don’t know about the whole industry, but Charter for sure has done a good job of that and that’s critical to — because it’s not just training. It’s ongoing supervision making people feel like they have a path to be promoted and to do something more significant if they want to. And you’re talking about a work force at Charter of probably, I don’t know, 60,000 people that have that kind of job of some type or another, maybe 70,000 people. I mean you’re talking about a huge work force that brings people in at the bottom and some of them rise all the way to the top and you want to hold onto as many of them as you can.

SCHLEY: And those pathways have been created under your guys’ leadership over the last 10 years, for instance, five or 10 years? They didn’t used to exist?

BICKHAM: No, I think those pathways were always there. It’s just in some ways it’s easier to do in a great big company because there are more opportunities for people to move around and do different things.

SCHLEY: I thought one instructive subject might be to talk about the Spectrum branding actually because there’s a lot burbling under the surface there. Can you talk about the decision that was made and when you began to implement this consumer — this customer brand for Charter? And how hard it was?

RUTLEDGE: It wasn’t as hard as you think.

SCHLEY: I think it would be hard.

RUTLEDGE: I just remember saying and thinking we had — Optimum was the brand the Cablevision — which actually was Kristin Dolan, I believe, that came up with that notion. Prior to — just weeks prior to my arrival, but it was a really interesting experience because Cablevision had legacy issues and Optimum sort of created a way to be a unified, formidable, and modern consumer business and it was a way of being Cablevision but also being something greater. And when we would get into fights with programmers and whatever we fought as Cablevision, but when we came up with new products we fought as Optimum and fought in the marketplace as Optimum. And it seemed to me that that was a good way to brand a transformed legacy business. Because you keep your old and you keep your new together, but — and depending on the consumer’s relationship with you, you sort of get to own both things, modern and consistency.

SCHLEY: That’s the ideal you’re trying to achieve?

RUTLEDGE: Yeah. And so the name, I didn’t particularly care what it would be, but we —

SCHLEY: Surprised to hear that.

RUTLEDGE: — asked Jon Hargis to think about it and make recommendations and that was his recommendation.

BICKHAM: When did we do that, 2012?

RUTLEDGE: No, that was after we closed the deal.

SCHLEY: That was my question, before or after the acquisition?

BICKHAM: I don’t remember. I thought we came up with the brand before the transaction.

RUTLEDGE: I don’t think so. No, we were here in Connecticut.

BICKHAM: I know.

RUTLEDGE: Actually, now you’ve got me confused. I think it was — at least I thought it was after we did the transaction.

SCHLEY: But it’s a pretty extensive thing. You said it’s easy. I don’t know if it’s —

RUTLEDGE: Yeah, it’s going to cost a lot of money. You’ve got to go all in with it.

SCHLEY: You’ve got to re-logo-ize everything, you’ve got to —

BICKHAM: But you want to be known as Spectrum. It’s got to be pervasive in the way you speak to the public in everything — in every which way you speak to the public. And Charter’s a big marketing machine, spend lots and lots of money mass advertising and direct mail, online advertising, mass advertising online and on broadcast television and other forms of television. And some of it is just being religious about the way you talk about yourself and refer to yourself and imagery.

SCHLEY: How, Tom, would your journey have been different without this man sort of at your side at these three-way stations?

RUTLEDGE: It’s hard to say but —

BICKHAM: You’re really going to put him on the spot.

SCHLEY: I totally am putting him on the spot.

RUTLEDGE: I would have been a complete failure (laughter) and gone right into (overlapping dialogue; inaudible). Look, I wanted to work with John right from the beginning and when I had the choice of recommending an EVP, I chose John and when I went to Cablevision and I became COO of the company and the president — we were going to have a president of the cable company and it was going to have to work really well, I chose John and he luckily was openminded enough to come and it was a good run.

SCHLEY: Yeah, I would say.

RUTLEDGE: We talk about the business. We have a very common background in the business. We don’t have to waste a lot of words talking about the issues. It’s always been very comfortable for me and I think we ran good businesses together and we made a good team and I thought John knows more about operations than anybody now in the business, me included. Because he ran the operations with me and for me really back to the Cablevision days and through the Charter. I had a moment alone at Charter before John joined us, but it was really mostly about assessing what needed to be done, not executing. John’s executed this business and he does a really good job at it.

SCHLEY: And John, not to —

BICKHAM: You’re really too kind.

SCHLEY: Dude —

RUTLEDGE: I may be too kind, but it’s true though. There’s no issue that I’m aware — that I know or can think that I’d say, “Boy, John did that wrong.”

SCHLEY: It’s —

RUTLEDGE: That I wouldn’t have done too.

SCHLEY: Understood. I think too a lot of us know you through your quarterly earnings calls and whatnot, but what we’re talking about is not the glamor side of the cable business by any means. In fact, it rarely burbles to the surface unless you do something wrong, right? Is that a fair characterization?

BICKHAM: That’s pretty fair. (laughter)

RUTLEDGE: It is, but that’s what we talk about when we talk about the business.

SCHLEY: Really?


SCHLEY: And John, not to devolve into a mutual admiration society, but what is your sense of Mr. Rutledge in terms of you’ve worked with other executive leaders and CEOs, you know.

BICKHAM: We come from similar places, similar backgrounds, tracing it all the way back to family, experiences as a young person. I look at my career out of college and his out of college and where we started and what we did and how willing we were to do whatever it took to be successful. We’ve had arguments and we agreed to disagree, but we never let that disagreement get in the way of the next decision to be made. So we — I can’t think of anyone that I would have rather spent the last 25 years being around than Tom because we have similar thoughts about leadership and what it takes and how to inspire leadership and we’re different in some regards. I would like to think that we complement each other’s strengths and weaknesses because to some extent that’s true. I mean I have blind spots and Tom doesn’t have many, but he has a couple and —

SCHLEY: Welcome to the human race, right?

BICKHAM: And so it was a good fit and it was a good fit from the get-go. And again, to me the punctuation point is he’s an easy guy to be around. He’s easy to talk to and he’s easy to disagree with. He’s a good manager, good executive, good leader. Couldn’t ask for anything more. I mean it worked out.

SCHLEY: He — Tom said it well. It’s been a great run. So congrats to both of you on the new chapter in life and thank you for spending some time with us to talk about the journey all the way through. John Bickham, Tom Rutledge, Charter Communications, thank you for listening. For Syndeo Institute at the Cable Center I’m Stewart Schley and we’ll see you down the road.

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