Interview Date: Sunday July 30, 2018
Interviewer: Lela Cocoros
Collection: Cable Center Oral History Project
Interview Location: Independent Cable Show – Anaheim, California, USA
Cocoros: Hi, I’m Lela Cocoros. It is July 30, 2018, and we are at the Independent Cable Show in Anaheim, California. And I’m here today with Pat Thompson, who is president of Pat Thompson Company. Welcome.
Thompson: Thank you very much. It’s good to be here again.
Cocoros: Great. You did an oral history back in 1999. And a lot has happened since then, so maybe we should over some of those things. First off, though, I’d like you to just give us a quick kind of run-through of your career, and how you got involved in cable at the first. Which brought you to running your own company.
Thompson: All right. 1978, I went to work for Jones Intercable and was hired as a systems analyst to do all the projections for the limited partnerships. I was there for about a year. This was before computers, I hate to admit it. I decided I wanted to be a broker and I was told that women didn’t do that. So that made me want to do it even more. After about a year there, they let me go out and start looking at small properties for the partnerships. I really enjoyed it, and it worked well for all of us. I don’t what got into me but in 1982, I decided I should go out and start my own company and sell the small systems because Jones didn’t want them all. And you get these people all excited about selling their small systems and we wouldn’t want them. So I did it and the interest rates were up at 22% and it was horrible. So needless to say, not much was selling at that point. But after a year I closed my first deal, which was Hershey, Pennsylvania, and I always thought I would have a limited time selling the small cable systems. But here I am, what, thirty years later. And I’m still here selling small cable systems. It’s an amazement to me and yet it’s something I absolutely love.
Cocoros: Obviously. How did you land on “I want to be involved with brokering systems” and how did you get that interest? Was that something just being around cable systems?
Thompson: After going out and being a broker for Jones and meeting the smaller operators and finding out what their desires were, and you found out really fast that in those days, and even now, this was their whole life. And when they finally make the decision to sell, it means so much to them because they’ve worked so hard and now this is their retirement. And when Jones didn’t buy them because they didn’t fit their partnerships, you could see how disappointed these people were. There was nobody doing this. Nobody selling the smaller systems. Let’s face it: you know, the money wasn’t there. I just—I don’t know, I think women sometimes have a little bit more empathy than men do. I decided this is what I was going to do, and I did it.
Cocoros: That’s fabulous. Talk to me a little bit about your time at Daniels, too.
Thompson: Well, that was interesting I can remember when Bill Daniels interviewed me, and this was in 1991 when the highly leveraged transaction regulations hit. I had people working for me. My deals were falling apart left and right because the banks wouldn’t lend money. I thought I was going to get out of the business. But then Bill came to me and said, “Pat, I want you to come to work for us.” I looked at him and said, “Bill, I don’t want to go to work for you and all your boys.” He laughed, and he said, “Honey, you’re a tough old broad, you can handle those boys.”
So it worked out. I think it was a learning experience for all of us because there were 60 guys and me. I think everybody tiptoed around each other because a couple of women had been there, and it didn’t work out. I don’t know whether it was tough or stubbornness, but I was going to make this work, and it did. I think that most of the men were just thinking, oh, I’m going to learn all the secrets and I’m going to go out and start my own company again. I thought, no, I kind of like being at Daniels.
Cocoros: So who are the people in the industry who influenced you, or you know, really made a big difference in your career?
Thompson: Bill Daniels. Alan Gerry. Trygve Myhren. Even John Malone, in his own way, because the first time I went to him to sell him Hershey, Pennsylvania, and he was sitting with Bob Magness, and said, “Why would we need to use you? Because we don’t need a broker.” And I said, “If you want to buy Hershey, you need to use me because I have an exclusive listing on it.” From then on, he always said “hi” to me.
Cocoros: There you go. Did TCI buy Hershey?
Cocoros: I didn’t think so.
Thompson: Somebody else did.
Cocoros: Interesting. At least you got his attention.
Thompson: Do you ever remember Tom Keaveny?
Cocoros: I remember the name.
Thompson: He ended up buying it. Nice guy. He’s gone now. This is what’s scary after 40 years in this business. All the people you knew are starting to die.
Cocoros: So of all of the deals you made over the years or all the time you have had with WICT and your involvement there, what would you consider your greatest accomplishment in your career?
Thompson: Surviving with anything, competition comes along. There were many other small boutique brokerage firms that came into being. Not to mention CEA [Communications Equity Associates] and [John] Waller and people like that. I think that the success mostly was not trying to go after the huge big deals. To just stay in the niche of the smaller deals. And you know, I’ve been so fortunate. I handled—I don’t know if you remember Alan Harmon.
Cocoros: Harmon Cable.
Thompson: I sold his systems and Douglas Communications. I sold that. Those were my two biggest deals, and I think they were around 60,000 subs at that time. Those were a pretty good size. At least I realized I could do the big deals. They weren’t much different than the small deals. But I’ve just formed so many relationships over the years, and that’s been my success is relationships.
Cocoros: It’s all about relationships, isn’t it? So you went through kind of the ebb and flow of the financial markets. So how did you keep going when things were kind of in the hole for the industry?
Thompson: It was stressful and if I hadn’t been fortunate enough to go to work for Daniels, I probably wouldn’t have survived. Because there was that period there where nothing was selling. I was with a company that certainly had the backing to keep going. And if I’d been by myself, it wouldn’t have been possible. It was just in 2010 when I left Daniels. This was after RBC [Royal Bank of Canada] purchased them, and basically they didn’t want to continue to do the small deals. So I went out and started Pat Thompson Company again and sitting there being so afraid. Isn’t that funny—after all those years that because I wasn’t with Daniels anymore, that maybe I wouldn’t be able to move forward, and I must admit, even at that age, I was terrified to start over again. I did, and it worked.
Cocoros: It sure did. I think that it’s interesting that your niche has really served you well. And you’ve served it well, obviously. It’s really important to have a go-to expert in the area of independence, smaller sized systems. Especially, I think, these days when a lot is on the line.
Thompson: You know, I think so many of those smaller guys don’t realize how hard selling your system really is. All the paperwork, all of the contracts, everything. And how to prepare your system for sale and then to have somebody there that fights for you instead of you having to irritate the buyer that you’re talking to. Let the broker be the bad guy. And I think that’s, I must say, where we come in handy sometimes.
Cocoros: So what do you think is the most important big story of the industry that must be told? Is there something that really sticks with you in terms of kind of where we are now, with all the background and expertise that you have had over the years? What stands out perhaps as something to really kind of know about right now?
Thompson: After what, 40 years or so coming to all of these meetings; in fact, I’ve reminisced a lot since I’ve been here because of the Western Shows. You know, every year you would come to these, and I’ve come to Disneyland and I’m thinking, where’s Disneyland? This isn’t the hotel I used to come to. What’d they do?
Cocoros: It’s very different, isn’t it?
Thompson: It was. When the business started out, it was so much relationships, shaking hands to get a deal done, and I know that probably sounds a little bit corny, but people were friends. And over the years it has become more of a financial play. I’m not saying that people are not still friends, but it’s just a whole different feeling. The people were different. It was like the guy talking about the Millennials and the way they feel about things. It’s almost that way when you look at the cable industry now.
Cocoros: It’s a more mature industry. I think as it gets more mature, the stakes get higher. Companies get bigger…
Thompson: Broadband. And telephone—those were words that you just said, no, we don’t want to talk about those. It was all cable. Now, cable has gotten so expensive to provide that everybody’s got to change it. This is why you’re seeing a lot of the older people selling their cable systems. Because they really don’t want to deal with all the new shock.
Cocoros: Talk to me about cable’s impact. Your view of what impact cable has had on our society and just generally.
Thompson: Oh, my goodness. Everything. It’s like social media. In it’s own way. Look at when CNN started. And 24-hour news. That has to impact the way people look at the world and how they live and everything. So many things that we never knew about that came to us through the cable television. The programming has been wonderful. And now, you can watch it on every device in the whole world. I’m just glad I’m old because I don’t want to learn all these things.
Cocoros: Let’s just talk about your legacy. And just as a longtime cable veteran and historically, you’ve been there for the good times and the bad, where do you see, what do you think about in terms of your mark on the industry?
Thompson: Now that’s a question I don’t think I’ve ever even thought about. I guess that basically I will always hope that I’m looked upon as somebody who was a pioneer as far as being the first woman to do this. And my involvement with Women in Cable, I don’t know what I would have done without them. They were my support when I first started in this business. Because all the awards, all the recognition that I’ve got, was from Women in Cable. It wasn’t from anyplace else. And I don’t take that lightly. Even though I’m not involved in Women in Cable anymore, I still pay my dues, but I just don’t go to the meetings because there are no meetings in Bozeman, Montana. So it gets difficult. But I guess that realistically, I hope that I’ve made some difference in some of my clients’ lives. The one thing that will always stick with me is that I sold this system once for this guy in Colorado. And we went out to a restaurant to celebrate afterwards, and he got up on the table and started doing a little dancing. “Thank God for Pat Thompson!” And I thought, that’s the first person that’s really appreciated me!
Cocoros: I guess it wasn’t captured on social media.
Thompson: No. Especially when he fell off the table.
Cocoros: That’s great. But really, when you think about it, all the families, a lot of these companies are family-run, and it made a big difference to them to get the right price for all their work and all their challenge over the years. It’s not easy to run a cable system. And it’s certainly not easy to run a cable system in a more rural, smaller community. So you’ve made a high difference, I would imagine, on a lot of these people…
Thompson: You just love to think that men—it’s amazing that you can do something like that for people. And they may not say, “Oh, thank you, thank you.” But you get a nice commission, and that’s the “thank you, thank you.”
Cocoros: That’s right.
So where do you go from here? What do you think about where the industry is headed?
Thompson: Just the technology is mind-boggling. You know, watching the Show today, and watching the future that Chris showed us, I thought, wow. The problem is that, as you get older, you can’t remember how to use all those things. I don’t know how that’s going to work. It’s going to be mind-boggling.
Cocoros: So you still think the cable industry will keep going?
Thompson: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. Probably long after I’m gone. We were sitting there in the ACA [American Cable Association] board meeting yesterday, and they were talking about what are you going to be doing in five years. And, oh, my God, in five years I’m going to be 80 years old. What am I going to be doing? I hope I can still think.
I don’t know. It has been so wonderful though. I’m so blessed to have been part of this. It has just been great.
Cocoros: Great. Are there any other stories you’d like to share?
Thompson: Well, an interesting story about not burning your bridges. When I went to work for Jones Intercable, the very first system that I went out to look at for them, was in Mississippi. They didn’t buy it. So two years later, when I started my own company, I contacted that guy again and I sold the system. I listed it and sold it to Comcast. Ten years later, I went to work for Daniels. Comcast called and wanted me to sell that system. I sold it back to the original owner.
Cocoros: Full circle.
Thompson: Full circle. It was like every segment of my life in cable that system kind of played a part. And that always just amazed me.
Cocoros: That’s a great story. It really is. Because it also kind of goes back to, it’s all about the relationships. And obviously, it’s like having a realtor that you trust, and you use them and then you refer them and that type of thing. And it’s the same—I think you know people—it’s very personal and it gets to be it’s important to finally have somebody that really understands you and you have a rapport with.
Thompson: In this case, though, you know, the guy that sold it to Comcast originally, it wasn’t that he wanted it, he wanted to buy it for his son. So his son would continue to stay in the business. You do see a lot of this that if the kids want to run the system, they would much prefer that the kids stay in it. But not so many want to work so hard anymore. It’s a lot of work. It’s a lot of work.
Cocoros: It is a lot of work. Well, thank you very much, Pat.
Thompson: Thank you for having me. I’ll see you in another ten years.
Diane Christman: May I ask you a quick question?
Christman: I just wonder—I love your story and your examples of starting out in the business. Do you consider yourself a trailblazer? Because you’re so modest—
Cocoros: I know, really.
Christman: You were first.
Thompson: Well, I don’t think about it, I guess.
Christman: You just do it.
Thompson: You just do it. You know, again, I keep hating to bring up this thing about women, but most of us do not have the egos that you see in the male species. And we don’t need to have a building named after us, or something like that. We just do it. And my kids are proud of me. That’s important. I have seven grandchildren and they are just thrilled when they see me in some of these books that I have been in. Someday I’ll get them to the Cable Center. And maybe they’ll really be proud of me. We’ll see.
END OF INTERVIEW