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Person of theYear: Glenn Britt

Wed, 10/16/2013 - 11:49am
Mike Robuck

A cable legacy - Britt’s 41-year career leaves high-water mark for cable industry  

“He understands the art of the possible inside of technology,” Mike Hayashi, executive vice president of architetecture, development and engineering, Time Warner Cable, on working with Glenn Britt.

Time Warner Cable’s Glenn Britt is the cable industry’s polymath.

In his 41-year cable-related career, Britt, who will retire as CEO and chairman at the end of this year, has worked in finance, programming, venture investments, and programming positions. He has spearheaded services such as data and voice, which are now cornerstones of not only Time Warner Cable but of the cable industry as whole, as well as driven the development of multi-screen apps and services, Start Over, Look Back, and cloud-based user interfaces, to name a few.

Britt, 64, has also worked diligently to give cable operators a better policy presence in Washington D.C. while championing causes such as diversity and education.

In his “Person of the Year” interview with CED, Britt declined to talk about his hobbies, his family, his retirement, or what he considered his greatest accomplishment. Aside of mentioning his mentors, which included former Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin, former Time Warner Cable CEO Joe Collins, former Advance/Newhouse chairman and former Bright House Networks chairman Bob Miron and Time Inc./Manhattan Cable Television executive Nick Nicholas, Britt just wanted to talk about the history of the cable operator industry and his company’s role in it.

“He came up as a financial guy, but his breadth and understanding of the industry are far greater than that,” Miron said. “He understands the political ramifications of what we do. Just all around he’s a very strategic, smart thinker and a very good CEO for them.”

Reeling in the early years 

"Thinking back on those early days, the one thing I would say is I always thought cable could be a big business. Certainly not without some risks, but I thought it would be a big business. A lot people didn’t think that would happen,” said Britt about his start in the cable operator business.

Fresh off of earning his master of business degree from the Amos Tuck School of Business Administration at Dartmouth, Britt joined Time Incorporated’s controller department in 1972. Time Inc. was a colossus in the publishing world back when Britt joined the company with a roster of iconic magazines that included Time, Life and Sports Illustrated, as well as owning the maximum amount of broadcast stations that was allowed back then.

Britt could have chosen the safe route on the publishing side of the business, but he was intrigued by the TV stations and cable systems that Time Inc. owned.

In 1973, Time bought a 9 percent stake in American Television and Communications, which was the seedling of Time Warner Cable, and then the rest of the company five years later.

“They wanted to do something in television and cable,” Britt said of Time Inc.’s management. “They owned a bunch of cable systems, and I thought the cable part was interesting. I wasn’t especially interested in the magazine business or publishing.

 “I joined the company to see what would happen. Remember that cable was only a reception service at this point. There was no HBO, really there was nothing other than a reception service.”

While working his career track in the financial planning and budgeting department, Britt started chipping in on the pay TV projects.

“What they were trying to figure out was pay TV a real thing because remember no one had ever demonstrated a demand for people paying for TV,” he said. “They actually had three projects. One was what actually turned into HBO, another was a movie and hotel project, which was turned into a company that was later spun off, and the third was a very ambitious project with IBM and Hughes Aircraft where they were going to launch a satellite with 12 transponders and Time Inc. was going to program them. I would say in all honesty we didn’t know how to program one channel, much less 12. Launching satellites was very risky at the time. Satellites blew up with regularity back then.

“We ended up not doing that project, but I spent a lot of time on it. Then after about a year and half, I ended up going to work for Manhattan Cable, which was my first job in a cable system. Manhattan Cable was an operation that nobody knew if it was ever going to be a business.”

According to a book on Time Warner Cable’s history, Britt ran into Nicholas in the hallway of Time’s building after which he was offered the positions of vice president and treasurer of Manhattan Cable Television. With the new job, Britt went from the hallowed halls of Time to Manhattan Cable’s offices on 23rd Street, which at the time wasn’t one of the more upscale locales in Manhattan.

While located in the same city, Manhattan Cable was worlds away from Time, and it was losing money.

“Remember we were selling a reception service and actually in Manhattan there was a demand for that because the broadcast signals bounced all over the place,” Britt said.

“They used to advertise that ‘We stamp out your ghosts.’ You would get multiple versions of each signal. The operation had been losing a lot of money. I went there as the CFO and I was very young so I’m not sure I have accurate perceptions, but my perception was we were supposed to make it look better and then dispose of it.

“Lo and behold after a few years we actually made it profitable. I doubt Time Inc.

would have stayed in the cable business if we hadn’t turned that into a profit. We also launched HBO, which was new at the time.”

Miron said he first met Britt in the early ’70s when Britt was working for HBO.

Miron, who was representing Newhouse’s Eastern Microwave, and Britt sat across from each other at the negotiation table for the first time. In the pre-satellite days, HBO was being transmitted in upstate New York via Eastern Microwave, which meant HBO couldn’t add another cable system unless Eastern Microwave added another hop.

“We have been partners. We have been on the same side of the negotiating table many times and on the opposite side of the negotiation table many times,” Miron said. “In each of those sometimes difficult negotiations we’ve been able to maintain our friendship and respect for each other.”

At the time, Britt said that despite no formal training, he was running HBO’s engineering department and studio.

In 1981 Britt, who was 32, headed west to Denver as senior vice president of finance for ATC. According to the company’s history book, Britt said that ATC stood for “all that capital” during that timeframe because of the capital expenditures that were associated with buying up cable systems in order to grow the business.

“The finance people at Time Inc. that I worked with originally thought that there was no way that Wall Street would provide the money to wire America with another wire,” Britt said of cable’s early days. “They basically told me I should go work for one of the magazines and forget this cable stuff.

I thought they were wrong.

“Everybody forgets that HBO took at least five years before anybody thought it might be a real business.”

The births of FSN, data and voice

“I give Glenn a lot of credit because he went out on a limb many times with the guys in New York and convinced them we should try new things in the cable company,” said Carl Rossetti, who worked with Britt in several capacities at Time Warner Cable and Time Warner Cable Ventures.

The worlds of publishing, entertainment, and, to a lesser extent, cable collided when Time Inc. bought Warner Communications in 1989 and formed Time Warner. In 1990, Britt, who had a hand in finding financing for the Time/Warner deal, was named executive vice president of Time Warner Cable, as well as president and CEO of Time Warner Cable Ventures.

After investments by US West, Toshiba and Itochu in parent company Time Warner Entertainment, Time Warner Cable went public in early 1993 about its Full Service Network project. Headed up by Jim Chiddix’s engineering team, the Full Service Network (FSN) made its debut the following year in Orlando. It was the nation’s first digital broadband interactive cable television service, and a forerunner of what the cable operator industry looks like today.

It was not a financial success, although Time Warner Cable won an Emmy for the FSN two years ago.

“The Full Service Network wasn’t a roaring success from a financial point of view, but from a technical and business development point of view it was pretty successful,” said Rossetti, who retired last year as executive vice president of corporate development and president of Time Warner Cable Ventures. “We learned a lot of stuff. For instance we learned that people liked to buy programming on an on demand basis. We learned that people liked to shop. We had pretty rudimentary shopping things that we were doing on the Full Service Network. You could buy stamps online, you could order pizzas and stuff like that.

"Pretty simplistic and pretty rudimentary, but if you think about it, and you think about everything that is happening today over the Internet, all of that stuff kind of got its genesis through the Full Service Network. It was the wrong protocol. It was the right idea but just the wrong way to do it. The Internet hadn’t even been invented yet. It was sort of Internet over a cable system, but it wasn’t using IP, it was using cable protocols rather than IP protocols.”

Time Warner Cable’s Mike LaJoie, executive vice president and chief technology and network operations officer, said Time Warner Cable started looking into the World Wide Web access business in 1992. After the fall out from the Full Service Network, Time Warner’s upper management wasn’t interested in throwing money at a new service.

“People were gun shy in New York after the Full Service Network,” Rossetti said. “They thought we were crazy and they didn’t want to do anything with us after the Full Service Network. Glenn was able to convince them to let us try new things, do new things, and without him we couldn’t have done this stuff. He was the one that had all of the relationships back in New York City. He was the guy that people really trusted.”

Time Warner Cable trialed its data service in Elmira, New York, then recruited Microsoft and Compaq before launching the Road Runner service in 1996. Road Runner was the first cable-delivered highspeed Internet service.

“Glenn was the one that had the most vision in all of Time Warner,” LaJoie said. “We figured out how to do TCP/IP over a cable plant long before DOCSIS. Glenn is the one that had the vision that the access business could be something. He saw the possibility.”

Rossetti said it took Time Warner Cable several years to get its first 100,000 Road Runner subscribers because at the time consumers didn’t see the need for having high-speed data in their homes.

“I’m going to brag, but I think we (the cable industry) really brought broadband to America,” Britt said. “The phone companies had DSL but they weren’t really interested in pushing it because they were making a lot of money with T1 lines to businesses. The cable industry was a big part of it. We led the way.”

Time Warner Cable bowed digital cable and video-on-demand in 1999. Along with Cox Communications, Time Warner Cable was also an early pioneer on the telephony side with its launch in 2003.

“I would love to say that telephony or highspeed data were his biggest accomplishments because each one of those is essentially a pillar of our current business,” Hayashi said. “The direction he provided during that period of time was absolutely critical. That’s probably one of his biggest accomplishments.”

Leadership strengths 

"I think he’s definitely a great friend of technology. He’s given the engineers the opportunity to innovate,” Hayashi said.

Under Britt, the engineering department came out of the shadows and onto center stage. Hayashi said that while Britt brought the engineering effort out of the backroom and gave them free rein to innovate, he also kept the customer experience in mind.

“The thing about technology is it’s not the need to understand how to build an amplifier or write software per se, it’s also important to be able to think from our customers’ perspective,” Hayashi said. “The challenge for us is what does this mean to our customers? What is the experience? Those are challenging questions for engineering.

“There’s a contrast and difference between the early days of cable and how he has made our engineering group more consumer experience aware today.”

LaJoie said that Britt allowed employees the room to fail, but also provided the support that’s needed to succeed.

“He asks good questions,” LaJoie said. “He also provides real clarity of direction. He’s great at setting goals, setting a direction, communicating and providing clarity. I think his ability to work with engineering is that he is always kind of understood the value of the infrastructure that we have. He never really loses touch with that.”

Britt also steered Time Warner Cable’s deals to acquire part of the former Adelphia systems, the spin-off from Time Warner in 2009, and the acquisitions of NewWave Communications, NaviSite and Insight Communications.

“I think Glenn understands growth, both internal and external, better than any of his predecessors in our company,” Rossetti said. “He understands the need to grow. For a long time we were just stagnant with being in the video business and at that time everyone was just sort of fat and happy, but he was the one that recognized that it wasn’t going to continue. That the world was going to change. That we were going to have competition and that places where we had leverage might go away.

“I think he positioned Time Warner Cable for the future more so than it was ever positioned in the past. We owe a lot to him for that. He had great foresight in seeing what was coming.”

Rossetti also said that Britt took it upon himself to raise the awareness of the cable operator industry in Washington D.C.

“One of the things that Glenn realized that the former leadership didn’t realize was that we had to become more active, more friendly and better understood in Washington,” he said. “I would say that was truly an area where Glenn really raised our game. I think Glenn built a lot of bridges that never existed prior to him becoming CEO. He has done an excellent, excellent job in creating those relationships, building those relationships and getting the cable industry much better understood. I give him a lot of credit for that.”

A champion for diversity, education

“One of the things I really appreciate about Glenn is that he is really a fierce competitor,” LaJoie said. “He is someone that absolutely loves to win, but he brings integrity and fairness to everything he does and a sense of decency. You can really see it through the things he has chosen to do outside of the company. His efforts around diversity, his efforts around education, his efforts just around healthcare and what he is trying to do for our employees and for the communities that we do business in.”

In 2009, Britt was one of five corporate executives appointed by President Obama to a task force charged with strengthening America’s economic competitiveness through leadership in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. The “Educate to Innovate” initiative seeks to increase the scale, scope and impact of private-sector and philanthropic support in improving American students’ STEM proficiency.

In tandem with the White House initiative, Britt led Time Warner Cable’s launch of Connect a Million Minds, which is the company’s $100 million, five-year philanthropic initiative to encourage students to pursue STEM-related education and career opportunities.

“I think Glenn has been probably the strongest advocate for diversity and inclusion. I think it’s transforming our company,” Hayashi said. “The balance he brings between the technology, running the cable company and the overall care for the people that work in the company; maybe they are blocking and tackling kind of things, but they are the most important.”

In his spare time, Britt serves on the boards of Cardinal Health and Xerox Corporation. He is also on the boards of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA), The Paley Center for Media, CableLabs, FIRST Robotics and the Manhattan Theatre Club Some of the awards and honors from his career in cable include induction into the Cable Hall of Fame (2007), Cable Pioneers (2001) and Broadcasting & Cable’s Hall of Fame (2008); Cable Positive’s Joel G. Berger Award; the NCTA’s Vanguard Award for Distinguished Leadership; The Media Institute’s American Horizon Award; the NAMIC Stanley B. Thomas Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award; and the Kaitz Foundation Diversity Champion Award. In 2010, Britt was named Humanitarian of the Year by the UJA-Federation of New York.

The final chapter

“It's that imagination that is so critical, because it’s what limits our ability to innovate,” said LaJoie. “If you can’t imagine something being different it won’t happen, and Glenn has always had that imagination. He’s a one of a kind guy and he’s going to be missed.”

Britt didn’t specifically mention CBS in his interview with CED, but he did say that the Cable Television Consumer Protection and Competition Act of 1992 needed to be updated, and that if programming costs continued to go up video could be a less important part of Time Warner Cable’s offerings going forward.

While the public may have the perception that the cable operator industry is a herd of dinosaurs waiting for a comet to hit, Britt said it would continue to evolve with the needs of its customers, and with the same entrepreneurial spirit that marked cable’s beginning.

“It’s ironic now when I read that cable companies don’t want over-the-top or whatever,” he said. “That really is not true, at least for our company. We want to use technology. We think we have great infrastructure. We think the infrastructure has great value. The way it will be used over time, and the particular services we may offer may change, but we’re not in anyway trying to protect or hold onto a 30-year-old model.

“I think we still have that idea to use technology to do things that people don’t necessarily see. I know, and I don’t just think this, that we are much more cutting edge than the public realizes in what we do inside of our networks.” ■     

Cable execs sound off on Britt   

“Glenn’s dedication to the cable industry is remarkable. From his early days at HBO all the way through his tenure as CEO of Time Warner Cable, Glenn has been a tireless advocate for our business. He has been a stalwart presence through times of great change in our industry, an outspoken voice in Washington and has continually delivered returns for those who have invested in Time Warner Cable. The cable industry will miss him, but we wish him well as he completes an impressive career.” - Tom Rutledge, CEO and president, Charter Communications

 

“Glenn’s contributions to our industry and to the growth of Time Warner Cable are immeasurable. He helped transform our industry into the broadband age and championed important issues for consumers. ” - Brian Roberts, chairman and CEO, Comcast

"Glenn has spent many decades in this industry being the thoughtful, guiding hand during important changes and significant innovations in cable. The company he joined was very different than the one today – there was no Internet or hundreds of TV channels to deliver – but its been Glenn there building and transforming it, always with a keen eye on the future. While we know he is retiring as CEO at the end of the year, his impact on cable, Time Warner Cable and beyond, will be felt for years to come.” - Michael Powell, CEO and president, NCTA

“When we created our SCTE-Tuck Executive Leadership Program, Glenn firmly supported two key points: first, that engineering and operations executives deserved a first-rate program, and second, that the program should be created specifically for our industry. I’ll always be grateful for the way Glenn stepped in and talked to the people at Dartmouth and created an understanding of what we were trying to do. He was an evangelist for us because he himself was a proponent of that kind of training.” - Mark Dzuban, CEO and president, SCTE

“Glenn has been a very effective leader in our industry, heading up the second largest cable operator. He has done a widely respected and enviable job in his past leadership roles with NCTA and CableLabs. He has also been instrumental in drawing attention to the outdated rules governing retransmission consent and programming contracts – and fearless in opposing the ever-increasing and sometimes outrageous demands from the content community.” - Jerry Kent, chairman and CEO, Suddenlink Communications   

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