The Big Picture
Even When Time Warner Cable Was In Its Infancy, Britt Sensed A Winner
By John M. Higgins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 4/9/2006 8:00:00 PM
Glenn Britt, President/CEO, Time Warner Cable
Vanguard Award for Distinguished Leadership
Glenn Britt’s career could have been a lot sexier. During his long ascent to become chairman of Time Warner’s cable division, Britt spent several years on the company’s showbiz side at Home Box Office. The network is the home of movies, series and stars, rather than fiber, servers and set-tops that make up his current domain.
Britt thinks he made the better choice. “Quite frankly, the network side is simpler,” he says, driven primarily by artistic creativity, an area where he says his talents are modest. “I’ve always thought the cable business is not only fun but intellectually fascinating. It’s changing all the time. It’s marketing-intensive, capital-intensive, labor-intensive and technology-intensive. The key to success is putting all those disciplines together.”
Britt’s choice turned into a great success story, as evidenced by the Vanguard Award for Distinguished Leadership he is receiving. Today, he runs the nation’s second-largest portfolio of cable systems, serving nearly 11 million subscribers in such markets as Manhattan, Houston and Kansas City, Mo. That collection is about to get bigger. In a complicated deal with Comcast and bankrupt Adelphia Communications, Time Warner Cable will add 3.5 million subscribers, becoming the largest cable operator in the fragmented Los Angeles market and dominating in Cleveland and Dallas.
Advanced technology has allowed Time Warner Cable to offer an array of new products, including cable telephone, Internet and video-on-demand. At the same time, the company faces a growing challenge from satellite companies and a counterattack by telephone companies, as well.
Britt got interested in cable while still in college. In mountainous New Hampshire, where he attended Dartmouth College, cable companies had been wiring small towns for years. But they were funneling only broadcast stations from distant cities.
FROM DARTMOUTH TO TEHRAN
As Britt was finishing up his MBA in 1972 at Dartmouth’s Tuck business school, publisher Time Inc. was in the midst of building the first big-city cable system, Manhattan Cable (which was started by Chuck Dolan, who went on to create Cablevision Systems). Further, Time was launching HBO, the first cable-specific network.
“Time Inc. was interesting because it was a pretty mature magazine company branching out,” Britt says. The capital investment required was immense and the prospects for success fairly thin. “The general belief in the finance community at the time was that there was never going to be enough money to wire America. I thought it could be something bigger.” After a campus interview, he accepted a job in the controller’s department.
That was the start of a tour of various Time Inc. divisions. Within two years, Britt became VP/treasurer of Manhattan Cable. Then he got an opportunity for a foreign assignment: He was sent to Tehran, Iran, for Time-Life Books.
It was hardly an exotic assignment. He was the finance director for a project helping the government publish how-to books, such as car-repair manuals. Even though the country was simmering toward an Islamic revolution, the Time staff didn’t see it coming. After 18 months, Britt left Tehran a year before the overthrow of the Shah of Iran. “Not because I was smart, but because my contract was up,” he points out.
Upon his return home, Britt took a slot at HBO network operations, running its production and uplinking facility. “Using all my financial acumen, I ended up running the technical department,” he says, chuckling. But the posting gave him a valuable education in the tech side of the business, particularly after the explosion of an RCA Satcom satellite left the network in a lurch for distribution space.
Britt ascended steadily over the next decade, becoming senior VP of finance for Time Inc.’s video group in 1984, then CFO of HBO and ultimately VP of finance in 1988.
Then in 1989, Time Inc. agreed to pay $14 billion to acquire Warner Communications. Although Time Inc. was the buyer, Warner executives largely won an initial political struggle over who would run the combined companies. Warner CFO Bert Wasserman became CFO of the new Time Warner. Britt was pushed to the sidelines.
The good news was that Britt went to work at the Denver headquarters of the combined companies’ cable division, then called American Television & Communications. He had worked with division Chairman Joe Collins at HBO, and they had a good relationship.
Britt spent a decade working for Collins, and the cable division laid the technological groundwork for the array of advanced services operators offer today. The division spent $1 billion upgrading systems around a new architecture rich with fiber. When Collins retired, Britt succeeded him, becoming CEO.
If the Adelphia transaction closes as scheduled this summer, Time Warner Cable will become a publicly traded company controlled by Time Warner. Unfortunately for Britt, it happens at a time when Wall Street has soured on the industry, in part because of competition from the phone companies.
Britt isn’t worried, and he has seen it all. “I thought this was an interesting business in the early 1970s,” he says. “I actually feel better about it now than I ever have since then.”
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