From Spy Wannabe to Insight's Top Ranks
Kelly took an unusual path to cable-system management
By John M. Higgins -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/8/2003 8:00:00 PM
Lots of women have boats named after them, from moguls' yachts to weekenders' dinghies. But Insight Communications President Kim Kelly once had a very special craft named after her: a giant 950-foot cargo ship capable of carrying 4,000 or so truck-trailer size containers.
Kelly's craft was christened during her previous life as a banker. Before joining the eighth-largest cable company, Kelly spent most of the 1980s at Marine Midland Bank. Her three years of that time in the bank's workout group put her in the middle of one of the highest-profile bankruptcies of the decade, the collapse of United States Lines. The shipping company famously made a $500 million bet on 18 Korean-built container ships. The ships were huge, slow but tremendously fuel-efficient, perfect for the days after the 1979 oil shock. Unfortunately, they were not perfect for the mid 1980s, when oil prices had dropped and speed became customers' priority.
Marine Midland was part of the creditor committee that seized the ships after an arduous fight. One task was to register new names for them. "Guys were naming them after their wives, after their daughters. I said, 'Wait, I want one.'" Hence, the "Kim D." was born.
Having a massive freighter bearing her name isn't the only oddity about Kelly. As president and COO, she's the most senior-ranked female cable-system executive among major cable companies nationwide, one rung below CEO Michael Willner.
But more unusual, she became COO even though she came up on the financial side of the company. Senior operating officers usually come up through system and regional management ranks.
CFOs usually deal with lenders, investment bankers, shareholders and the like. But, joining Insight in 1990, Kelly dug into the systems more deeply than usual, she says, partly because Insight was so small (180,000 subscribers vs. 1.4 million today) and had no COO when she arrived.
And, then of course, there was Insight's desperate financial condition in 1992.
In addition to its U.S. operation, Insight had a U.K. division that secured franchises overseas, notably Glasgow, Scotland. Capital burdens had pushed the company's debt load up to 13 times annual cash flow, at a time when Adelphia's 10-times multiple was considered breathtaking for cable and five times was considered modest.
"For the first eight years, I was pretty hands-on," Kelly says. "I was quite involved in the operations. You couldn't really turn it around unless you were in the systems all the time."
But her first job was to instill discipline. "They wouldn't even use the term 'budget'; they spent what the job took," she recalls, adding, "You have to have a plan. Employees like structure."
Insight had decided to sell its U.S. operations and concentrate on Britain. Fortunately, Willner pulled back, because the U.K. market imploded. Insight U.K. was sold to what is now NTL, which went bankrupt last year.
Kelly's an odd choice for a banker, cable operator or corporate executive of any type. Born in Manhattan, she majored in Russian and economics, studying in part at the University of Leningrad. "I really wanted to be a spy," she says. One major impediment to convincing U.S. intelligence agencies: "I was a registered Socialist at the time."
Despite her father's background as the owner of a major construction company and her own start in banking, Kelly sometimes still finds herself the odd woman out.
At a recent meeting of the Society of Cable Television Engineers, "I walk into a room, it's 30 men, 30 redneck men." When she took her managers out to play golf, "they're all chewing tobacco."
Asked how that was different from dealing with macho Wall Street and finance types, she says she hadn't looked at it that way. "Maybe because that's where I came from."
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