Jerald L. KentTribute Video
You don't have to dig very deep to find out where Jerry Kent gained his entrepreneurial spirit, and the roots of a dogged commitment to customer care. He'll tell you that as teenagers growing up in a St. Louis suburb, he and his three brothers always knew there was room for an extra set of hands to dole out scoops at the local Kent's Frosty Cream. That was only one business his father ran; he was also in residential real estate, owned a trailer park and even had a laundromat. The elder Kent brought boundless energy to all his endeavors whether they succeeded or failed. Jerry Kent learned a lot by example.
"At the trailer park, I used to cut the grass, and I worked with the dump trucks to load the dirt," he says. "The whole family did it." And at night, the whole family would also count out laundry machine coins and put them in wrappers for the bank. Watching his parents, Kent learned the value of a dollar-and even a quarter-and saw the importance of reliability and the honor of a job well done.
"My mom and dad made great personal sacrifices; neither of them went to college, but they strained resources so that I could earn two degrees," he says with gratitude. "Together, they raised four boys stressing integrity, hard work and caring for others."
It's a foundation that led Kent to a career where those three qualities are hallmarks, where his fiscal practicality as a CPA met the far-reaching challenges of turning around businesses, and one that spans the length and breadth of the modern cable TV era. It has many high points: most notably, his years at Charter Communications, which he cofounded in 1993 and left in 2001, two years after it launched the third largest IPO in U.S. history. And more recently, he helped build Suddenlink Communications into the seventh largest cable company in the U.S., serving as chairman and CEO.
But along with myriad industry causes he has supported and important boards he serves on, the recognition Kent frequently receives-highlighted by his 2012 induction into the B&C Hall of Fame-comes from his ability to coax both profit and a culture of service at every company he has managed.
"You'd be hard-pressed to find an executive in the cable or media industry who has the consistent track record of financial and operating performance that Jerry has," says Gerry Cardinale, a senior partner in Goldman Sachs' private equity group and a longtime friend and investor in Kent's companies. "Jerry doesn't hit singles and doubles; he hits homers and grand slams in whatever he's involved in, and has made a lot of money for his investors over the last 30 years. But what's even more impressive is the way Jerry does it. In today's world, it's a lot about the money and form over substance. Jerry is all about the substance."
Kent credits his first job after graduating from Washington University with helping him understand the finer points of corporate culture. Arthur Andersen, where he began working as a CPA in 1979, "had one of the strongest cultures of any organization in the country," he recalls. "That helped shape my management style."
Kent's mentor and longtime business partner, Howard Wood, may have been the first to spot Kent's unique ability, but says it wasn't difficult to see.
"I interviewed Jerry and hired him to work with me at Arthur Andersen," Wood says. "Let's just say he's not very different today from what he was like then. You always know where you stand with Jerry, which is a great thing, and integrity is at the center of everything he does."
After four years at Arthur Andersen, where he specialized in telecommunications, Kent-along with Wood-saw the growing opportunity of an involvement in cable, and moved to the small Cencom Cable Associates. It eventually grew to serve 550,000 customers in the U.S., with Kent rising to CFO.
"I was young and probably naive, but [Cencom founder] Bob Brooks was persuasive, and the timing was right for taking a risk," Kent says of the Cencom job. "Plus, I was able to join a company and learn from all-stars in the cable industry [such as] Bill Bresnan and Frank Drendel. I'd had several cable companies as clients [at Arthur Andersen]. And the industry keeps reinventing itself."
Change could be considered the key industry word during Kent's time at Charter. During his years at the helm, the company grew to be one of the 10 largest cable operators in the U.S., with 1.3 million customers. After its acquisition by Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen in 1998, Charter-with Kent still aboard as president and CEO-grew exponentially, becoming the country's fourth-largest cabler, with 7 million customers (along with large attendant profits for investors).
But growth and profit at Kent's companies have always run concurrently with a reputation as the industry leader in customer care and employee culture.
"He's had many of the same people work with him from one company to the next over many years because they trust Jerry's commitment to them and to creating ways to be successful," Wood says. "Also, his commitment to customers and customer relations is unparalleled."
The same rules have long applied at both Suddenlink and Cequel III, the telecommunications management company Kent cofounded in 2002. The postbankruptcy assets of Classic Cable formed the foundation of the company that eventually became Suddenlink. Kent explained his involvement with Classic to B&C at the time by saying, "We like to place our bets where management makes a difference." Kent and company—-through savvy acquisitions, investments and upgrades—-saw Suddenlink evolve into a highly-regarded industry presence.
Staying current with technological innovation and cross-platform delivery, Kent and Suddenlink are wrapping up a three-year, $350 million bandwidth expansion initiative called Project Imagine that will nearly quadruple the company's average number of HD channels offered, enable all-digital lineups in virtually all areas and allow for expansion of faster Internet speeds. But staying ahead of that pace involves applying the same old-school lessons Kent learned around the kitchen table to whatever he does. They're lessons he and his wife, Judy, have instilled in their two children. And they're what have always made Kent a success.
"With Suddenlink, you've got telephone, broadband, online, apps—-it's really morphed into a very complicated business," he says. "The difference today is [navigating] this geometric change. We do it by investing in people and technology. We've grown our employment base 3% over the last few years. But tied into the investment is that it's about providing customer care. It still all boils down to this: If you take better care of your customers, you win." --Robert Edelstein