|Rocco Commisso's story is an American classic. At the age of 12, he immigrated to this country with his family from Italy and became a success through determination, an entrepreneurial spirit and some breaks along the way. “I recognized the opportunities this country has given me,” says Commisso, the outspoken founder and CEO of cable operator Mediacom.
“Opportunities I would not have gotten in the country I came from.” He grew up in an environment where a hard work ethic was expected and the importance of an education was paramount.
It seems clear that Commisso, who is being inducted into the Broadcasting & Cable Hall of Fame, embraced these concepts as a young man fully conscious of where he was coming from and where he was going.
At Columbia University, Commisso became president of the business school student body, and co-captain of the soccer team and an all-Ivy League star. He later climbed the ranks of the banking business at The Chase Manhattan Bank and Royal Bank of Canada, forging strong ties with his clients in cable and falling in love with an industry along the way.
He became one of the most recognizable figures in the cable industry, in part because of his colorful persona, but also because of his thorough knowledge of the business and unstoppable will to compete.
“Rocco Commisso is many things but above all else, he is the real deal,” says Cablevision Systems COO Tom Rutledge. “He has established himself as a talented and successful leader and spokesperson for our industry.”
Commisso, who says he learned the cable business from the outside in, still marvels at the entrepreneurial drive of the legendary pioneers who were stringing cable out on the poles in the early days of the industry. “The one negative was that I never worked in the field,” Commisso laments. “I always looked from the top down.”
Cablevision Industries founder Alan Gerry doesn't see it that way. Gerry lured Commisso from the banking side to the operational side, installing him as chief financial officer in 1986. Gerry, whom Commisso considers a mentor, was impressed and proud of his protégé's resolve to set out and build a cable company from the ground up after Gerry sold his company to Time Warner in 1995.
“Rocco is one of the last great pioneers of this industry and did it at a very difficult time for the cable industry,” Gerry says.
Gerry is not surprised at Commisso's success. He remembers Commisso as being earnestly interested in the company at all levels, from strategic acquisitions to marketing meetings—and even spending all night at the print shop to get prospectuses ready. He had a knack for understanding all the issues, Gerry says, including technology, regulatory issues and the programming side of the business.
There are many challenges in starting up a new cable company, but for Commisso the first big objective was putting the right management team in place. For this, he relied on relationships forged from years in the business; one example is Mark Stephan, whom Commisso knew from his banking days at RBC and would later work with on the operational side at Cablevision Industries.
Stephan gave up a relatively stable job to take a risk starting up with Commisso, but it was one he felt good about. “I hitched myself to a racehorse,” Stephan says. “It's the strength of Rocco's character that attracts people to him.”
While Commisso later leveraged his considerable reputation and contacts in the financial community to fund the company's expansion, early on he played his cards close to his vest. His initial investment, a small cable system in Ridgecrest, Calif., in 1996, was funded with a loan and his own equity.
NO VIEWER LEFT BEHIND
“I wanted to control my destiny,” he says. “I turned down hundreds of millions from investors and I put in everything I had.”
Mediacom was built through a series of acquisitions of cable systems in secondary markets where Commisso determined that customers were underserved by their providers. His mission was to deliver the same products to all customers whether they lived in a city or a small town.
“No one should be left behind,” he says, noting that he made good on that pledge. “Every promise we've made, we've delivered.”
Once Mediacom was up and running, there was no looking back. Small but growing quickly, the company was often vying for hotly contested properties with operators much bigger than itself. Success came from Commisso's perseverance and tenaciousness and an ability to negotiate like no other. Says Stephan: “Rocco's motto was, 'We are going to outsmart and outwork everyone.'”
Mediacom was an aggressive acquirer, but Commisso's banking background served him well, because he was also a disciplined buyer. He was careful with expenditures and never lost sight of priorities, adhering to three cardinal rules for success: buy right, finance right and operate right.
Through that hard work and financial savvy, Commisso built Mediacom Communications into the eighth largest cable operator in the nation, with more than 1.4 million subscribers in 23 states and over $1.2 billion in annual revenue.
He's not in the biggest cities. Markets include Des Moines, Iowa; Springfield, Mo.; Columbus, Ga.; Gulf Breeze, Fla.; and Valdosta, Ga. Commisso took the company public in 2000 and maintains 77% of the voting control.
Commisso sees a challenging competitive environment as cable operators become larger and larger. But he believes Mediacom will continue to thrive.
“There's enough money out there to make a strong, successful future for [Mediacom],” he says, “We have the platform, the product and the smarts to ensure we stay in the business.”
Commisso sees the investment in technology and the constant innovation of add-on products and features as the revenue drivers in a highly competitive market.
“Our industry is continuously innovating,” he says, pointing to the growing prevalence of DVR and VOD technology compared to a few years ago. But he has a simple formula to deal with the changes: “Whatever product the customer wants, give it to them.”