The Big Fix

Cooper's cable expertise rescues troubled companies

Ron Cooper spent most of his career at Continental Cablevision, one of the most highly regarded, stable operators in the cable business. But over the past three years, he has jumped from one volatile cable company to the next, part of a rescue squad hired to put out management fires.

In 1999, Cooper left his 20-plus-year cable career to join a telecom startup that sank. He quickly returned to cable, parlaying his expertise in marketing and management into a partnership to save ailing companies. His first challenge came in 2001. Cooper and former Continental colleague Bill Schleyer jumped into the AT&T Broadband fiasco to halt a plunge in profits so the operator could be sold. Today, they are struggling to wrestle scandal-plagued Adelphia Communications out of Chapter 11.

Why go from crisis to crisis? Part of it is the money. He reportedly earns millions in payouts from AT&T and Adelphia.

"It says a lot about how the industry has evolved," says Adelphia COO Cooper. As cable matured, the top companies formed two camps: the well-run and the troubled. Management at the strong ones doesn't change much, so Cooper looks to weaker ones to capitalize on his experience.

Yet his entrance into the cable business was unusual: via theater. While studying liberal arts at Wesleyan University, he became enchanted with the theater crowd. Although he had no burning desire to act, he admired their passion. That led him to a marketing job at two regional theaters, first in Buffalo, N.Y., and then in Hartford, Conn. He booked new plays and touring Broadway companies.

The best part of working in the theater was the perks. Specifically, meeting his wife, Beth, a wardrobe mistress.

Through her, he made contact with executives at Continental. The Boston-based operator was building systems throughout New England and tapped Cooper to head marketing in its Springfield, Mass., unit. "I quickly realized the real opportunity was P&L [profit and loss] responsibility and system management," he says.

And Continental let him flex his muscle.

"Continental gave an enormous amount of autonomy to its general managers," Cooper says. He moved through several systems, eventually becoming general manager of the largest, the Los Angeles property. That has always been a difficult system, partly because city residents get great reception from more than 20 broadcast stations.

But L.A. also covered some of the poorest areas, including Compton and South Central. In some areas, like Watts, constructing the system represented "the largest private capital investment in that area since the riots in the 1960s," Cooper adds.

And he was in charge during the South Central riots that followed the 1992 Rodney King verdict. Not only did he have dozens of employees in the danger zone, but blazing buildings often burned through nearby poles and overhead wires, cutting cable service. Cooper learned crisis management firsthand.

Four years later, telco U S West bought Continental. Cooper stayed on until 1999, when he began taking on self-contained fires, namely AT&T and Adelphia.

Adelphia was being rocked by a financial scandal, for which founder John Rigas and son Tim were recently convicted. Cooper and Schleyer were tapped as architects of a salvage plan, which now empowers Adelphia's local managers.

Cooper was stunned at how fundamental the management problems were. "It wasn't just the scandal or bankruptcy," he explains. "The company had never delegated autonomy or authority. There was an intense level of bureaucratic control, and it hurt competitiveness."

While Schleyer focuses solely on the Chapter 11 process and the auction of Adelphia's systems, Cooper concentrates on running the systems. His biggest lesson? "Patience and the need to prioritize. You have to pick and choose issues effectively."

After masterminding two turnarounds would he do it again? "Absolutely," Cooper says. "It's one of the most rewarding experiences I've had."