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 naïve, 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.”