Even in a tough business like cable, not many executives have had Navy Seal training like Comcast Cable CEO Neil Smit has. Smit’s unit, Seal Team Six, is the one that took down Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011.
Smit doesn’t talk much about his own service with the secretive Seals, simply confirming that he saw combat. “He doesn’t wear it on his sleeve,” says Matt Bond, who was in charge of programming at Comcast before moving to NBCUniversal as executive VP of content distribution. “I’ve got to believe he’s got a lot to brag about that he’s not bragging about.”
Nevertheless, Smit’s military background is part of his reputation. “I know I would not want to get into a knife fight with him in an alley,” says Bill Goodwyn, president/CEO of strategic distribution and Discovery Education at Discovery Communications. “The good thing about Neil is he doesn’t need to go there because intellectually he’s as sound as he is physically. That’s good news for people on the other side of the table.”
Abbe Raven, chairman of A+E Networks, has worked closely with Smit on National Cable and Telecommunications Association committees. “I have enormous respect for him,” Raven says. “He was a Navy Seal and he’s been very supportive of the industry’s efforts surrounding hiring veterans in the industry. Everyone knows he was a hostage negotiator.”
Raven says she has negotiated with Smit, and “what’s interesting is, he does like to win, but he really does have an uncanny ability to make you feel like you’re winning too, and I think that’s something that comes from his background.”
Smit grew up on a farm in Suffield, Conn., where he woke early to feed the animals, but knew he didn’t want to be a farmer or construction worker like his dad. He went to Duke on a Navy scholarship and signed up for Seal training upon graduation. After retiring as a lieutenant commander, Smit earned a master’s degree from Tufts’ Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He took a job with a company in the business of negotiating with kidnappers, but with a growing family, decided to pursue a different profession.
He joined Pillsbury and was assigned to fix ailing operations. He became head of Pillsbury Mexico and moved to Argentina when Pillsbury made a big acquisition there. Nabisco hired him away from Pillsbury and put him in charge of its Latin American business. Then AOL called, and he wound up running its subscription business. “It was exciting because we were bringing the Internet to people,” Smit says.
Paul Allen came calling next, asking Smit to join Charter, which he ran for four years before Comcast chairman and CEO Brian Roberts recruited him to the nation’s biggest cable operator.
Roberts says he had admired Smit’s unique set of experiences, but “you never know someone really well till you’re working together in the pressure cooker.” Now, after four years, he says, “I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job taking Comcast to the next phase of where we want it to go, deploying new products, nurturing people and setting a tone from the top of ethics, hard work and yet, humility.”
In addition to his experience in marketing and technology, Smit says, his Seal training has in fact helped him in his civilian career. “The first thing you learn in Seal team training is, it’s all about the team; it’s not about the individual,” Smit says. “You learn that you play to win, there’s no alternative. You make decisions in the situation. You make a call, you go left or you go right, you can adjust later, but get out of the line of fire. You’ve always got to be developing your skills and your team capabilities. You’ve got to be better.”
He says he also learned lessons about communications: “Everybody’s got to know what the plan is. There’s no room for miscommunications.”
The theory works in practice. Despite the natural tension between programmers and operators, there’s been none between Smit and his predecessor, Stephen Burke, who now runs NBCUniversal for Comcast, Roberts says. “Neil has a point of view of getting problems solved, and I think he’s used to being on a team,” Roberts explains. “Neil is comfortable as just one of the guys, but he can lead. I’ve never seen anybody rev up a company and a business with the intensity and the success that Neil has had with the Xfinity product.”
Things were already running pretty well when he arrived at Comcast, Smit notes. “Brian and Stephen had done a lot of the heavy lifting in getting the platforms in place,” he says. “I was able to leverage that and innovate at a faster rate. We put out almost 40 new products in the last two years.” One of those is the cloud-based entertainment platform X1, designed to help customers access more content more easily.
At a time when containing programming costs is imperative for distributors, Smit says it’s also important to acquire broader rights to content. Some of Comcast’s products, like VOD, can help drive ratings, and one of the benefits of having NBCU under the Comcast umbrella is an ability to experiment. “I think we work pretty collaboratively with our network partners to bring consumers what I would describe as the future of entertainment,” Smit says.
“The definition of a true leader is one who is willing to take risks by searching for solutions that serve the entire industry, not just their individual business,” says Chase Carey, president and COO of 21st Century Fox. “This is the compass by which Neil operates and what has made Comcast a true driving force for bringing consumers better television experiences.”
That makes cable an exciting place to Smit. “It’s an especially dynamic time in the industry, and I look forward to applying the functionality of the Internet to the television and advertising and overall entertainment viewing for the customers,” he says.