Patrick Esser, president of Cox Communications, wanted to be in the cable television business before most people knew what cable even was. While attending the University of Northern Iowa in the late 1970s, he got a job climbing poles and cutting in cable system taps, then moved on to selling door-to-door cable subscriptions for the local system in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
He soon heard great things about Cox's cable efforts, so when he graduated from college in 1979 he loaded everything he owned into his car, drove to Hampton Roads, Va.—where Cox was building out a system—and asked for a job. The initiative paid off: He became the system's program director, running the public access channels.
“I'm one of those folks who always wanted to be in cable television,” Esser says. “I remember the day cable came to my hometown of Algona, Iowa. I was so excited to have television coming in from all over the country.”
While in Hampton Roads, Esser presciently believed that he could go further in the business if he had a master's degree, so he returned to Northern Iowa to further his education.
“I was a cable nerd,” he says of his professional one-track mind. “In graduate school, all of my papers were about cable. And I used a paper I wrote in grad school about cable as an advertising vehicle to get a job.”
Esser's timing could not have been better. His dream of working in the cable business got him in on the ground floor of a rising industry. In 1981, he began selling cable advertising in the Quad Cities region, covering Davenport and Bettendorf, Iowa, and Moline and Rock Island, Ill. From there, he went on to open Cox's ad sales office in Omaha, Neb., before returning to the Quad Cities.
Esser was finally offered a job as director of ad sales at Cox's headquarters in Atlanta in 1990. But he had a conundrum: He and his wife, Connie, had just had a baby and he planned on turning down the job. “She was always my motivation,” he laughs. “I would be leaving for work for the day and she would say something like, 'It sure would be nice if there was a couch in here.' I initially told her I was going to say no to the job in Atlanta, but she said, 'Let's go for it. It will be fun.'”
So the young family moved to Georgia, and Esser has continued his rise through the company ever since. A year and a half later, in 1991, he was promoted to corporate VP of Cox advertising sales.
Esser worked in Cox ad sales for the next nine years, honing the company's local and regional approach and making inroads in advertising markets that had previously been monopolized by broadcast stations. In 1999, he was encouraging Cox's then-executive VP of operations, Maggie Bellville, to hire someone for the post of VP of operations for Cox's Western division. Bellville said the person she had in mind was engaged in another task for the company and couldn't change jobs. Esser, ever-vigilant and ready for a challenge, blurted out, “Have you ever thought about me in this job?”
Bellville decided to take a chance. “Giving me that job was a risky move for the business,” Esser says of his switch. “But I was so excited I didn't think about the risk.”
Esser began traveling nationwide to run Cox's operations, which included everything from customer-service call centers to field-service repair offices to accounting, billing and marketing. He had only been installed in the job for a short while when he was tossed a real curveball. Bellville decided to return to executive business school for three months, and asked Esser to be in charge in her absence: “I told her she was crazy, and she told me to just keep doing what I was doing.”
Less than a year later, Bellville decided to take her life in a different direction, and Esser was named senior VP of operations. Four years later, in 2004, he was promoted to executive VP and COO. He was named president, replacing the retiring Jim Kennedy, in 2006.
“What's really terrific about Pat is that he cares very deeply about his customers and his employees,” says Jimmy Hayes, president and CEO of Cox Enterprises. “He's also an aggressive competitor because of the years he spent in sales. That's a powerful combination.”
“As a leader, Pat's smart, quick-witted and savvy—well-versed in our business with a clear vision of what's required for Cox to succeed,” adds Mae Douglas, Cox's executive VP and chief people officer. “He regularly challenges his people and loves a healthy debate, but is quick to praise a job well done. He recognizes that our success is due directly to the hard work and commitment that Cox employees deliver every day.”
It's an ethic that goes back to when Esser first joined Cox and dreamed of rising in the industry. His inspiration, however, remains the same: His family. “Above all else, Pat's pride and joy is his family—always a priority amidst the rigorous demands of leading a business,” Douglas says.
Esser and Connie, now married 27 years, have three daughters: Rachelle, 23, Natalie, 19, and Sarah, 17. But he joins the 2009 class of B&C's Hall of Fame with a second family at Cox, where he treats both his employees and his customers with the same level of respect, emphasizing values such as diversity and excellence in customer service.
“Pat embodies absolute passion and commitment to the customer,” says Brian Roberts, CEO of Comcast Corp. “He's not afraid to be a maverick and to be a leader, which can mean taking risks. He's not afraid to really challenge conventional thinking and the status quo. You have to remake your company constantly, and at the same time you can't panic and shift strategy. He's been very focused on excellence and continued growth.”
Through it all, Esser attributes his success to his mentors, his team and the company that's employed him his entire career. “The culture and values that Cox holds sacred, I hold sacred,” he says. “They were taught to me and I absorbed them along the way over the past 30 years. At the end of the day, people were willing to give me a shot. I hope I did the same for many others.”—Paige Albiniak