Eric Brown, Senior VP, Western Division Operations, Charter Communication
Vanguard Award for Cable Operations Management
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980 was a pivotal historic event, to be sure. But, for Eric Brown, senior VP of western division operations for Charter Communications, it dramatically altered the course of his life and career.
Back in 1980, Brown was an All-America track star at UCLA and a world-class sprinter on the verge of fulfilling his dream of becoming an Olympian. That is until a KNBC reporter (a young Bryant Gumbel, in fact) visited Brown’s 400-meter relay team looking for its reaction to President Jimmy Carter’s announcement that the U.S. would boycott the Moscow Games to protest the Soviet invasion. The team, an early favorite for the gold, had not yet heard the news.
“I felt so empty inside,” Brown recalls. “It was clearly a watershed event in my life.”
Brown, this year’s winner of the Vanguard Award for Cable Operations Management, has learned to approach life as more a marathon than a sprint. Having focused exclusively on sports—he had also played college football but, next to his superstar teammate, running back Freeman McNeil, rarely saw action—Brown decided to diversify.
“I learned you never know when one door would be blocked,” he says. “I would become well-rounded so I would always have options.”
Brown ramped up his course load and hit the books. Instead of touring the summer track circuit in Europe, he interned on Capitol Hill. Even when the Seattle Seahawks offered him a contract for $60,000, he chose to pursue his M.B.A. at the University of Virginia.
After embarking on a career in marketing, with stints as a product manager at Proctor & Gamble and H.J. Heinz/StarKist Seafoods, he jumped to the cable-TV business in 1995. He worked in operations and marketing at Times Mirror Cable Television and Time Warner Cable, where he was president of the Minnesota division. In 2003, he landed at Charter, where he oversees operations for 1 million customers in California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
When he arrived at Charter, Brown says, the cities in his region were “pretty upset” with the company, which the communities viewed as an “absentee manager.”
To repair the damage, Brown plunged Charter into community service. He built relationships with local arts groups like the Long Beach, Calif., Symphony, the Arts Council for Long Beach and Long Beach Jazz Festival, and reached out to the NAACP and Habitat for Humanity (clearly bearing no grudge against Jimmy Carter). He won national recognition for his work with Long Beach on last year’s “Enough is Enough” anti-gang programming marathon (a second race is set for this spring).
Now, when Brown is at a Chamber of Commerce breakfast and people approach him to complain about their cable service, he is overjoyed. He knows that the community sees him as the face of a responsive company.
“I am proudest of how I’ve transformed our relationships with the municipalities,” he says.
Brown credits the culture of Time Warner with teaching him the importance of engaging the community.
“You become a better operation when you are involved in the community,” he says. “It provides people with a sense of accountability.”
And it’s not only Long Beach or one segment of the population that Brown is talking about. He has reached out to the Latino and Asian communities in the San Gabriel, Calif., region as well, by getting Charter active in the Chinese New Year’s Parade, American Heritage month and a possible Asian concert series.
“We do not do cookie-cutter events,” he says. “We tailor it to each community.”
And Brown believes the community work will pay dividends for Charter, giving the company an important edge in launching projects, such as telephone service.
“We have a good reputation, and so now we are ahead in subscriber-growth projections, beating Verizon and AT&T to the punch,” he says. “The community events allow us to reach people at the grassroots level. When we have someone from Charter there, it is a stealth marketing tool that is far better than any 30-second spot could be.”
Charter Executive VP/COO Mike Lovett says Brown’s outreach extends to his colleagues as well: “Eric has a deep and sincere commitment to mentoring men and women in the business, well beyond Charter. He’s a leader with an innate ability to recognize talented individuals and make certain that opportunities are provided to all people.”
Now, more than 25 years and many miles from his abbreviated sports career, Brown still considers his quest for Olympic glory ideal training for his years in the cable business.
“I believe in team and in my ability to work with other people who have diverse work styles and backgrounds,” he says, values that have been crucial in developing his staff at Charter. “I also learned mental toughness, that adversity is my friend. Sports teach you that you’re not always in control of all the variables but that a true champion can rise to the occasion.”