Southern boy stays put

From South Carolina, McCall 'Charterizes' cable-system acquisitions

Last week's $1.8 billion cable-system deal with AT&T is nothing for Charter Communications. Its executives like to brag about how they've completed 36 cable-system acquisitions worth around $25 billion since multibillionaire Paul Allen stepped into the picture three years ago.

The downside of such busy acquisition activity is that somebody has to stitch all those new properties together. Accompanying each new system are customer service reps trained 20 different ways, if they have been trained much at all; technicians accustomed to working on different kinds of equipment than the gear in Charter's system the next town over; billing systems that won't talk to Charter's billing and accounting systems.

The man who irons a lot of that out is David McCall, senior vice president, of the company's eastern division. He is responsible for all of Charter's operations from Connecticut to Florida and is a big part of the reason the company has achieved some of the best growth rates in the industry over the past two years. While other MSOs have been missing even modest growth targets. Charter increased cash flow in "same-store" systems, excluding recently acquired systems, by 18% last year.

And McCall spends a lot of time curing headaches in new properties that, to put it delicately, were "undermanaged."

"We've got some cats and dogs," he says. "It's not rocket science, it's about taking care of customers."

For a man responsible for about $1.5 billion in annual revenue, McCall is a rather modest guy. He is sufficiently driven to want the reins of much of Charter's operations, long after payouts from various takeovers of Charter and its predecessors eased his need for a weekly paycheck.

But he wasn't ambitious enough to raise his hand when Charter Chairman Jerry Kent was installing a chief operating officer last year: He doesn't want to relocate to St. Louis from the town where he grew up, Laurens, S.C. "He certainly was on the candidate list," says Kent. "But I know David; he wouldn't move."

McCall likes things stable. He lives five miles from the house where he grew up (and now owns and rents out). He has a 25-mile commute to Charter's offices, fairly long by South Carolina standards.

"I can do more for this company today here than I could there," McCall says. "Part of our culture here is family. I couldn't move." To McCall, "family" includes a loyal team system, finance, marketing and engineering staffers some of whom he has worked with for two decades.

McCall has been in cable his whole adult life, starting by climbing poles. After helping build small systems around the South, he bumped into one of three lawyers who had secured the franchise for Laurens and needed help building it.

That system was one of the first acquired by three St. Louis accountants, including Kent, who created Cencom Associates. McCall gained responsibilities as Cencom bought other systems around the South, using money from syndicated partnerships. In 1992, Cencom sold its operation for $1 billion to another Missouri-based company, Hallmark Cards.

But Hallmark executives soured on cable, partly because of fear of telco competition that has never really developed. In 1994, the old Cencom team bought a package including its old systems for less than Hallmark paid. McCall was still there, running its southeastern operation pretty much as he always did.

McCall now spends a lot of time "Charterizing" new systems: retraining and motivating sales and service people, making sure that the phones are answered quickly, improving maintenance, and supervising plant rebuilds-and, of course, rolling out digital cable and high-speed Internet product.

He exhibits no signs of boredom. "Those kinds of things excite me about the business," McCall says. "This business changes, and it still excites me."