National Show: Stephen Rizley

Apr 4, 2005  •  Post A Comment

Back in 2000 Stephen Rizley was an unusual choice to head a cable system. He’d been in cable ad sales for nearly 20 years but didn’t have much operations experience.

But that unconventional background turned out to be a key component in Mr. Rizley’s ability to build the Phoenix system for Cox over the past four years.

Mr. Rizley is the VP and regional manager for Cox Communications Arizona, which serves 37 communities, including Phoenix. He joined Cox in 1995 as a general manager for Cox Media, the company’s media sales arm, after having served in cable ad sales at Times Mirror and Dimension Media Services.

He made an abrupt career shift to operations in 2000, when he was asked to serve as the acting general manager for the system, a post he assumed permanently two months later. Immediately he began applying his sales sensibility in his new role.

“We retooled the leadership team to reflect a sales model,” Mr. Rizley said. “This model has made us far more competitive against telephone and satellite companies.”

His changes included the creation of a new position-VP for residential sales. That executive is in charge of connection activity, which refers to new customers and upgrades.

And he emphasized numbers.

The system did, doubling its customers and financial results during his tenure, from 2000 to 2004.

Mr. Rizley will receive the Vanguard Award for cable operations management at this year’s National Cable Show.

Percy Kirk, who worked with him in Arizona before becoming VP and general manager for Cox in Omaha, Neb., said he’s not surprised that his colleague is being honored. “I became a Steve fan early on and believed he was the guy who could pick our business up,” Mr. Kirk said. “He knew what the plan was and how to get there.”

In Omaha, Mr. Kirk followed some of Mr. Rizley’s models, recently installing a residential sales VP there too.

Arizona has seen an influx of new residents in recent years, presenting Cox with an opportunity for expansion. Under Mr. Rizley’s direction, the company has been able to leverage that opportunity, capturing customers before the competition.

Just last year Cox Arizona landed its 2 millionth RGU, which stands for revenue generating unit and refers to the sale of one of its three services-video, high-speed Internet or phone. That came less than a year after reaching 1 million RGUs. Fifty-seven percent of Cox Arizona customers opt for more than one of the company’s services.

Cox already is the second-largest phone provider in Arizona through its circuit-switched service. Cox counts about 20 percent to 30 percent of the phone marketplace there.

Mr. Rizley credited his staff with the company’s success in the region. Because he didn’t bring a pedigree of operations experience to the job, he learned to quickly rely on and trust his senior team members, he said.

“It made me pay far more attention to [them] and respect their roles and interdepartmentally how they worked together. I had to stop people in the middle of meetings and ask what abbreviations were, like NIU [network interface unit]. I was getting a pretty good course in cable 101.”

Mr. Rizley said he has big goals for the coming years, including becoming the pre-eminent communications company in Arizona. “We continue to do battle with a pretty dazzling array of competitors-Qwest, DirecTV, Sprint, EchoStar,” he said.

To get to the top, Mr. Rizley said, Cox will push the concept of portability, or having one phone number for the home phone and the cellphone. “That’s one of the last linchpins to being the dominant communications provider,” he said.

Just the Facts

Title: VP and regional manager, Cox Communications Arizona

How long in current position: Since 2000

Year of birth: 1955

Place of birth: Glendora, Calif.

Who knew? Mr. Rizley’s uncle, Bruce Merrill, was president of the NCTA in 1964.