By Andrew Grossman
Special to TelevisionWeek
If there’s a story that epitomizes the code that Eric Brown, Charter Communications’ senior VP, Western division operations, lives and works by, it’s the one about the tape.
Mr. Brown, a champion sprinter who was a member of UCLA’s record-holding 100-meter relay squad, employed the pre-race ritual of sticking a piece of tape on the ground to help guide him during the baton exchange with his teammate. At a meet in Moscow, his rival walked over and ripped the tape from its spot just as the race began. Instead of punching out the Russian, Mr. Brown focused his anger and blew past his opponent on the track.
“He told that story to employees as a metaphor for how to channel your energy and passion in a way to accomplish great things. You could hear a pin drop in the room when he told it,” said Craig Watson, VP of communications for Charter’s Western region. Mr. Watson first worked with Mr. Brown at Times Mirror Cable in 1992, when Mr. Brown was fresh from a career at Procter & Gamble selling tuna and Pampers.
Mr. Brown, the Vanguard Award winner for Cable Operations Management, has a history of not just overcoming adversity but giving it a hard kick, both in his personal life and at work.
In 1980 his dream of competing in the Olympics was shattered when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games. “You’ve given up everything, changed your diet, practiced multiple times a day and through no fault of your own it’s gone,” he recalled. “That was a watershed moment. I went, ‘This is never going to happen again. I will always have options in my life.'”
Charter hired him after his successful stint running Time Warner Cable’s Minneapolis division, a unit notorious for its low cable take rates. In 2002 he took over a decimated and demoralized Charter Western division whose Long Beach, Calif.-based management staff had been stripped bare in the aftermath of an accounting scandal that almost destroyed Paul Allen’s multiple system operator.
“My position had been unfilled for six months,” Mr. Brown said. “That was a long enough period for an $800 million business to have some serious issues lurking out there. The credibility of the management team with the front-line troops was pretty bleak.”
Mr. Brown has rebuilt morale at the five-state, 1 million-subscriber region, gained the trust of local officials, and most important, restored fiscal growth. In 2005, two of his systems led the MSO in operating cash flow and his division led the pack at Charter.
His knack for building strong relationships has served him well, as has getting actively engaged in Charter’s communities and making a strong priority out of building a diverse staff.
“It’s not just ethnic,” he said. “I don’t want a bunch of people who think like us. I want people who can have spirited discussions around the table of what the business structure should be.”
Mr. Brown is especially close with Long Beach’s popular mayor, Beverly O’Neill, whom he chatted up one day while checking out the C-SPAN bus without realizing who she was. “She introduces me to people who I need to know,” he said.
Ms. O’Neill helped celebrate Mr. Brown’s most visible achievement, the December 2003 activation of the first all-digital system in the U.S., which was one of Mr. Allen’s top priorities. “You would have thought we had bought him his favorite Christmas toy. He was visibly moved,” Mr. Brown said, adding that the system has delivered sharper pictures on par with satellite rivals.
Mr. Brown’s challenge is fending off the telcos. His strategy is to hold on to Charter’s best people and apply lessons learned from fighting satellite rivals. One thing is certain: Eric Brown will always have a Plan B.