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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 12, 2003 15 years ago

The Cable Guy

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Steve Dvoskin took a risky career leap when he came to Comcast. Now he's helping solidify the cable giant's spot in the pole position.

The Cable Guy

Steve Dvoskin took a risky career leap when he came to Comcast. Now he's helping solidify the cable giant's spot in the pole position.

By Kendall Jones

Senior Editor

When a headhunter called Steve Dvoskin in 1996 to tell him about an open general manager position with Comcast Cable in Sarasota, Dvoskin said to the guy: "Why would you ever even think to call me? I have no cable experience, I've never been a general manager, and I don't even know where Sarasota is."

At the time, Dvoskin was a mid-level executive with Sprint Long Distance in Atlanta. He had joined Sprint in 1986, at the birth of the competitive long distance industry, kicked off by the breakup of AT&T about 18 months earlier. Dvoskin was with Sprint through its heyday of tremendous growth, working in marketing and sales positions and learning about the telecommunications industry.

Dvoskin had more seniority with Sprint than with any other company he'd worked with since receiving his M.B.A. from Tulane in 1981. He had worked a couple of years as a sales manager for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and about three years as a marketing consultant with a private consulting firm in Atlanta. But when another headhunter called in 1986 about a position at Sprint, the market opportunity, as well as the chance to implement a marketing plan instead of just consult on one, sounded good to Dvoskin. It had been a great move.

Now the headhunters were calling again. This time, the opportunity was riskier; it would be a bigger industry leap and a huge expansion of executive responsibility. This time, Dvoskin had a family and two elementary school-age daughters very comfortable with their friends and school in Atlanta. Dvoskin's first response was no.

"The headhunter said, 'Just go down there and talk to them,' " recalls Dvoskin, 45. "I ended up interviewing with Comcast for five months. I was not familiar with the company. It was not well known at the time. I read the brokerage reports and did a lot of research into the company."

In the end, it appealed to Dvoskin because it would broaden his managerial experience. "In sales and marketing management, you could always pass blame to the network group or some other area," says Dvoskin, grinning. "Now, I would be managing all of it - human resources, the network, finance. It would all be part of my job. It was very, very appealing, though daunting. Comcast is a very decentralized company. The general manager of each system manages all aspects of that system. At Sprint, the president was the first place where it all came together. This was very different."

Dvoskin also found the work force at Comcast to be very different. He explains, "At Sprint, all of the people I managed worked in an office. But here, half of the employees work in trucks in the field and in people's houses. They don't do their jobs with pen and paper, but they master their craft with tools and wiring. Another third of the employees are in customer service."

A stressful year

"The end of 1996 through most of 1997 was the most stressful year of my career," says Dvoskin. "I changed companies, industries, jobs and cities. I moved my family for the first time; we even built a new house, which actually was great. But for the first seven months we lived here, we rented a house with rented furniture and rented dishes, and it did not feel like our home. But in August 1997, that was the turning point. We moved into our own house and we finally really adjusted to life in Sarasota."

Even though Dvoskin spent that first year with his family in flux while he tried to learn a new company, job and industry, he reflects on the move with pride. "It was the riskiest thing I've ever done, but sometimes a thing just feels like the right thing to do. And it definitely was."

The timing was pretty good, too.

In the last seven years since Dvoskin left Sprint, the long distance industry has suffered tremendously. Competition has lowered prices to the point where few companies are making any money. On the other hand, the cable industry, and Comcast in particular, have soared.

"I left long distance and joined cable at exactly the right time," says Dvoskin. "I lucked out."

Dvoskin's system - which included Sarasota and Charlotte counties and some of Desoto, Hardee and other mid-state areas - turned in strong performance numbers (though he won't say just how strong). Accordingly, Dvoskin's region slowly grew. In 1998, Comcast purchased some systems in the middle of the state from Scripps Howard. By January 2001, the company had purchased systems in Fort Myers and Naples from Adelphia and AT&T, respectively. They all came under Dvoskin's managerial responsibility.

By the end of 2002, Comcast had purchased the rest of AT&T cable. That purchase brought more northern parts of Florida including Tallahassee and Panama City into Dvoskin's region, as well as southern portions of Georgia and Alabama. All those geographic areas, though disconnected, became the Gulf Coast region of Comcast, and Dvoskin became its regional vice president.

While he relishes the increasing responsibility and growth of his domain, the promotion has been a little bittersweet for Dvoskin. "It's hardest not to do the general managers' jobs for them," admits Dvoskin. "I now have general managers managing the systems in my region, working for me. I miss the community involvement of being a general manager, who is closer to the local community. I really enjoyed that. I was the one in each market to talk to reporters, for example. It was hard to step back from that, but I got used to it. I have hired well, and when you have good people in place, it makes your job easy."

In keeping with the decentralized Comcast approach, Dvoskin has to rely on the knowledge and expertise of each local general manager. "Every market is different," says Dvoskin. "I have to let the people closest to the market decide what works best."

Dvoskin says his biggest challenge is deciding how to spend his managerial time. "I choose to spend little time at my desk," says Dvoskin. "I like visiting the systems, knowing the teams, hearing their ideas. I get involved when I need to. There are monthly meetings in each system where the general manager talks to the whole group of employees. I go, but they aren't my meetings anymore. That's not my holiday party."

To help him back off from the local role of the general manager, Dvoskin has even backed out of his community activities in Sarasota, stepping back from his involvement with the United Way and the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce. To make up for the loss of that involvement, Dvoskin has become more involved on the state level, serving on the Florida Chamber of Commerce Board of Governors and as the chairman of the Florida cable television trade association.

Comcast eyes the future

But Dvoskin has a full plate without the local involvement. Comcast is not satisfied simply with the title of largest cable company in the nation. As one of Comcast's 20 regional vice presidents in the country, Dvoskin is charged with growth - of subscribers and of revenue. Dvoskin's region, like much of the company, is focused on two goals.

First, the company has to finish rebuilding the cable systems it owns across the country. Many of the systems the company has purchased, including most of the AT&T acquisitions, had not yet updated from coaxial cable to fiber optics. In order to compete at the highest level, Comcast has to have the state-of-the-art cable lines.

"The rebuild will last five to seven years," says Dvoskin. "But the fiber optic lines allow digital and all the new technology. With fiber optics, we can upgrade the electronics at the end of the lines to increase speed and bandwidth without replacing the cable. This year, Comcast will rebuild more plant miles than ever before in the history of cable. It's a big capital expenditure, but it is important for future growth."

Sarasota, surprisingly, has been on the leading edge in new technology, because it was one of the first to have new fiber optic lines installed. Sarasota was Comcast's second market in the country to launch cable modems and high-speed Internet service. Sarasota launched these products and had the digital and high-speed capability in 1997, seven years before the Silicon Valley, which AT&T had never upgraded.

"Sarasota has good demographics for the launch of new products," says Dvoskin. "Even though there may be a lot of retirees, they are active and open to change. The people here keep up with technology. Plus, we have a history of having a pretty well-run system here, so the company trusts us to launch new things. The rest of the country is really catching up to Sarasota."

The second goal for the company is to stop subscriber losses. Company systems were losing subscribers, mostly to satellite dishes, because the lines were not rebuilt with fiber optic capabilities and because of poor customer service. AT&T, for example, had outsourced a lot of its customer service.

"We have actual Comcast employees talking to the customers. These employees have a real stake in how the customers are treated. Plus, the customer service calls are handled close to the customers. The Sarasota calls are handled in Sarasota. The Naples calls are handled in Naples. Tallahassee reps handle Tallahassee calls."

The proof is in the numbers. In 2002, before the Comcast acquisition, AT&T suffered a net loss of 500,000 customers - that's the total loss of customers after accounting for the counterbalancing gain in new ones. After the acquisition, Comcast hoped to simply stop the losses and remain flat, acknowledging that it would take time to turn the ship. Nevertheless, for 2003, the company is exceeding its goals, with a net gain of 100,000 expected for this year - a 600,000 net turnaround in subscribers in one year.

High tech toys and gadgets

Perhaps some of that turnaround is due to the increasing products and services available through cable. The company is constantly enhancing its services and products, espousing the theory that it's more efficient and more profitable to get more from existing customers than to only focus on adding new ones. The company tries to launch a new product every 12 to 18 months.

Along with basic cable television services, the company has become known for its Internet services. While AOL is the largest Internet provider in the United States, Comcast is the largest high-speed Internet provider. In the last few weeks alone, Comcast has doubled the Internet speed available to Sarasota high-speed cable Internet subscribers - from 1.5 megabits per second to 3 megabits. Along with high speed, the company is constantly upgrading the content of its Internet service, recently closing a deal with Rhapsody, a service that allows downloading of music.

On the video cable television side, Comcast introduced digital television, then most recently, high definition, or Hi Def services, launched in Sarasota, then in Panama City. Comcast already has six or seven Hi Def channels. "When a customer buys a Hi Def TV, they can see Hi Def channels like HBO and ESPN through their cable line," says Dvoskin.

The next big thing to come will be DVR, or digital video recorder. When Dvoskin talks about the DVR box in his home - he has one even though it's not readily available on the market - his eyes light up. "It is incorporated into your existing box. It stores up to 55 hours of programming, and there is a menu of all the things you have recorded. For example, I like to watch the Sopranos. I always watch the Sopranos. So I have told the DVR to always record the Sopranos. There is no tape or disk, just the box. I can watch whatever else, and it will always automatically record the Sopranos and show it to me on the menu.

"But that's not all. Let's say I'm watching a live football game on TV, but my daughter needs help with her homework. I can push pause - I can pause live television. The box automatically kicks in and starts recording. When I'm done, I take it off pause and the game picks up right where I left off. If I miss what someone says on TV, I can tell the DVR to rewind it. It goes back eight seconds, then keeps on going right from there. Panama City launched it two months ago, and in the first few weeks, we sold what we thought we would sell by the end of the year."

Why Panama City, you ask? "There is another cable company in Panama City," explains Dvoskin. "It's competition. We wanted to beat them to market and roll out more stuff quicker."

Facts and stats

1: Comcast's rank among the largest cable television companies in the U.S. (Comcast is twice as large as No. 2-ranked Time Warner Inc.'s cable unit.)

17: Number of the top 20 cable markets in the country in which Comcast is the market leader.

620,000: Number of Comcast cable subscribers in the Florida Gulf Coast region of Comcast.

700,000: Number of Comcast cable subscribers in the Miami and Florida's Keys region of Comcast.

1.6 million: Total number of Comcast cable subscribers in Florida.

1.4 million: Total number of Brighthouse cable subscribers in Florida (mostly in the Tampa to Orlando region).

5 million: Total number of cable subscribers in Florida.

20: Total number of Comcast regions in the country.

22 million: Total number of Comcast subscribers in the country (up from 4 million seven years ago).

3: Years it took to rebuild Sarasota's cable system to replace coaxial cables with fiber optic (from 1994 to 1997; now Comcast is taking about two years to replace lines with fiber optic).

120: Number of Comcast customer service representatives in Sarasota alone (up from about 30 seven years ago).

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