By Christine Imbs
When Thomas Edison was asked why he had a team of twenty-one
assistants, he replied, “If I could solve all the problems myself,
I would.” Neil Smit is no different. The first thing he did
after taking over as CEO of Charter Communications was to develop
“We had some pretty big vacancies here,” he says. “We added
or replaced key positions including the chief financial officer,
general counsel, the head of marketing, and the chief technology
officer. So we needed to gather a team and align them around
a few core strategies. I like doing that—getting a team together
and getting things done. As a team you can accomplish anything
you set your mind to.”
Smit learned a great deal about teamwork early in his career.
After graduating from Duke University in 1980, he joined the
Navy SEALs, where he served for five years, ending with the
rank of Lieutenant Commander.
“It was a great experience. And to this day, I still have a
lot of close friends,” he says. “What’s more, a lot of the management
skills and techniques that I employ today I learned there.”
Smit says the SEALs are a very focused unit. It’s not a matter
of “if” you’re going to do something, it’s “how” you’re going
to do it. And always, you do it as a team. He says if a problem
occurs on one side of the unit, then everyone works to fix that
problem. Individualism is not an option.
“You were punished for being an individual,” he says. “In a
long run in the sand, if you were out front you’d be punished
if you didn’t go back and put the guy who was last on your shoulders
and carry him. So I learned the value in teamwork. If everybody
isn’t performing together, then you need to shift and help that
person who’s struggling.”
After being discharged from the Navy, Smit attended Tufts University’s
Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts, where
he got a master’s degree with a focus on international business.
Still, he had no idea what type of business he wanted to go
into. While scanning a list of Fletcher alumni, he noticed one
had a crisis management consulting business. Seeing a correlation
between that business and what he had been doing with the Navy
SEALs, he decided to check it out.
“Their primary business was kidnapping negotiations,” Smit says.
“You know, as a Navy SEAL when you parachute into a situation,
you’ve got to figure it out pretty fast. This was no different.
I had to make a quick assessment of a situation, plan action
and communicate it to everyone involved. I did this until we
had our first child. Then, my wife said I needed to find a new
Smit went to work for Pillsbury in Minneapolis, where he worked
in various roles for the company’s CEO, CFO, COO, General Counsel
and head of Human Resource—all at one time.
“Basically my job was to align these functional areas with the
business objective,” he says. “I guess you could say I was sort
of a utility infielder.”
But when their second child was born, Smit decided they’d had
enough of the long, cold Minneapolis winters, and asked to be
“Actually it was my wife’s idea,” he says laughing. “But we
decided we were ready for a change. And the company said, ‘Well
gee, we have this problem in Mexico.’”
Pillsbury had a frozen distribution business in Mexico. But
the collapse of the peso made it no longer economically feasible
to import those products and the business was struggling. At
the time, 60 percent of Mexico’s population was under the age
of 19, and the fast food industry was booming. It was clear
to Smit that they had only two alternatives, either shift the
business to food services or shut it down.
“We ended up shifting to food services and quadrupled our sales
within a year and a half. So it really turned into a nice business
for us,” he says. “But then Pillsbury made a large acquisition
in Argentina and they wanted me there. So, we packed up the
wagon and took off.”
While in Argentina, Nabisco approached Smit. The company had
a $600 million business in four different countries in Latin
America. It was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.
“It was great,” he says. “I like international business because
you’re removed from the U.S. and on your own in a lot of ways.
And you’re dealing with different products, culture, countries,
and language. So you have to figure things out. I enjoy that.”
In 2000, Smit joined Time Warner’s America Online (AOL), where
he not only ran MapQuest, but handled details of the acquisition
and integration of the business as well.
“Initially we had about three to five million unique visitors
on a monthly basis,” he says. “Within a very short period we
had about 20 million.”
Smit spent five years with AOL, where he said he was a “jack-of-all-trades”
holding various management positions within the company. He
was president of AOL’s Access business, overseeing Internet
access services including America OnLine, CompuServe, and Netscape
ISP, when he was asked to take over as CEO of Charter Communications.
Charter is the third-largest publicly traded cable operator
in the U.S., serving more than 5.6 million customers in 29 states.
Headquartered in St. Louis, it is one of the region’s eight
Fortune 500 headquarters. But its customer service reputation
and $19 billion in long-term debt weighed the company down.
Then there were those major senior level positions that were
left unfilled. It was exactly the type of challenge that intrigued
“I was approached by Paul Allen’s company, Vulcan, to take over.
Paul is Charter’s largest shareholder, as well as its chairman,”
Smit explains. “He’s very supportive and bullish on the industry.
And he knows the business and products well. He’s a great partner.
And I like challenges.”
Now with two years under his belt, Smit is making some headway
with the beleaguered cable company. Although according to the
St. Louis Post-Dispatch its long-term debt has now grown
to $19.6 billion, they’ve restructured it so that more than
$16.4 billion, or 85 percent of the total, is due 2012 and beyond,
giving them some time to improve operations.
“We needed financial flexibility,” Smit says. “So now we have
a runway to grow the business. And a big thing for me is improving
Smit says while working for AOL, he had the opportunity to manage
12,000 customer service representatives, and appreciated the
fact that these people were the front line with the customers.
At Charter, the company is very focused on improving the “end-to-end”
customer experience—from the agents on the phone, to dispatchers
to the in-home technical service agents. “Our employees understand
the value of the consumer and what we’re trying to do. And we
are working together as a team to improve the situation.”
Since Smit took over, Charter has increased the number of its
customer-service representatives by 55 percent and its service
technicians by 12 percent. It’s also restructured its technician
dispatch system to run more efficiently and reduce wait times.
What’s more, Smit continues to personally monitor the customer
experience by listening in on customer phone calls, reading
customer letters, and even going out on service calls.
“Actually, our whole senior management team went out for a day
in the field. Different people did different things. I got in
the truck and went out on service calls. Of course, the customers
didn’t know who I was,” he says smiling. “But it gives me a
better understanding of the business and what needs to be done.”
About a year ago, Charter launched its Ambassador Program in
St. Louis. Basically what it does is help strengthen customer
relationships by giving all Charter employees the ability to
help solve customer problems. So whether at the office, or in
line at the grocery store, if a Charter employee hears about
a problem someone is having, they can do something about it.
“We’ve given our employees the means to help customers get their
problems fixed quickly because we should all be improving the
customer experience,” says Smit. “So if they hear of a problem
they can get it to the right person for a quick resolution.
Again, it’s teamwork. It’s been very successful.”
In addition to improving customer service, Charter is also working
to expand its services. In the works are more high-definition
channels, high-definition video-on-demand nationwide, and an
even higher speed Internet service.
“We’ll be able to deliver many times the speed of the Internet
that we offer today,” Smit explains. “At a demonstration earlier
this year it ran at 100 megabits per second. So that’s exciting.”
Also, Charter is continuing to sign more customers for its phone
service. As of June 30, it had over 700,000 phone customers,
nearly triple its number from the year before. And its bundled
package—video, voice and high-speed Internet—is a great customer
value, offering three quality services and the convenience of
“It’s really all about bringing more value to the customer in
the quality of the products, the price and the service,” says
Smit. “And there’s always room for improvement. It’s a never-ending
process, but I really enjoy it.”
On living and working in St. Louis, Smit laughs, “It’s as cold
as Minneapolis and as hot as Mexico, but it’s also a great place
to do business. St. Louis is a supportive community, an important
market for the company, and home to over 2,000 of our employees.”