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THE VALUE OF TEAM WORK

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 a team.

“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 career.”

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 reassigned.

“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 Smit.

“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 customer service.”

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 one bill.

“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.”

 

 

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Cover Story with Neil Smit, Charter Communications
Momentum St. Louis
Maren Engelmohr
Maren Engelmohr
Thomas Taylor
Thomas Taylor

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St. Louis Community College-Wildwood Campus
Ameristar Casino
PRIDE
Oceano Bistro

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