Outgoing CEO of Cox Enterprises talks about lessons learned

John Dyer grew up on a farm but became a finance guy.

He kept the ledgers straight at numerous posts at cable giant Cox Communications, before taking the top job as CEO of Cox Enterprises in 2014. In a 40-year career, Dyer said he never forgot the lessons he learned while slinging hay and tending crops on the family farm in Newnan.

Other than a five-year stint at the Times Mirror Co. (the cable arm of which later became part of Cox), Dyer spent his career within the Cox family of businesses.

Next month, Dyer will retire from Cox and hand over the reins to the $20 billion in revenue company to Alex Taylor, the fourth generation of the Cox family to lead the business. Cox operates three core business units: Cox Automotive (including AutoTrader and Kelley Blue Book), Cox Communications (cable and broadband) and Cox Media Group (television, radio and newspapers, including The Atlanta Journal-Constitution).

In a late October interview with the AJC, Dyer talked about his career, his outlook for Cox’s businesses and what advice he’s given Taylor as he prepares to lead a corporation with about 58,000 employees. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: As you look a back, what were some of the defining moments that shaped your career?

A: Just looking at the challenges — and some of these have been knots on my head. [At Times-Mirror in New England,] we were involved in a union campaign, and frankly, the employees that were seeking the union to represent them had reasons for it. We hadn’t done right by them. I remember standing in front of those employees. When you are going through a union campaign you can’t spy, promise, intimidate or threaten; you can’t do those things. I remember standing in front of this group and saying, ‘Why didn’t you come talk to me?’ There was a lady right in the front row … and she made it abundantly clear that she didn’t know who I was. The lesson that I got from that was that you can’t sit behind the desk in a leadership role. You can’t sit behind the desk in any role.

Q: What are the toughest challenges this company faces now?

A: I think this applies to every company…it’s the level of disruption that’s going on in business today. I think business models are made and broken inside a couple years.

Q: Cox has three main business lines: cable and broadband internet, automotive and media. Those are three industries acutely affected by disruption and change.

A: The biggest change is the demographic change. It’s going from my generation to millennials. How customers want to buy their services is changing, and Cox has been able to adapt through every demographic change far. but the millennial generation poses a real challenge to us.

Part of [addressing] that is having millennials in the company so that we can understand what they want. We have business models that are and can be adapted when it comes to disruption.

Q: But when you think about cable and broadband, you hear of cord cutting and trimming…

A: But that’s overplayed. I’ve read the obit of cable TV for 30-something years. There was something in the trades this morning about AT&T’s stock going down because video customers were down. Is that important? Yes. But I was here during the time the internet was born, it’s a service that’s just changed how we live. If you think about how we create value at Cox Communications, first among equals is internet. People may not be consuming as much video as we might watch on a TV, but they have to have internet. You check it 180 times a day.

Q: But that change requires you to figure out the services that customers have to have.

A: That’s right. We pay really close attention to customer relationships. We also have figured out that the folks who are our residential customers also in many cases own small- to medium-sized businesses and are the decision-makers for those businesses. Twenty years ago we started a commercial line, which has now grown to a revenue base of $2 billion. That happened because we had patient capital pursuing an idea. We had the knowledge that you have to serve [customers] well in their homes. And if you do a good job there, if they need services in their businesses, they’ll buy it.

Q: In automotive, the usage of cars is changing. Many people don’t want to own, maybe they lease or only use ride-sharing or a subscription model.

A: The usage of automobiles is going to change. But…those cars are still going to be bought, sold and serviced, and those are great opportunities for a company whose vision is to transform the way the world buys, sells and owns vehicles.

Q: As a leader facing rapid change how do you manage through that?

A: I think you have to have a real premium on communication. …I used to think you can say it once and everybody gets it, but that’s so far from the truth. You have got to say it, and say it again, and say it again with context, because people hear different things from what you say. And sometimes you have to say it in different ways.

I honestly think that communication is the most critical element of what’s required in business today to make sure that you are adept at adapting to disruption.

Q: What are some of the lessons you are passing on to Alex Taylor?

A: The value we create at a leadership level is in asking the right questions. Number two, by the time a question or a problem gets here, gets to us, there really isn’t an easy, quick or right answer, because if there were, it would have been long resolved. So, I think what that means is you have to have great listening skills. My grandmother said, ‘God gave you two ears and one mouth for a reason.’ That’s been pretty good advice to follow.

And then third, I don’t think you can overstate this: the need to communicate. I think Alex is a marvelous communicator. That is a real strength he has. Fourth, and probably last, is be authentic and be a truth-teller.

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