A cable industry hero speaks well of ex-boss

Hindery, who resigned as AT&T executive, honored in Baltimore

Speaker at trade show

October 14, 1999|By Mark Ribbing | Mark Ribbing,SUN STAFF

On Oct. 6, Leo J. Hindery Jr. set the telecommunications industry atwitter with his sudden resignation as the chief executive of AT&T Corp.'s rapidly growing cable television operation.

Yesterday at the Baltimore Convention Center, Hindery gave his first speech since quitting, a long-scheduled keynote address for the East Coast Cable trade show.

Hindery's address attracted more than casual interest. After all, rumors and questions about his departure have been flying around like the trio of party-crashing finches that were flitting through the cavernous ballrooms and hallways of the convention center yesterday.

Had the 51-year-old Hindery, who came to prominence as the forceful, deal-happy president of cable company Tele-Communications Inc., had a final clash of egos with C. Michael Armstrong, the AT&T chieftain who bought out TCI in March? Was he nudged out against his will, or was he itching to leave? What is he going to do next?

Alas, Hindery said little about the whole affair in his speech, a short address in which he accepted an award as cable operator of the year.

He joked about it, saying after adjusting a balky microphone, "That was harder than leaving AT&T."

This little jibe won knowing, sympathetic laughter from the audience. Within the tight-knit cable industry, Hindery is a hero who helped perfect an important and wildly profitable strategy known as clustering. This is the practice of buying and selling cable properties until you have replaced all of your inefficiently scattered territories with a geographically cohesive fiefdom where you can lay wires and buy advertising without fear that you'll be wasting money or effort on communities that lie outside your market.

"Through a number of system swaps, he was really able to pull together clusters," said Rick Schindler, editor of Cablevision, the trade journal that presented Hindery's award.

While cable people see Hindery as the plucky embodiment of the industry's go-getter spirit, they view AT&T as a hidebound giant and former monopoly.

To many, this contrast of cultures helps explain why Hindery did not last long as a sidekick to AT&T head Armstrong.

"My sense is that both men have strong views, and it's certainly possible they might have come into conflict at some point, especially with Hindery coming from a cable background and Armstrong coming from a communications background," said Robert B. Wilkes, an analyst with Brown Brothers Harriman & Co. in New York.

Hindery alluded to this contrast himself in his speech, saying cable's "entrepreneurial" mentality may not be matched by companies from other industries. He did not mention AT&T when he said this, but the implication rang loud and clear.

As to the future, Hindery said, "It's difficult to conceive that I would ever work for another company in the cable industry," he told the crowd, adding that his experience at TCI "will be a tough one to match, and I have no intention of even trying."

Reporters who pressed Hindery for further details outside the ballroom had about as much luck as the finches did getting water from the dry drinking fountains.

He did confirm that he will stay on with AT&T in some consulting capacity as the company tries to digest its recent cable acquisitions. "I've committed myself to helping the company to get some things done that I've been involved with," he said. As for the specifics of his new role, Hindery said he would soon talk with AT&T about that.

He also confirmed that he is indeed putting in a bid to buy a book division of San Francisco's Chronicle Publishing Co. Inc., a company where he once worked as chief financial officer.

However, he declined to comment on the circumstances of his departure from AT&T. When asked about Armstrong, he blandly reeled off a string of hosannas, calling his former boss "a brilliant executive" who is "totally engaged in his industry and his employees."

Hindery was most animated when he talked about the stock car race he entered in California last week, in which he finished ninth out of 32 drivers. Not a bad way to blow off a little post-resignation steam.

"This is not easy," he said as he left the convention center. "I'll get through this and figure out what I'll do next."

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