An affable go-getter, region manager Geppert has built a reputation in the cable industry and civic circles alike for turning things around
By Kathryn Balint
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
April 30, 2006
Bill Geppert, vice president and region manager of Cox Communications' San Diego division, is a highly visible business leader, involved in community and charitable groups and making many public appearances such as this TV show taping earlier this year.
Days after arriving in San Diego, Bill Geppert took a fateful elevator ride to his new, fourth-floor executive office at Cox Communications' regional headquarters.
An employee got in the elevator with Geppert and said, I'm going to three. I'm not allowed to go up to four.
On the spot, Geppert made a decision symbolic of his life in San Diego. The Cox vice president and region manager of the San Diego division moved his office down to a first-floor fishbowl space - blinds and doors wide open - to better connect with employees and customers at Cox's main center on Federal Boulevard in Oak Park.
Geppert's life is about making connections, an essential trait at Cox, which connects the TVs, telephones and computers for 500,000 San Diego County households. In his decade here, Geppert has thrust himself into public life in a way that few executives do, working on everything from efforts to attract businesses to the downtown area to the successful campaign for a strong-mayor form of city government.
One minute, Geppert is meeting with Junior Achievement, the next he's taping a TV program promoting Cox. Then it's off to host an event at the San Diego Literacy Council.
Geppert's assistant can't keep track of all of the civic, business and charitable organizations in which he's involved, but the list numbers somewhere around 20. All the activity leads some Cox workers to call Geppert Mr. Celebrity, says a former employee.
Geppert has served as chairman of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, the Economic Development Corporation, the California Cable Television Association and the American Heart Walk, to name but a few organizations.
The lanky, 6-foot-3-inch Geppert, who has a trademark mustache, has a reputation for taking the bull by the horns and getting things done. But he's difficult to stereotype as a hard-driving Type A.
He's a businessman who was so bored by college business courses that he switched his major to interdisciplinary social science in order to study the nexus of governments and world affairs.
A devout Christian, he belongs to a CEO prayer group and insists on wishing Merry Christmas in addition to Season's Greetings in his annual videotaped message to customers.
Geppert is passionate about education, which he attributes to his sisters - both teachers - and his mother, who was a school board member when he was growing up. Cox co-sponsors the annual Salute to Teachers, which recognizes outstanding educators in the county.
Geppert, who once aspired to become a professional golf instructor, is a legend on the links among local business execs with his 3 handicap. The Tiger Woods of the charity golf tournaments, friend Bob Kelley says.
Described by his friends as engaging and personable, Geppert has made connections all over the world. He keeps in touch with a glass-eating wrestler who lived in his apartment complex during his college days, and with the couple who sold him his Jamul home. When his wife surprised him with a trip to Ireland for his 50th birthday, Geppert invited two Irish tour operators to come stay at his home, which they did.
Amy Geppert likes to tell of the time her husband was so deep in conversation at a business event that he reached over for an hors d'oeuvre and unwittingly grabbed a handful of decorative stones. He popped them into his mouth, promptly spit them out and put them in his pocket without missing a beat.
Isn't that so Bill? muses Amy Geppert.
William King Geppert, 50, the youngest of three children, followed his father's footsteps into the cable TV industry, but he got his beauty queen mother's gift of gab and love of people.
She never met a stranger, Geppert says. She would walk into a grocery store and could talk to the mayor of the city or the boy cleaning the lettuce.
Billy, as his family calls him, grew up in Cumberland, a manufacturing town of 30,000 in the Maryland panhandle. His father, William Henking Geppert, was an outside attorney for the local cable TV company. His mother, Mildred, was crowned Miss West Virginia and was a finalist in the Miss America contest.
Geppert spent his first three years of high school at Culver Military Academy in Indiana, an experience he likened to boot camp. Even then, he was a leader - of sorts.
Once, when sister Ruth Anne Koenig overheard that her younger brother had been acting up at the academy, she tried to defend him: He must've gotten in with the wrong crowd.
Her mother countered, From what I'm hearing, he's leading the pack.
The summer after Geppert turned 16, his father helped him get a minimum-wage job laying cable with the Potomac Valley TV Co. The young Geppert dragged cable through brush on a mountainside and dug post holes. He says he learned that employees would go to great lengths to serve customers if management rewarded and encouraged them to do so.
While pursuing a bachelor's degree at the University of South Florida in Tampa, Geppert worked at a nearby driving range and golf course. He picked up golf balls and shared golf tips with Tampa Bay Buccaneers football players, including Lee Roy Selmon and Charles Hannah.
Geppert met his wife of 26 years, the former Amy Harbin, while he was in college and she, already a college graduate, was working as a clinical social worker. Two years younger than Amy, the 22-year-old Geppert wasn't the type of professional man she was looking for in a husband. He didn't even have a job when he proposed.
But Amy Geppert says other men bored her after she met her future husband.
Her father gave her advice that revealed his confidence in Geppert's ability to land a job and excel: Don't push Billy. He'll be fine.
Marriage turned out to be a defining moment in Geppert's career. I guess once I got married, I realized I'd better get on with it, he says.
He applied to be a cable installer in Tampa, but the company drafted him to sell cable TV subscriptions door-to-door. Geppert got a lot of those doors slammed in his face, and he showed an aptitude for drinking tea with older ladies who wanted some company but not the cable TV company.
Geppert eventually worked his way up to general manager of Paragon Cable in Lakeland, Fla., a job he almost quit on his first day when 300 customers showed up at a community meeting to gripe about abysmal service.
The city gave Geppert 30 days to make things right. He decided that he and his employees would speak to customers personally and win them over one at a time. Complaints to City Hall about the company dwindled from 100 a month to none - all in Geppert's first month.
That was one way he gained a reputation within the industry for turning around troubled systems.
Among his stops: New Orleans, where he ran the suburban cable TV system for Cox, while Ray Nagin, who would one day become the city's mayor, ran the urban system. After Geppert and Nagin combined the two, Geppert's next stop was Preston, England, where he worked on a joint venture between Cox and what was then SBC.
Along the way, Geppert and his wife adopted a daughter, Katie, now 20, and a son, Will, now 17.
When Cox put Geppert in charge of its operations in San Diego - one of the largest cable systems in the country - the family settled into a 5,400-square-foot house in Jamul. Throughout the house is evidence of Geppert's love of sport: a golf ball collection, a basketball signed by former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden and a baseball with Cal Ripken Jr.'s autograph.
In July 1995, Geppert was assigned to lead Cox Communications' transformation here from a cable TV company to a provider of television, telephone and Internet service in the South Bay, East County and North County. Unlike the troubled cable operations he'd overseen before, Cox's San Diego division was already well-run, Geppert recalls.
The challenge here was how to transform what had been a cable company into a full-fledged communications company with multiple products, integrated products and with much more comprehensive customer-service requirements, he says.
The San Diego division was one of the first Cox regions to offer high-speed Internet access, beginning in 1997, and one of the first to launch telephone service in 1998.
In other moves, Geppert made a deal with the Padres and Sony to put high-definition TV sets throughout the baseball team's new Petco Park in downtown San Diego.
And he helped a Tijuana cable company extend its reach by leasing Cox's lines near the international border. The deal allowed customers of the Mexican cable company to watch the Padres on Cox's Channel 4.
Also under Geppert's leadership, Cox's San Diego division set up a customer care call center that was so successful, it now handles calls for all of Cox's California divisions. It's the first such call center of its kind in Cox Communications, and customer care representatives there answer, I can help you, - underscoring Geppert's strong focus on customer service.
Geppert, however, doesn't name any of these accomplishments as his greatest professional achievement.
My greatest achievement is the ability and the opportunity that God has blessed me with to be able to create a working environment where people feel good about who they work for, what they're there to do and where they celebrate their success together, he says. I think that's important.
Cox employees say Geppert isn't afraid to make fun of himself, especially when it comes to breaking the ice at a business meeting or rallying staffers. The time he dressed up as the movie character Austin Powers, a '60s-era secret agent - complete with ruffled shirt and flared pants - is legendary. Nobody seems to remember the focus of the event, but Geppert's costume and funky dance haven't been forgotten.
These stories get to be bigger than life, Geppert says. It wasn't that big a deal.
Jaime Roxas, fired in 2001 after 18 years at Cox, says he thought Geppert was more concerned about his image than with employees.
He is what we used to call 'Mr. Celebrity,' says Roxas, who sued Cox, alleging wrongful termination. The terms of his settlement with the company are confidential.
He is more concerned about his image to the public, and he will sacrifice some of his people because of that, Roxas says.
Geppert calls that view far off base.
I'm certainly concerned about the Cox Communications image in the community, yes, but as far as me personally, not at all, Geppert says. Why would I dress up as Austin Powers and do some of the crazy stuff I do if I was concerned about my image?
Other Cox employees say Geppert is a compassionate boss who builds bridges to workers, visiting the injured in the hospital and delivering funeral eulogies for employees and former employees.
He was always going the extra mile for an employee who was going through hard times or who had a personal crisis, says Dan Novak, the former general manager of Cox's Channel 4 who left last fall to take a position at Qualcomm.
One of Cox's tenets is commitment to community, and Geppert has personified that from the moment he arrived in San Diego.
Geppert hit the ground running, says local real estate magnate Malin Burnham.
In no time at all, he was chair of the greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Corporation, Burnham says. But he's a man that has a lot of capacity. He can juggle a lot of balls.
John Dyer, Geppert's former boss, says Cox's 12 region managers are expected and encouraged to become involved in civic affairs.
Starting with that as a premise, there are some region managers who are more involved than others, and Bill would be the one that's the most involved in the community, says Dyer, a senior vice president of Cox who was Geppert's boss for five years.
Geppert says he is able to handle business and all his outside activities because he has a team of 11 competent managers.
He lets his leaders run the business and do what they need to do, says Duffy Leone, who worked for Geppert before being promoted last year to region manager of Cox's Orange County division.
I still am engaged here on a fairly significant basis on the operational side, Geppert says. He credits his Blackberry handheld wireless e-mail device with helping him keep track of the business even while he's doing community work.
Geppert, who says he's learning to say no so he doesn't spread himself too thin, led the effort to raise $700,000 for the successful campaign for a strong-mayor form of government in San Diego. The voter-approved change took effect this year.
He was among a handful of business leaders who urged then-Mayor Dick Murphy to run for a second term. Murphy won the race, but he stepped down from office seven months into his term, leaving behind a city government crippled by financial crisis and scandal. Geppert says that, in retrospect, Murphy's heart wasn't in the job.
Peter Q. Davis, who found himself on the opposite end of the political spectrum from Geppert when he ran against Murphy in 2004, says he thought Geppert was a little arrogant because of his relationship with the mayor.
Yet, despite political differences, Davis credits Geppert with living up to his word and fighting to bring businesses from elsewhere to downtown San Diego - a long-term battle that hasn't yet yielded any victories. He's very much a take-charge guy, Davis says.
Just as Geppert has been hired to turn around troubled cable TV systems, he's been asked to help local organizations during difficult times. He was on the San Diego Symphony's board of directors when the symphony was emerging from bankruptcy. And he sat on the board of the San Diego Red Cross when it was battling for financial stability.
Organizations seek out Geppert because of his can do attitude: The San Diego Foundation asked him to spearhead its Endow San Diego campaign to increase endowments of local nonprofit groups. San Diego Junior Achievement asked him to be co-chairman of the organization's efforts to raise money to build a free-enterprise center for children in Mission Valley.
Bill is someone that you can always count on to be there, whether it's looking at the big picture and being able to strategize on what needs to be done or getting down to the details of fundraising, said Ted Roth, a good friend and managing director of an investment bank.
Bill is willing to make calls to get people out to fundraisers and to do what's necessary in order to make whatever he's involved in a success, says Roth, who's served on many committees with Geppert.
I think he's brought a lot to the community, says local entrepreneur Dan Shea, part owner of Donovan's Steak and Chop House in University City and a partner in Paradigm Investment Group, which owns more than 100 restaurants in seven states.
Geppert has made no secret of his ambitions for Cox in San Diego. He's long been interested in acquiring Time Warner's franchise, with about 200,000 subscribers, if the right opportunity came along.
And, offered promotions elsewhere, Geppert has turned them down in favor of remaining here, where he enjoys the people, the weather and the outdoors.
It's the kind of place where you want to raise your family and live the rest of your life, he says. There isn't any other place I can think of where I'd rather live.
Kathryn Balint: (619) 293-2848; email@example.com
William King Geppert
Job: Vice president and region manager, Cox Communications
Previous jobs: Managing director, SBC Cablecomms (Cox partnership) in Preston, England; vice president and general manager, Cox Communications, Jefferson Parish, La.; general manager, Paragon Cable, Tampa, Fla.; general manager, Paragon Cable, Lakeland, Fla.; operations manager, Group W Cable, Tampa/St. Petersburg, Fla.; marketing manager, Teleprompter, Tampa.
Education: Bachelor of Arts, University of South Florida, 1979; Stanford Executive Program, 2003.
Personal: Lives with his wife, Amy, and two children, Katie, 20, and Will, 17, in Jamul. He loves to lavish his family with unexpected gifts: a Las Vegas trip to see singer Celine Dion for his sisters, an MTV concert in Miami for his daughter and a hot-air balloon ride with his wife for the somewhat acrophobic Geppert.
Hobbies: Golf, local sports. He's about one-third of the way toward a personal goal to golf at the top 100 courses in the world.
Tech trivia: Favorite gadget is his Blackberry, which allows him to keep in touch with the office while doing community work. The cable executive likes to watch sporting events in high definition; he uses his digital video recorder to store the TV shows 24, Commander in Chief and The West Wing for later viewing.
Source: Union-Tribune researchhttp://www.signonsandiego.com/news/b...z1b30coxs.html