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Excite@Home CEO says he hasn't left broadband game

The chief executive of the world's largest high-speed Internet access provider believes the various executive and strategic changes in the past year have served to improve the company.

   
Excite@Home chief executive George Bell believes the various changes undergone by the high-speed Internet company this year, including his eventual resignation, are for the better.

But he admits that sometimes it takes time for that to become apparent.

Bell announced this week his intention to step down from the CEO post once a suitable replacement is found. He will continue in the role of chairman of the board of directors, guiding the company strategically.

The move, coupled with some internal shuffling, marks the latest significant change in an eventful year for Excite@Home, a complex and often misunderstood Internet company.

Once lauded for its high-speed Net access service and huge potential in the booming broadband market, Excite@Home has since struggled some to stay out of its own way. The company already is the world's largest broadband provider with more than 2 million customers, and most analysts expect it to continue to grow exponentially.

To that end, executives see story: AT&T consolidates control over
Excite@Home have spent the past year tweaking the management ranks, reorganizing internally, solidifying the company's relationships with big-name backers, and thinking carefully about the company's strategy.

The process hasn't always been easy.

In an interview with CNET News.com, Bell addressed his role with the company, Excite@Home's future, and the reason why change is good.

CNET News.com: Why did you choose to announce your resignation now?
Bell: To be accurate, I haven't stepped down as CEO. I've said that we're going to initiate a search for a CEO, and I'm not putting any time pressure on the board to find one. If it takes three months, six months, nine months, I'm fine with that...I've announced my intention to step down at a future date, but I don't expect that will be anytime in the near future.

I wanted to assure Wall Street and our employees that I'm not really going anywhere. I've already committed to staying through the end of 2001 at minimum as the full-time chairman to make this transition.

I look back at what has happened to us the past eight or nine months of this year...We've fixed the governance, we've fixed the distribution agreements, we've raised the performance of the service considerably. I think we spent the first few years of this company on dealing with deals and scale, and not enough on operational stability or subscriber service. Because as the thing grows, if people are unhappy with the service, it's going to kill you faster than the best marketing might win you customers. So I think we've got more focus there.

I feel like I've got If people are unhappy with the service, it's going to kill (the company)
faster than the best marketing might win you customers. the lion's share of all those things done. The next thing now is to allow me to focus on the strategic growth of the company...I thought it was high time that we divided the chairman and CEO roles, given who we have as corporate partners and distribution partners. It's a very complex set of companies. And frankly, I find that when I can spend more time with those guys, it almost always yields productive results for us.

I just have not been in a position to say, "OK, I'll go spend two days a week with AT&T and another day with my other cable partners and a day to go to Europe to focus on Excite Chello." I haven't had that freedom of movement.

To what extent has AT&T's ongoing influence on your company affected your decision to resign as CEO?
It had no influence. I know people would like to find the negative lining in this, but I'm perfectly happy with AT&T's control of us. It has not changed the way I operate the company...I find that I'm actually reaching out to more AT&T managers now than I did in the past. But those are all things that are initiated by me, rather than managers at AT&T coming at me with a microscope about how my business is run. So I'm pleased with all of that.

AT&T also has a lot of other things on its plate that it needs to deal with. And we've become central to its identity and maybe its future in some ways. But they also have their own strategic issues that they're going through, and I think rightly so they're focused on those.

How likely is it that former AT&T executive Byron Smith, Excite@Home's executive vice president of consumer broadband services and chief marketing officer, will be the new CEO, and is AT&T specifically grooming him for that role?
I'm not going to speculate on any candidates, but we have said that we're willing to look at internal as well as external candidates. I'm certainly not going to prejudice the search for or against an AT&T employee or a former AT&T employee. These are hard jobs to find great people for. They're very demanding. So if we were to limit the candidate pool, we'd potentially limit the outcome.

Your company has instituted several reorganizing and strategic changes during the past year. How do you know that this is the right effort this time?
I don't know that you ever know that. When your business is changing as fast as ours is and growing as fast as ours is, you're going to keep looking for the optimal structure and the optimal way to maximize your growth. So I can't say in all honesty or with certainty that what we've done today in terms of restructuring on content and some of the other things we announced yesterday is going to be the perfect solution. We don't know those things until we live with them for a while.

Are you concerned that these various changes over the past year will continue to create negative perceptions about Excite@Home?
The presumption is that change is negative. I have to disagree with the presumption.

Nobody benefits when you've got a highly visible board out there arguing in public about what it thinks the company should and shouldn't do strategically. I will also say that I think under my watch you've seen very little of that. I have to agree that it was a part of our past and it did cause negative perceptions. If you're an investor or an employee and you think, "Boy, the board doesn't even know what it wants to do, so how can the company execute?" So I think that's fair.

But as far as us having I feel very comfortable now that the team we've got is a team that I can
stand up and support for the long-term growth of the company. a new CFO or a new guy that runs the consumer broadband--I've been here almost five years now, and what I've found out is that there's nothing logically that says the same management team that took you from zero employees to 1,000 is necessarily the same management team that's equipped to take you 10,000.

And the same guys that took the @Home service to 1 million subscribers aren't necessarily the same guys that are going to take you to 10 million.

I had to find a way to look at those issues in a nonemotional fashion, because it is like trench warfare. You get attached to people and you spend a lot of hours together. You spend more time with them than you do with your families.

I remember having a conversation with a couple of my board members and two of them said to me, "You know, you've got to get over it and do what you think is right for the business. And if you like these guys. you can still have lunch with them."...And when I got that, it really gave me a lot more courage to say, "Well, this manager's right for the future, and this one's not."

That did initiate a see story: Exits herald new era at Excite@Home lot of the chair shuffling that you've seen over the last six or seven months. But I feel very comfortable now that the team we've got is a team that I can stand up and support for the very long-term growth of the company.

I don't think that ought to create negative perceptions. I understand how change scares people, both inside and outside the company. But I do think that once I've begun to get my new senior people exposed to Wall Street I've had really good feedback on that.

Despite the various changes in the past year, Excite@Home is the world's largest broadband Internet company. What does that say about the company and the overall market?
We're sitting in the sweet spot of an Internet market segment, which is broadband. We have gone through a lot of ups and downs over the last year and a half or so. But at the end of the day, the progress that we've made on subscribers, the scale at which we're developing and building the backbone and infrastructure to serve those subscribers is creating enormous business opportunities. I don't think they're reflected in the stock price today.

What we found out is we needed to pull our horns in. Straighten out the strategy and the governance agreements. Get people in the company focused on operational excellence. And recognize that as you build the AOL of broadband...then the value will accrue to you. But you can't do that without a great service, and I wanted to spend a year returning the company to that straightforward thought.