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11/20/2003

CEO says credibility can’t be regained

By James Bouknight
The Daily Times-Call

BOULDER — Returning to Boulder on Monday to speak at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado as president, chairman and CEO of Time Warner Telecom —a multi-million dollar company — struck Larissa Herda as somehow ironic. Herda applied to the business school at CU in 1973, but she was turned down.

“I majored in political science instead,” Herda said.

Herda, a visiting speaker for the business school’s profiles in business and society program, gave freshmen business students her story and provided them with her perspective on what makes a good CEO. Guiding the helm of Time Warner Telecom was not a move Herda went looking for. It came to her.

“I actually turned down the position because I didn’t think I was qualified,” Herda said.

She said she took the position after it looked as if the company would be dismantled and sold if she didn’t.

“ ‘Well, it’s a job. I’ll try it,’” Herda said she told her husband.

The advice the CEO gave to business students fell into two broad categories:

•Be able to make the hard decisions for the long haul, and don’t let others, including Wall Street analysts, tell you that you are crazy.

•Treat employees like real people, and your company will be stronger for it.

Time Warner Telecom specializes in providing Internet and other communications services to businesses through fiber optic technology. But the telecom industry is prone to fads, Herda said; when new technologies develop, often companies jump on the train even if it doesn’t make sense in relation to their business plan. A few years ago DSL Internet was the hot new thing on Wall Street, she said.

“I had analysts telling me we had a big hole because we weren’t doing DSL,” Herda said. “But I said ‘we don’t even do residential.’”

It is important to stick to your guns when you know what is best for your company, Herda said.

“Once you lose your credibility you never gain it back,” she said.

Every company is made up of people that have their own lives, their own problems, and, often, their own families. Herda said she places a real emphasis on making sure that the culture at Time Warner Telecom is supportive and open.

“At the end of the day, the word gets out that I care,” Herda said. “You would be amazed the effect that has on a company.

When Herda had to lay off a third of Time Warner Telecom’s workforce a few years ago when the economy took a turn for the worse, she cried publicly on the company-wide conference call.

“I understand what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck,” she said.

In the end, supporting her employees makes her company stronger, she said. If people like working there, then turnover and training costs go down, and productivity goes up.

Herda says she expects Time Warner Telecom to stick around, and she is ready for the challenge.

“I don’t think I know what it takes to build a billion dollar company,” Herda said. “But I’m going to learn.”

James Bouknight can be reached at 303-776-2244, Ext. 389, or by e-mail at jbouknight@times-call.com.