David L. Cohen doesn’t run Comcast.
He didn’t run the Rendell mayoral administration either, and he doesn’t run the University of Pennsylvania or the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, nor does he have any of the titles that put him as the figurehead of any of the organizations that his fingerprints are on.
But he’s always in the conversations.
The Comcast Executive Vice President who spent much of the early 1990s as Ed Rendell’s mayoral chief of staff — as immortalized by Buzz Bissinger’s noted book ‘A Prayer for the City‘ — and before it had a private law career is as well-connected as they come.
So, Cohen, who is also the chairman of both the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and the University of Pennsylvania, has a unique vantage point on the region’s technology, political and cultural vanguard. Below, Cohen talks to Technically Philly about bolstering college graduate retention, the true affects of the NBC deal and why that purchase has something to do with Vietnam.
As always edited for length and clarity.
You’re a man who is known for relationships, for knowing people and the inner workings of the city to be sure. Tell us a little about what an average day is like for you, what you’ve been doing for Comcast.
There are answers that are about process and [answers] that are more substantive.
In process, I’m probably spending 75 percent of my time outside of Philadelphia and a tremendous amount of time in Washington [D.C.], New York and Los Angeles — all of which are related to the NBCU transaction.
Also, as a matter of my own management style, I’ve always said, ‘once every two years, try to get out to every region that Comcast does business. Try to do some combination of employee meetings, press meetings and community affairs meetings. For Comcast Cares Day, we have senior executives fan out across the country. I [went] to Seattle and Portland.
Regardless of where I am from a process standpoint, I’m always having back-to-back on the phone or in-person meetings over the course of everyday. On the average day, I start very early. Today, for example, I was in the office by 630 a.m., had breakfast at 8 a.m., and that 90 minutes in between is the only time of the day I have to read mail, sort and other tasks like that.
I’ll run from conference calls to meetings and that at the end of day, I’ll attend a [political fundraising or other social event]… or Chamber event and won’t get home before midnight.
I’ll still get 20-25 phone calls and 500-plus e-mails a day, but my reputation holds that if I get a call, I’ll return that call the day you call me. If you send me an email, I’ll try to do the same.
From a substantive perspective, my day job and the most important thing professionally is Comcast, and so Comcast activities dominate my day. But the extra curricular events though, which may seem independent from the pure aspect of a Comcast day job, play a big role, like the [being chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce].
One of the things that is important to Comcast is image and reputation in the community and one of the things that big companies do is to give back. So when I’m chair of the Chamber, it’s not my day job, but it helps, because Comcast is one of the most important members of the Chamber and our active role in the Chamber is part of being a leading corporate citizen.
…We want all of our Comcast executives to be active in the community… and that’s a lesson for any company or executive.
Below, watch Cohen talk in 2009 about a changing FCC and the future of broadband policy
You were from New York, but you stayed in Philadelphia after going to college in the area. What lessons can we learn as a region for retaining top talent, particularly in technology roles.
I was born in New York City, moved to suburban New Jersey and came to Philadelphia in 1973 for college.
One of great strengths here, of course, is the sheer number of colleges and universities. We are attracting enormous numbers of young people, both who are college students and who are professionals. Large segments of that population are part of our innovation economy.
Ask me for one thing to advance our innovation quotient as a region pertaining to that type of talent and growing those businesses, and it would be to figure out the puzzle of how you increase the retention rate of college graduates and professional schools.
Some of it’s basic blocking and tackling: have a dynamic city where people will have a great time. Some of it is about organization and having real retention programs that can show off to newcomers at colleges and universities and some of it is more complicated.
Ultimately, though, the questions are all chicken and egg, whether the employers come first or the employees. The real answer is they need to grow in balance. No doubt, one of the problems when comparing Philly to Boston, which are really number one and two with the most graduate and professional students, is that Boston has two to three times the retention rates of its students.
One of the reasons that Boston was much more successful earlier on in making itself a haven for high tech innovation and bioscience startup was that students were there and ready. There are a comparable number of schools and students here, but a very small percentage number of employers, so we continue to be less successful in retaining our college and professional school students. One exception, possibly, is medicine and pure scientific research.
The answers aren’t rocket science. The fact is that the medical infrastructure and research in Philadelphia is extremely well developed. When we have physicians graduating from our medical schools and there’s a substantial employee base, well, then of course we have been way more successful for holding our own in biotech than in the VC area or another area.
Below, Cohen speaks about becoming Penn trustees chairman
Where is Philadelphia’s place in the pantheon of startup and technology communities nationally or internationally? Is it any better of a place to start and grow a business than anywhere else?
I think we are lagging but improving.I don’t think we’re a high tech startup capital area, but we were better today than we were 10 years ago, and Comcast is a contrbutor to that. We’re retaining young people with jobs and careers, and we think our presence in this market in video and highspeed data is keeping minds here.
A coalition of community leaders and politicians have collaborated in an application to attract a proposal from Google to offer ultra-high-speed broadband access to as many as 500,000 people. Is that something Comcast could support?
That’s really more of an industry question than it is about Comcast’s take on it in Philadelphia. I’d recommend that you call [the National Cable and Telecommunications Association] for further comment.
The NBC TV show ’30 Rock’ has had some fun with Comcast’s majority stake purchase of the network. Alec Baldwin’s character said one episode: “A Philadelphia company purchasing a New York company is like Vietnam beating the United States in a ground war.” Mike Armstrong of the Inquirer had a piece comparing Comcast to Rohm and Haas. Do you think Comcast is redefining what a Philadelphia company is or can be?
I don’t want to be presumptuous and say Comcast is transforming the definition of a Philly company. But I don’t know. I think Comcast has come along at an important time. We’re losing a lot of corporate headquarters. Much news out there is about acquiring or moving or laying off, but Comcast news is not.
The Roberts family and senior executive leadership has maintained a Philly headquarters, and we continue to grow here. I think that it is also fortuitous that we are the kind of company that it is. We have a kind of glitz. We are a technology company, so we are part of the innovation space. We have a huge diversity of jobs, from 21st century engineering jobs to our internet business department to young people who previously thought they had to go out to Google or Yahoo but they can find the same jobs right here.
I’m also enormously proud that half of our jobs are in call centers or technicians. They are the manufacturing jobs of the 21st century. You don’t need a college education, maybe you need a high school diploma and some technical school training but you can raise your family in a middle class environment. Those are incredibly important jobs. In terms of balance of the workforce, everyone who comes out of high school isn’t going to get to college or graduate school, so we need to use technology to create jobs that people can raise families on that don’t require those advanced degrees — they just need high school education, hard work and honesty.
In a city that is losing jobs, that isn’t retaining jobs that are white collar jobs, I think we’re an important company, on the cutting edge and with variety and diversity. If that changes what a Philadelphia company is, I’m not sure.
How might the NBC acquisition perceptibly affect Philadelphia and its region directly? Do you think there will be a change?
You’ve already seen the change, with the joke you referenced [above, from 30 Rock]. It causes people to think about Philadelphia in a different way. You can’t discount the massive public relations boost that Philly gets for being the headquarters for the largest entertainment company in the world.
That said, I don’t think there’s any massive employment boost — but there’s no risk in moving from Philadelphia. We’ve set our roots here and that’s not going to change. We look forward to continuing being a growing corporate citizen in the greater Philadelphia area.
Philadelphia went so long without having a governor it could claim as its own and now we’ve perhaps grown accustomed, business communities certainly included. Could we see a jarring impact as Gov. Rendell — for whom you served as chief of staff during his first mayoral term — transitions out and is replaced?
I don’t see any jarring change. Obviously, Philadelphia has benefited because of Ed Rendel because of his overall philosophy to green energy and education policy and economic development and they happen to be issues that affect Philadelphia positively, also his commitment to infrastructure issues.
He’s from Philadelphia. It has been great to have a Philadelphian in the Governor’s office, so it will be a change. Many of the folks running for Governor have comparable commitments, so education, green energy and economic development won’t be left at the altar and go from 100 to zero but it will take more work of political and business leaders here to get continue to get our fair share.
Below, watch Cohen address a class at his alma mater Swarthmore about urban policy.
Philadelphia has developed both the tax structure and perception of being less than business friendly. You are the chairman of an organization that has long lobbied for that reversal. Do you believe the city will actually be able to wean itself off its business tax structure in the near future? And perhaps more importantly, do you think it would then or otherwise be able to change its perception and attract, retain and perhaps even welcome back businesses?
I am an eternal optimist.
I think we can continue to reduce taxes. In the time period Ed Rendell was mayor, nobody thought it was possible to reduce taxes. After those initial cuts in the [business privilege tax] and wage tax, people were laughing because… they pooh poohed them as being small, but now, looking back, the totality of those cuts has added up to being more than a billion dollars.
You’ve got to go slowly. You have to have a commitment. You have to cut taxes and grow revenues. You want more business located in the city and more residents, too, so your revenue goes up even as the rate goes down. It’s a long term process. As a city, we’ve made real progress. We have to resume the tax cuts, but we already know it won’t happen this year or next year.
The mayor has talked about trying to return to them — the wage tax and business privilege tax — as soon as the year after next. I hope the economy is strong enough. I do think it is a five to 10 year project, not a one to three year project.
And perception, well, Philadelphia’s perception is already changing.
Every Friday, Technically Philly brings you an interview with a leader or innovator in Philadelphia s technology community. See others here.
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