Chris Winfrey

Mastering the language of business

How Charter Communications COO Chris Winfrey used his foundation in accounting to pave the way to the C-suite.

When Chris Winfrey (BSAc ’96, MBA ’98) was selecting his major as a student at the University of Florida, he had many options before him – marketing, finance, management. The recent Oviedo High School graduate recognized, though, that there was only one subject that was the ‘language of business’ – accounting.

Winfrey understood early on that he would benefit in the long run by building his foundation in the most technical of the business subjects first and then branching out into its other functions. After finishing his undergraduate degree in accounting, Winfrey did just that by pursuing his Master of Business Administration at UF.

As an undergraduate student, Winfrey came to know UF’s high quality education and world-renowned professors, so staying in Gainesville for his MBA was an easy choice. Since Winfrey was also paying for his MBA out of his own pocket, those factors indicated he could expect a great return on his investment.

His prediction proved right. Winfrey’s career since graduating from the University of Florida has included the role of CFO at two companies before his recent promotion to President and CEO at Charter Communications.

“My public college background is a driver – somewhat of a self-inflicted chip on my shoulder – of my career,” he said.

That chip, plus his educational background, was the right combination that propelled Winfrey to becoming a CFO by the time he turned 30.

Winfrey started his 20-plus year career in cable as an analyst at Tampa-based Communications Equity Associates (CEA), a financial services company with a heritage in cable TV. In his three years at CEA, Winfrey found a mentor who, because of their connection, brought him to his next opportunity in cable. What was supposed to be two years with a large European cable company, ended up being 10 – the last four of which was as CFO of Germany’s Unitymedia GmbH.

As his then-3 and 1-year-old children were getting older, though, Winfrey had to decide if he wanted to move his family back to the United States. It was then that he found the opportunity to transfer his skills to helping restructure Charter Communications into America’s fastest growing cable company.

Winfrey was intrigued by the idea of becoming CFO at Charter, as its high quality assets had not been properly operated due to a poor balance sheet strategy which led to a Chapter 11 reorganization in 2009. In 2010, Winfrey formally took on the role and moved his family to the company’s then-headquarters in St. Louis, Missouri.

Over his 11-year tenure as CFO, Winfrey oversaw Charter’s accounting, financial planning and analysis, procurement, real estate, M&A, tax and treasury functions. He also took on a number of other operational responsibilities – from fiber-based business services to leadership of Charter’s residential and small and midsized business sales – all of which set him up for his current role of president and CEO.

Even with overseeing all cable operations across Charter’s 41-state footprint, including marketing, sales, field operations, customer operations, as well as Spectrum Enterprise, Winfrey is looking forward to maintaining the standard of excellence Charter has set for itself over time and through the course of the pandemic.

“Charter is the fastest growing cable company in the country, and likely the world,” he said. “We have attractive products and high quality service and our employees take pride in what we do. I want us to continue to operate at this service standard and be ready for the next challenge.”

Winfrey’s favorite part of his new role – learning – keeps him ready to take on that next challenge whenever it might arise.

“[I enjoy] finding adrenaline in the smallest things and using that energy to create value,” he said. “If I’m not learning, then things get stale. The opportunity to do that in this job – and specifically at Charter – is significant.”

As someone who understands how critical learning is to progression forward, Winfrey has many insights to share with students and young alumni who are looking to find success in their careers.

First, have ambition, and maybe even have a little chip on your shoulder.

Loving the industry you’re in and who you’re working with is his second key to success.

“If you don’t love what the company does and what they stand for, then it’s not going to work,” he said.

Once you find a company that you genuinely enjoy working for, the third step is to find a mentor. A good mentor isn’t just someone who pats you on the back for a job well done, though, it’s someone who can give you constructive criticism.

Lastly, being willing to make sacrifices plays an important role in moving ahead in your career.

“Be willing to stretch yourself,” he said. “Even if it’s not your background, try it anyway.”