Comcast co-founder and chairman emeritus Ralph Roberts’s emergence on the cable scene couldn’t have been better if it were scripted.
As the story goes, the U.S. Navy veteran, after years as a salesman for everything from canned music to men’s belts and suspenders, had recently exited the apparel business after seeing an ad for beltless slacks. Roberts had just sold his Pioneer Suspender Co. and had some cash to invest in something different.
According to Roberts’s oral history, conducted with The Cable Center in 2000, a chance meeting on the street led him to what would be his first cable system purchase, a tiny operation in Tupelo, Miss., which up until that time had been famous only as the birthplace of the “king of rock ‘n’ roll,” Elvis Presley.
Roberts had been walking in Philadelphia when he ran into Daniel Aaron, who had just left his job at Jerrold Electronics to open up his own cable brokerage, and Warren “Pete” Musser, who owned the struggling Tupelo system.
“Here comes our fish,” Musser said to Aaron, according to the Cable Center oral history. “He just sold his business and he’s got a lot of money.”
Roberts, who died on June 18 of natural causes at the age of 95, would never compare himself to Elvis, but the communications conglomerate he birthed in that tiny Southern town grew into the king of cable companies.
Comcast — a name he coined in 1969 as a hybrid of communications and broadcast — is the largest cable operator in the country. It serves more than 22 million television subscribers, 22 million broadband customers and is the owner of NBCUniversal, home of the NBC Television Network and more than a dozen cable channels including MSNBC, Syfy, Bravo and USA Network.
“Ralph was a born entrepreneur, a visionary businessman, a philanthropist and a wonderful human being,” Comcast said in a statement. “Ralph built Comcast into one of America’s greatest companies, and his vision and spirit have been at the heart of Comcast and our culture for 50 years. He will be truly missed.
“Ralph’s greatest love was his family, and our deepest sympathies go to his wife, Suzanne, and the entire Roberts family.”
In dozens of testimonials and messages from friends throughout the cable space, Roberts was depicted as a man of grace, integrity and fair play.
“Ralph Roberts was one-of-a-kind; a consummate gentleman, businessman, father, husband; friend to all who knew him,” said Liberty Media chairman John Malone in a statement. “Most of all, I will miss the smile, the bow tie and the gentle sense of humor.”
Other friends remembered his business acumen, his snappy dress and his devotion to family.
“Ralph Roberts was so much more than a fellow cable entrepreneur,” Mediacom Communications chairman and CEO Rocco Commisso said in a statement. “His dapper elegance, humility and kind demeanor belied the man of steel, tough negotiator, risk-taker and visionary who, during his lifespan, propelled Comcast from a small rural cable operator to a global leadership position in our business.
“Not only does he leave behind a loving extended family, but he also leaves the Comcast family with the knowledge and pride that his legacy will live on under the excellent leadership of his son Brian.”
Family was at the top of the priority list for Roberts, who leaves behind his wife of 70 years, Suzanne, and four children — his son Brian, the Comcast chairman and CEO, and his wife Aileen; daughter Catherine Clifton and her husband Anthony Clifton; daughter Lisa Roberts and her husband David Seltzer; son Ralph Roberts Jr. and his wife Kim Roberts; and Diane Roberts, widow of Ralph and Suzanne’s son Douglas Roberts, who died in September 2011. Ralph Roberts also leaves eight grandchildren.
Ralph Roberts cultivated a reputation over the years as one of the true gentlemen of the cable business, but make no mistake: he was no pushover.
With the help of Daniel Aaron — who ran Comcast’s first cable system and retired as CEO of the company in 1991 — Comcast cut a swath across the country, accumulating cable systems in a flurry of deals and swaps over the decades. Ralph officially handed the baton to his son Brian in 2002 when Brian was named CEO of the company.
WHEELING AND DEALING
While the elder Roberts was a trusted confidant of his son’s well after he stepped back from day-to-day business operations — the two had adjoining offices, separated by a single glass door, for years — Ralph had flexed his own deal muscles.
After Tupelo, Ralph Roberts — who claimed to know nothing of the cable business in the early days — steadily grew Comcast, first by expanding into neighboring towns in Laurel and West Point, Miss. He stumbled on another franchise for Meridian, Miss., at a friendly craps game in a local roadhouse, according to the book Wired to Win: Entrepreneurs of the American Cable Industry. One of the players mentioned that the Meridian system was up for sale and was to be bought by a man who didn’t particularly want it. Roberts stopped by the man’s office and asked if it was for sale.
“Mr. Roberts, everything I own is for sale, including them,” he said, according to Wired to Win, pointing to a picture of his family. Roberts bought the systems.
In 1988, Roberts again set the tone for the future path of the company when Comcast made two deals that transformed it from the 16th largest operation in the country to the fifth largest — the acquisitions of Group W Cable and Storer Communications. With those two deals in hand, Comcast ballooned to 2 million subscribers and helped define the deal-making engine it was to become.
Around that time, Roberts also began investing on programming: In 1986, he met QVC founder Joe Segel and liked the concept so much that he became a minority investor in the channel. In 1992, Ralph and Brian Roberts met with former Fox Television chief Barry Diller at the Four Seasons hotel in Philadelphia, and convinced him to invest $25 million in the home-shopping company and become its chairman. But 18 months later, when Diller attempted a deal in 1994 that would have combined QVC and CBS, giving Diller control of The Tiffany Network, Ralph and Brian met him at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey and fired him on the spot, according to reports.
What’s more, the Robertses made their own bid for QVC, which threw the CBS deal into disarray. Comcast worked out a deal with Liberty Media to buy out the other QVC partners, with Comcast owning about 57.5% of the network. It was a stake the company held onto until 2003, when Liberty exercised its option to buy out its partner for about $7.9 billion.
“Ralph has a soft, fuzzy exterior,” Malone told Multichannel News in 2010, as part of Roberts’ 90th birthday tribute. “But he is as hard as nails.”
That demeanor also extended into cable operations, particularly Lenfest Communications, which was long on Roberts’s radar because it controlled his hometown market, Philadelphia. Lenfest had steadfastly refused to sell to Roberts, a stubbornness that he revealed in a 1998 interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer. Lenfest told the Inquirer that a few years earlier, he was considering combining with another entity but had reservations because Comcast would control it.
“When I called Ralph and said it didn’t seem right, he said, ‘You don’t see, Gerry — it’s my destiny to own you,’ ” Lenfest told the Inquirer at the time.
According to the article, Lenfest replied with a tongue-in-cheek letter — he didn’t reveal its contents — and Roberts responded with his own note: “Why don’t you get off your high horse and become our partner on a nice, quiet, friendly pony?’’
Roberts denied making the destiny statement and he told the Inquirer that the handwritten note seemed too demeaning for him to have written.
But despite playing some occasional hardball, Roberts was mainly a consensus builder. Brodsky, his early financial adviser who became chief financial officer and later vice chairman of the company, told Multichannel News in 2010 that there were many times when he, Aaron and Ralph Roberts didn’t agree, but Roberts always insisted on finding a middle ground.
“We didn’t do things until we all agreed,” Brodsky said. “There was no back-biting, no turf wars.”
As the 1990s unfolded, Comcast expanded into other programming ventures — investing in the Golf Channel and Outdoor Life Network and partnering with The Walt Disney Co. for a controlling interest in E! Entertainment Television. In 1997, Comcast introduced Comcast SportsNet Philadelphia, a regional all-sports channel featuring the Philadelphia Phillies, the Philadelphia Flyers and the 76ers. The latter two teams were also part of the new Comcast-Spectacor, Comcast’s “super-regional” sports venture. Comcast also acquired and rebranded the Washington D.C.-based Home Team Sports.
PASSING THE TORCH
Along the way, Ralph continued to groom his son Brian slowly — perhaps a little too slowly for his progeny’s taste.
Brian Roberts has said in past reports that after he graduated from the Wharton School of Business, he begged his father to hire him. Ralph said he preferred that Brian spend a few years working somewhere else; he could then join Comcast with a fresh perspective. Brian would have none of it, insisting that he wanted to work with his father while there was still time. After a series of jobs ranging from pole climber and cable installer to system manager and corporate finance executive, Brian Roberts was named Comcast president in 1990. He became CEO in 2002 and added chairman in 2004.
Brian Roberts has obviously shown a knack for the cable business, but his father said if he hadn’t, he would have cut him loose early on.
“You can’t sacrifice all the people in the place for a poor manager,” Ralph Roberts told The New York Times in 1997. “The most dangerous thing is a son or daughter coming into a business where they think they get special treatment. They drag the business down because it kills the morale of everybody in the company.”
That commitment to his employees and his company permeated Ralph Roberts’s personal and professional life throughout his career. In Wired to Win, Roberts summed it up best himself.
“If I had a choice between having a large pot of money and no business, or having a business and less money, I’d rather have the business,” Roberts said, according to the book. “It’s more intellectually stimulating. And you’re building something. There was never any intention on my part to sell out. And then came Brian. And it was perfect.”
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