From Dad's Suspenders to Cable TV Giant

If it wasn't for the advent of beltless slacks at the dawn of the swinging '60s, there may never have been a Comcast.

Ralph Roberts, the cable giant's founder, has been known throughout his long career as both a savvy deal-maker and an industry visionary with an instinct for the next big thing. Way back then, though, he was simply the head of a successful men's accessories company, and not surprisingly he saw the sartorial sea change of the '60s coming.

Roberts, an entrepreneur with a Depression-era work ethic and an infant son named Brian, got out of the suspenders and cufflinks trade, sensing very early on that men's fashion was going to become more and more casual.

He hopped, improbably, into the nascent cable TV business, famously buying a 1,200-subscriber community-antenna cable system in tiny Tupelo, Miss.

Back in those days, cable was merely a utility-like delivery system, a way of bringing the tube to the sticks, with its thick cables snaking out from those community antennas, past multiple signal amplifiers to rural subscribers. It was seen as, above all, a source of predictable cash flow.

At the end of the '60s, Roberts and his partners changed the name of their little cable company from American Cable Systems to Comcast and incorporated in Philadelphia, and a few years later they took the expanding company public. A few years after that, in 1975, HBO changed the business forever by innovating satellite delivery to cable's head ends. Roberts saw that Comcast would be in a new business. And it grew.

It wasn't until the mid- '80s that Comcast reached one million subscribers, right around the time that it made its lucrative founding investment in QVC. It crossed the 2 million mark in 1988. That made it the fifth-biggest multiple-system operator.

Two years later, in 1990, then-30-year-old Brian Roberts was named Comcast's president.

In 1994, Comcast added more than half a million more subscribers in another acquisition, and Comcast notched up to No. 3.

In 1998, Stephen Burke joined the company, becoming Comcast Cable's president and COO, after a dozen years at Disney, during which he had headed both ABC Broadcasting and Euro Disney. The AT&T acquisition put them on top of the cable hierarchy.

Burke and Roberts, who's now chairman and CEO, are still two boyish-looking and athletically inclined executives who have become something of the Butch and Sundance of cable—a well-regarded and polished executive duo that adds to Comcast's industry cachet.

"We socialize, we're pretty good friends, our wives are good friends. We bicycle together. He's very good at squash and golf, so we never play squash or golf," Burke jokes. "Bicycling, running—those are things I'll do with him." The two men talk "five times a day, even on Saturdays and Sundays."

Their skills, Burke says, are different but complementary. "I love the plumbing of business, I love budgets, I love field operations, that stuff. Brian really enjoys the deal-making aspects of the business, the merger-and-acquisition activity, the financial stuff."

Four decades after Ralph Roberts first traded in his suspenders for coaxial cable, Comcast is cable's standard bearer and largest player, approximately twice as big as its nearest cable competitor.