When Brian Roberts faced his first real fork in the road, it meant deciding on Wall Street or cable. Cable won, but for Roberts, it meant a career working with his best friend, confidant and mentor, his father.
Fresh out of the Wharton School of Finance, most of his classmates headed to Wall Street to cash in on a booming period of banking and deal-making, circa 1981. Roberts instead went to his father, Ralph, who is also a member of cable’s Hall of Fame.
“I always wanted to work with my father, so we discussed what I should do,” he said. “Once I decided on cable, we felt I needed to work at a cable system. So I was off to Trenton to a system there. That first year was when I really determined cable was the right business for me. I absolutely loved the people, the energy and it allowed me to get in touch with the realities of business at the systems.”
More important, his time spent at Trenton and later at the Flint, Mich., system, taught him the value of good customer service and not being captive to corporate surroundings. Translation: Know your customers and community.
“The memorable events at those systems really shaped me, and [the idea] that GMs should feel they own their own business,” he recalled.
One memorable event led to another for Roberts early in his career, most notably a meeting he was invited to attend which featured many of cable’s top leaders, including [Telecommunications Inc.’s] John Malone, [Time Warner Cable’s] Gerald Levin and others.
“I was witnessing the era of cable going from rural and broadcast to full programming,” Roberts said. “That was probably the best thing that ever happened to me in cable.”
Along with Al Molloy. As Roberts’ squash coach (Roberts was an All-American squash player and earned a gold medal at the 2005 Maccabiah Games with the U.S. 40-and-over team) and an ex-Marine, Molloy “was just the opposite of my father, who was very nurturing and had no other agenda than for me to succeed. If you lost a match he [Molloy] would lecture you for an hour, then demand an hour of running laps. He convinced me there are different styles of leadership and that deep down you lead with heart, ethics and integrity.”
It’s those qualities that Roberts wanted to build his career around, according to Julian Brodsky, a recent inductee into cable’s Hall of Fame and lifelong friend of Roberts.
“His management style is highly intellectual and he is a consensus builder. We were astounded at how much he knew at a young age and what customers wanted in programming. When he was 9, we were still just an antenna business, now he’s pushing enormous Internet initiatives to add value and technologies to the business,” Brodsky said.
Since Roberts became chairman and CEO of Comcast Corp., it has grown into a Fortune 100 company with $22.3 billion in revenues, 23.3 million customers and 80,000 employees, whom he singles out as a key to the company’s success.
“Each year we have Comcast Cares Day and 30,000 Comcast volunteers in 300 locations participate in local care projects,” he noted. “It really is what this company stands for.”
On a personal level, Roberts is involved with many charitable organizations, and with his wife Aileen, is taking the values learned in cable to another level.
“The Comcast Technology Center works with homeless shelters through Project Home and a new, state-of-the-art facility in a tough Philadelphia neighborhood that focuses on adult education and technology. It’s one way we can help our community,” Roberts said.
He has been honored by the National Association for Multi-ethnicity in Communications for his commitment to diversity in the cable industry, and by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America for Comcast’s commitment of resources to champion the organization’s drug-free message.
In addition, he received the 2004 Humanitarian Award from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and in 2003 was awarded the Steven J. Ross Humanitarian Award by the UJA Federation of New York.
Roberts also co-chaired the 2003 Resource Development Campaign for the United Way of Southeastern Pennsylvania, and was honored by the Police Athletic League of Philadelphia for his commitment to youth programs and community partnerships.
“Community service is more than writing checks. It’s about sharing actively and passionately and being personally involved in local communities,” Roberts said.
Roberts is also involved in several industry organizations. He is currently serving his second consecutive term as chairman of the board of directors of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, and served two terms as chairman of CableLabs Inc.
“Being part of CableLabs has been very stimulating, because the technology is a critical part of the business and I really wanted to be involved,” he said. “We’ve gone from one to three businesses in less than a decade, and that’s remarkable.”
Even more remarkable, according to Brodsky, was Roberts’ handling of the integration of Group W into Comcast’s corporate culture when the company purchased it in 1986.
“He was told to make it happen, and it was a tough assignment,” Brodsky said. “But he engineered the closing and made it look like a cable system. I still think of that as a miracle.”
But his work with the NCTA is no miracle. “He’s worked closely with Decker Anstrom and others at NCTA and been involved with every major initiative through the years and been part of the major decisions,” Brodsky said. “He’s going to lead the way to a new, highly competitive world.”
“I’ve always had a vision that we can do more, and we’re well positioned to diversify into other businesses,” Roberts said. “But we have to move ahead and always be aware of our entrepreneurial roots.”
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