A Leader Who Listens

In Las Vegas this week, Brian Roberts could have been playing host to The Cable Show and the Vanguard Awards. But he isn't.

Flashback to 1998: Roberts, following his tried-and-true form of leadership, had gathered the top Comcast executives around a table and handed each a blank piece of paper. The question: Should Comcast bid to buy the Las Vegas cable system from Prime Cable?

The voting was blind, so no executive had to feel bound by Chairman/CEO Roberts' predilection for the possible purchase. It is a mechanism designed to elicit unadulterated opinion on important decisions.

“So if you want to say no but you think I'm in love with it,” he says, “you can get your point across.”

The voting was almost unanimous. “Everybody said no, at the price,” says Roberts. “At the time, it was the world-record price, by a lot.”

Everybody but one. The lone dissenter: his father, Ralph, who founded the company that is now run by his son.

“He was bullish. He said [Las Vegas] was one of the greatest markets and always will be,” Roberts recalls. “The money guys and myself—Wharton finance major— just didn't get it.”'

Instead, the system went to Cox Communications of Atlanta, which paid $780 million for a 60% controlling stake in the 300,000-subscriber system. In the mean time, Las Vegas has been the fastest-growing city for a decade.

But, as Roberts prepares to accept a Vanguard Award for Leadership from the NCTA, he says he doesn't dwell on the missed opportunity: “I don't look back.”

If he did, he'd see a record, across two generations of Roberts leadership, that has turned a company with 34,300 subscribers in 1972 into the nation's largest operator of cable systems, with 24.2 million subscribers, and a supplier of broadband connections to the Internet, with 11.5 million subscribers. Philadelphia-based Comcast has also become a technological leader in industry.

Comcast's shares have outperformed general stock indices by a significant margin over the past 35 years.

An investment of $7,000 would have bought 1,000 shares in 1972, when Comcast first offered ownership to the public. Today, that investment would be worth $3.7 million, versus $200,000 if it had been invested in the Standard & Poor's 500 instead.

In the last two years alone, the company has grown 30.2% on the top line, to $25 billion in annual revenue, and 161% on the bottom line, to $2.5 billion.

It has picked up 2.8 million TV subscribers, 3 million Internet subscribers and 1.2 million phone customers.

But what Roberts says he is “most proud” of is the people he has been able to recruit for his team in this “next generation of Comcast.”

Those top recruits include Steve Burke, president/COO, who chose Comcast even though he had a bright career ahead of him at The Walt Disney Co.; D'Arcy Rudnay, VP of corporate communications; Marlene Dooner, VP of investor relations; Cathy Avgiris, senior VP/general manager of Comcast Voice Services; Dave Watson, executive VP of operations; Dave Juliano, executive VP of marketing and product development; and Dave Scott, executive VP, finance and administration.

Roberts lets them formulate policy. When they walk into his office, his desk is clear, not cluttered with reports.

“I want people to tell me what they think I should know,” he says. He won't make up a list of 10 ideas he thinks an executive ought to consider or pursue. “You make the list,” he says. “You're the expert” in what you do.

He explains, “It's more rewarding to work for someone who respects you and lets you do your own thing.”'

Of course, he adds, “if we're not in sync, we get in sync.”

The result of that open dialogue? Better ideas. And deals. Lots of deals.

Larry Smith, the newly retired chief financial officer, presided over $100 billion worth of Comcast deals in his 19 years at the company. Comcast's annual revenue, in fact, was just $20 million when Roberts got out of school in 1981.

The biggest deal, of course, was 2002's $29.2 billion acquisition of AT&T Broadband, which vaulted Comcast to the top of the heap among cable operators.

The decision to acquire AT&T was ratified by a dozen or more executives in the “sealed” voting process using torn, blank pieces of paper. The vote was unanimous.

But the communication is not just between top executives and Roberts. Every quarter, Roberts televises a “Comcast Live” presentation, where employees can hear the company's goals, ask questions and get feedback. Supervisors get a monthly broadcast.

And he tries to visit every major system regularly. Says Roberts, “It's an unending process.”