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What Lies Beneath Comcast's Success Story

As part of our effort to chronicle Comcast Corp. as Operator of the Year, a team of editors spent a day and a half in Philadelphia, visiting the MSO's senior executives. And although they were proud of their achievements, guys like Brian Roberts and Steve Burke said they would just have as soon as given the award to the company's 57,000 employees.

(In fact, Roberts and his co-founding father, chairman Ralph Roberts, asked that we put cable unit president Burke, executive vice president Mike Tallent and executive vice president of sales, marketing and customer service David Watson on the cover.)

The obvious reason why Comcast was named Operator of the Year is the turnaround it has engineered at the systems that once comprised AT&T Broadband. No cable MSO in history has ever lost 500,000 subscribers over a 12-month period. And no MSO in history has taken on a 500,000-loss operation and turned into a company that added 107,000 subscribers over the next six months.

That kind of work nominates you for operator of the decade, not just the year.

So how did Comcast pull all of this off? How did this family-controlled company that at one time had finished second in the sweepstakes for MediaOne Group Inc. pull off the largest cable deal in history — a deal many said was too complex and too big for Comcast to pursue?

Remember, it was a deal some felt could sink Comcast because the MSO was to triple in size, and AT&T Broadband contained a veritable rat's nest of problems, ranging from unhappy employees to distrustful local governments, aging plant to hemorrhaging subscriber counts — and no direction.

If you are Roberts or Burke, and those threads of doubt pervade Wall Street, you start attacking the big problem by breaking it down into a series of small problems. You start with good processes and — thanks to Comcast University — putting good people in place to execute your plan.

You start by salvaging the inherited good still left in the organization about to be acquired.

You start by trusting the instincts that got you here.

Then you run 100 miles per hour.

In short, you run cable systems the right way, the way they always should have been run. You repair the damage created with local franchise authorities by listening and following through on rebuilds quicker than previous management felt possible. You repair morale by giving employees an achievable, logical game plan, and leading them toward a goal that makes sense — because, after all, everybody wants to play on a winning team.

You create a standard bottom-line set of numbers, a matrix to which everyone plays.

You make basic-video growth paramount to all other benchmarks — one thought, one idea, one goal.

Once all that is in place, and you see the early fruits of the turnaround you expect, you look at your corporate structure and decide it's time to really join the major leagues.

It's time to take your company to the next level, to assemble a dream team of executives worthy of the largest cable MSO in history.

And you fill that dream team with a cacophony of voices, smart people in their own right, but with the power to step across lines of authority inside the company during all matters of significant discourse. Legal minds weigh in with marketing ideas. Engineering folks opine on possible mergers. Lawyers discuss programming initiatives.

Major initiatives are discussed with a collegial approach. Sometimes a direction is established and sometimes nothing is decided at all. If you're Brian, it allows you to get the best out of the brightest minds around you, and creates an insurance policy against major mistakes.

The collegial atmosphere that pervades Comcast serves as its own system of checks and balances.

That and the combined brain power of perhaps a dozen or so executives — Roberts, Burke, Larry Smith, John Alchin, Julian Brodsky, Art Block, Robert Pick, David Cohen, Terry Bienstock, Mark Coblitz, Dave Fellows, Michael Tallent, David Watson, Charlie Thurston, Robert Faught, Matt Bond, Amy Banse, Nancy Reardon and Steve Silva — underpins the new Comcast.

The new structure looks like nothing more than a complex version of the company Ralph Roberts founded some 40 years ago.

Think about it. In the beginning, it was Ralph Roberts, Dan Aaron and Brodsky. They were each other's sounding boards. Combined, they operated from a vantage point of fiscal integrity, operations integrity and community integrity (with the specter of Aaron hovering over every Comcast Cares event the MSO conducts).

Brian knows the importance of blending the bucket truck with the executive suite. Having been a pole climber (if ever so briefly) and a system type (even for a few years), people say the younger Roberts appreciates the role of the front-line troops.

He's guiding Comcast into the major leagues of American business, with a inclusive philosophy on decision-making, which makes bright people want to work for him.

Ralph's calm demeanor — and the vestige of how he, Dan and Julian ran the company — continue to define the culture of Comcast today and, with Brian's presence, probably in the years to come.