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Ralph Roberts Going Strong at 90

3/22/2010 1:11 PM Eastern

 At 90 years old, Ralph Roberts still comes into the office four days a week, dressed in a suit and his signature
bow tie.

He gave up horse jumping only a year ago, after hip
replacement surgery and doctor’s orders.
Earlier in the week, he spent all day in Washington,
D.C., in congressional hearings pertaining to
Comcast’s deal for a controlling stake in NBC Universal.
And he returned to Philadelphia later that
evening, joining longtime partner Julian Brodsky to
meet and greet about 100 NBCU executives who were in town on business.

The next day was his birthday, and he was feted in a lunch-time ceremony
in Comcast’s gleaming 58-
story headquarters in Philadelphia,
cheered on by hundreds of employees
in “Ralph’s Café.”

Slowing down? Not hardly. The elder
statesman of cable is still energized
by the business.

“I’ve always been very fortunate
in whatever business I have been
in, and I have been in quite a few,”
Ralph Roberts told Multichannel
News a few days after his March 13
birthday. “I’ve had no unpleasant
moments in business.”

In that long career, Roberts has
sold ads, golf clubs, belts, cologne,
elevator music and encyclopedias,
and was successful in all those ventures.

His first entrepreneurial enterprise:
digging up his mom’s flowers
and selling them to the neighbors,
according to Kathi Ann Brown’s
2003 book Wired to Win: Entrepreneurs
of the American Cable Industry
(Spectrum Publishing).

The foray into the cable business
eclipses all previous successes. Today,
Comcast is the world’s largest cable
operator with almost 24 million
customers. The company is on the
brink of becoming one of the largest
programming companies once it
takes a majority stake in NBCU. (Current
owner General Electric Co. will
retain a 49% stake in the media firm.)

Ralph Roberts said last week his
greatest achievement is recognizing
and working to create a business that
people love and learn from every day.
“I have always believed in this
business and its future,” he said.
He has been asked many times if he
envisioned Comcast morphing into
the behemoth it has become today —
and he typically smiles knowingly and
says, “of course.”

Comcast’s size today is a direct
result of the list of deals painstakingly analyzed and unanimously
agreed upon by the company’s top
echelon. Comcast was a small player
— the 16th-largest MSO — when
it partnered with Tele-Communications
Inc. and American Television
& Communications (now Time Warner
Cable) in 1986 to buy Group W Cable’s
assets.

That deal, followed by closely the
acquisition of 50% of Storer Communications
two years later, turned
Comcast into the fifth-largest MSO in the country, with more than
2 million customers.

Other deals followed; most turned
out well. Even investments once
thought strategic but later liquidated
generally worked out well financially.

Comcast was an early believer in
the cellular business when it purchased
American Cellular Network
Corp., with a territory covering
2 million people in New Jersey and
Delaware, in 1988. It later sold out of that sideline, with the cable company
retaining many of its key executives.

Now, having become a big player
in Internet-protocol wired phone
service, Comcast is looking to rebuild
a wireless presence via an investment
in Clearwire.

The one deal that outright flopped
was Comcast’s effort to nab The Walt
Disney Co. in 2004. It was a bold and
audacious move, though, that educated
Comcast’s top brass and gave
them the experience necessary to
successfully execute the MSO’s
current play for control of NBCU, analysts
have said.

“We’ve bet the farm more than
once,” Brodsky said. “We’ve always
been risk-takers. But every deal we’ve
ever done has been well thought out.
We’ve never experienced a financial
crisis and we’ve never had a shortage
of cash. We’ve always been confident
in our ability to execute and deliver
on our promises and opportunities.
Ralph always had a vision of what we could do next. Our mantra was always
‘growth.’ We used to call his instinct
‘The Golden Gut.’”

Said a fellow pivotal figure in the
cable industry, Cablevision Systems
chairman Charles Dolan: “Ralph
Roberts is one of cable’s great pioneers.
He had the imagination, determination
and courage to create
something meaningful. I am honored
to know someone like Ralph
whom I consider to be a friend and a
true inspiration to all of us.”

BRIAN ROBERTS
,
Ralph’s son and
Comcast’s CEO,
still regularly seeks
his father’s counsel
on company and
industry issues, as
do other company executives.

"Ralph's decades of experience
make him an important and trusted
adviser to our executive team,” Brian
Roberts said. “It’s not unusual to go into Ralph’s office and find an executive
running ideas by him and
seeking his guidance.”

Ralph Roberts got into the cable
business in 1963 by buying the Tupelo,
Miss., system owned by Pete Musser,
at broker Dan Aaron’s urging.
The legend, as Roberts himself
has said, is that Musser remarked to
Aaron as they saw Roberts walking
toward them on Chestnut
Street in Philadelphia:
“Here comes our
fish. He just sold his
business and he’s got a
lot of money.”
Roberts had indeed
just sold his company,
belt-and-suspender
maker the Pioneer
Suspender Co., and was seeking a
new investment.

Smart enough to buy that first of
many cable systems, he also was
smart enough to know what he
didn’t know. And he was fortunate
enough to have good, smart people
join him in his new cable adventure.
Aaron stayed on and ran the cable
operations, while Brodsky handled
finance. Roberts took on the role of
visionary and conciliator.

Brodsky said he and Aaron, who
died in 2003 after suffering from
Parkinson’s disease, often found
themselves on opposing sides when
it came to decisions. But the trio
would hash out every possible argument
until unanimous decisions
were agreed on.
That business environment still
exists today at Comcast, Brodsky
said.

After lengthy discussions on a topic,
Brian Roberts will hand out small
pieces of paper and everyone votes
on the issue at hand, he said. Everyone
in the room gets a blind vote and
more discussion usually follows.
“Ralph’s style was similar with
Dan and me,” Brodsky said. “We
didn’t do things until we all agreed.
There was no back-biting. No turf
wars. Ralph was a genius at building
consensus, and Brian is the
same way.”

The elder Roberts may be very
good at building consensus, but he
is also a sharp and hard-nosed businessman.

When Barry Diller was trying to
sell home-shopping channel QVC to
CBS in 1994, Ralph and Brian Roberts
met him at the private airport where Diller was landing his plane
and summarily fired him as chairman
of QVC. Comcast took control of
the home-shopping network and effectively
scuttled the deal with CBS.

“Ralph has a soft, fuzzy exterior.
But he is hard as nails,” Liberty
Media chairman John Malone said.
“He understands patience and the
fact that each deal binds on the one before it.

FEW MULTI
GENERATIONAL

corporations have
had as much success
and as little internal
strife as Comcast,
and most industry
observers see the close relationship
between Ralph and Brian as the keystone
to Comcast’s long-term success.

“Not many people can say they
have had the opportunity to work
with their father for over 30 years,”
Brian Roberts said. “It has been an
incredible honor. He is a great inspiration
for me and I think for all of us
at Comcast.”

“My father has a wonderful mentoring
style,” Roberts told The New
York Times in 2007. “He would never
say, ‘This is a terrible idea.’ Instead,
he says, ‘Have you thought about
this?’ ”

The younger Roberts began sitting
in on meetings with Ralph Roberts
when he was a young teen. Brian
Roberts would ask his dad why he
was doing one thing over another or
why decisions were being made like
they were. It was their time to bond
with each other and they still bond
the same way today.

Cable-industry brethren credit the
elder Roberts for his ability to let Brian
Roberts learn the ropes and take
the reins of the company early on.

They also give kudos to Brodsky
and Aaron for their long mentorship
of Brian Roberts. All three men
spent countless hours teaching the
younger Roberts about the industry
and company.

“One of Ralph’s greatest accomplishments
was how he brought
Brian along,” Brodsky said. “So
many companies have failed at
[multigenerational transitions].

But he did it so well.”
“Ralph did it right from the beginning,”
Turner Broadcasting System
vice chairman Andy Heller said
in December. “He brought Brian in
when he was young and sat him at his
knee and let Brian watch him work.”

“Ralph is a wonderful guy and he’s
been consistent in wanting to see his
son build a great company wherever
that may lead,” Malone said last December.
“And Brian, with his education,
experiences and personality,
has worked hard to build that company
for his dad. They both get psychic
pleasure out of each other. And they’ve been very successful. It just
doesn’t get any better than that.”
The elder Roberts takes pride in
Comcast’s family atmosphere. When
Comcast bought Storer Communications
in 1988, Aaron and Roberts
introduced themselves to the Storer
employees by dancing on stage,
Brodsky said.

“The Storer folks were rather stiff
and we had this get-together when
we bought the company,” Brodsky
recalled. “During the opening meeting,
Ralph and Dan come out in vests
and hats and canes and performed
this soft-shoe number. Everyone had a wonderful time. The Storer guys
didn’t know what hit them. But it set
the stage and made everyone feel at
ease instantly about the acquisition.”

RALPH ROBERTS
HAS LONG BEEN

a crowd-pleaser.
Steve Brookstein,
Bresnan Communications’
chief
operating officer.
Steve Brookstein, who was in charge
of Comcast’s marketing efforts in the
1990s, remembered that every time
he traveled with Ralph Roberts, the employees would go crazy.

“Every time he entered the room,
he was like a rock star,” Brookstein
said. “And every time, his eyes would
light up. He was so energized by those
events. He was so humble. Nothing
made him happier than talking with
installers and customer-service reps. I
have often said it takes a big person to
be small.”

Said John Alchin, who served as
Comcast’s CFO before retiring from
the company a couple of years ago:
“He can electrify a gathering of employees
regardless of the size of the
group. It just does not seem to matter
if he’s talking to a group of 20 or
40 in Comcast University, or to a stadium
gathering welcoming new employees
to Comcast. He is so quiet
and understated, and yet all Comcast
employees respond time and
again with unbridled enthusiasm.”
Roberts may exude a celebrity sensibility
during events, but he is a
family man at heart and has worked
hard to make sure Comcast maintains
a culture that resembles family.
It’s not easy with 100,000 employees,
he said.

But he looks at the company like an extended family unit. Departments
are like immediate family; regional
districts and programming networks
are cousins, aunts and uncles.

“While growing and running
Comcast’s business was a key focus
of Ralph’s, an equally important priority
of his is developing a culture
that is defined by integrity, honesty
and respect, and establishing an environment
that people want to work
in,” said David Cohen, the company’s
executive vice president. “He
spends a great deal of his time and
energy nurturing the family atmosphere
that we enjoy today.”

In an industry where migration
between companies is common-place, executives tend to stay with
Comcast for years. Cohen served as
chairman of Ballard Spahr, Andrews
& Ingersoll, one of the 100 largest law
firms in the country, before joining
Comcast in 2002 — and is a relative
newcomer to the company.

Brodsky still maintains an office at
Comcast’s headquarters, as does Alchin,
who joined Comcast in 1990.
Steve Burke, Comcast’s chief operating
officer, could easily run his own
company and has been approached
more than once by others to be the
No. 1 guy. But he is happy serving as
Comcast’s COO.

“It has been one of those rare
privileges in my life to work with
Ralph,” Alchin said. “Ralph is one
of those unique individuals who exudes
calm and confidence but, at the
same time, he knows exactly when
to seize an opportunity with daring
and determination.

“Several times I would find myself
immersed in the numbers and daunted
by the potential risks only to hear Ralph respond with optimism and
strategic direction. His business instinct
goes well beyond anything than
can be taught in a textbook. It’s a skill
that derives from decades of strategizing
from the position of the underdog.”

RALPH ALWAYS
HAD
visions for his
company that went
way beyond” its current
status, Aaron
wrote in his memoirs,
Take the Measure
of the Man, co-written by David A.
Long (Veritas Press). “When we only
had five or six employees, he was always
drawing up tables of organization
with 30 or 40 people. When he
had 30 or 40 people he was making organizational
charts for 100 people. He
was always looking at the future.”

Roberts soon figured out he was
on to something when he saw people
running down the street chasing his
installation trucks. It was a love affair
with a business and industry that exists
to this day. That’s not as long as
his 67-year marriage to Suzanne, his
wife. But it’s endured well.

“I realized the cable business was the best of all the ones I had invested
in and decided to go forward
full boat,” he said in his Cable Center
oral history. “It was exciting once
we realized you got to develop programming
and you could do other
things that would make people want
to buy … people loved cable television
because more is better.”

Of all the products and services Roberts
has helped develop, create and roll
out, the basic cable system still manages
to enthrall him the most.
Roberts said cut back on some obligations,
but he’s still active. In addition
to his activities at Comcast, he
remains involved in numerous community
and civic activities.

HE HAS BEEN
honored with
several industry
awards including
the
Distinguished
Vanguard
Award for Leadership from the National
Cable and Telecommunications
Association and the Walter Kaitz
Foundation Award for contributing to
the cable industry’s diversity eff orts.
He has been inducted into the Broadcasting
& Cable Hall of Fame and the
Cable Television Hall of Fame. He received
the University of Pennsylvania’s
Joseph P. Wharton Award, and
the conferral of a Doctor of Humane
Letters by Holy Family College.

He still has plans that involve
Comcast and he continues to travel
with friends and family every year.
“I’m hanging in there,” he said last
week. “Thre are a lot of things I’d
like to do and see. The world is still
wide open and receptive.”

September