Com­cast founder Ralph Roberts dies, aged 95


Ralph Roberts, a ca­ble pi­o­neer who built Com­cast from a small ca­ble TV sys­tem in Mis­sis­sippi into an en­ter­tain­ment and com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­he­moth, has died. He was 95.

Com­cast said in a state­ment that Roberts died Thurs­day night in Philadelphia of nat­u­ral causes.

He was in his 40s when he be­gan his ca­reer in the fledg­ling ca­ble in­dus­try, with a US$500,000 pur­chase of Amer­i­can Ca­ble Sys­tems, a com­pany with 1,200 sub­scribers in Tu­pelo, Mis­sis­sippi. A string of ac­qui­si­tions fol­lowed. Roberts changed the name of the com­pany to Com­cast and ran it un­til he was in his 80s.

He handed con­trol of the com­pany to one of his sons, Brian, who is now Com­cast’s chair­man and CEO, while keep­ing the ti­tle of chair­man emer­i­tus.

Roberts, who was known for wear­ing a bowtie to work ev­ery day, had grand am­bi­tions. “Ralph was al­ways about what comes next, what’s the next deal,” said Steve Burke, CEO of NBCUniver­sal, who has worked at Com­cast for 17 years. “He gave his DNA to his son Brian, who has al­ways been a real am­bi­tious per­son for the com­pany.”

Now Com­cast is the na­tion’s largest provider of ca­ble TV and home In­ter­net ser­vice as well as the owner of NBCUniver­sal, home of the NBC net­work, a slew of ca­ble chan­nels, film stu­dio Uni­ver­sal Pic­tures and theme parks.

“He re­made the ca­ble in­dus­try. When he started, it was a bunch of mom and pop busi­nesses. He’s shown that you can take that idea and tran­si­tion it to a world­wide media busi­ness,” said Terry Bien­stock, a for­mer gen­eral coun­sel at Com­cast who met Ralph Roberts in the early 1980s. “The NBC thing will be his legacy.”

Ralph Joel Roberts was born in New York City on March 13, 1920, into an af­flu­ent fam­ily. They owned a drug­store chain in West- ch­ester County, New York. But things took a dire turn dur­ing the De­pres­sion.

“My fa­ther died, and we lost all our money. Peo­ple who never had a fi­nan­cial prob­lem in their lives can never un­der­stand what terror there is in that,” he told The New York Times in 1997.

That ex­pe­ri­ence gave Roberts the de­ter­mi­na­tion to seek fi­nan­cial se­cu­rity.

His fam­ily moved to Philadelphia and Roberts put him­self through the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia. One of his first jobs was with Aitken Kynett Advertising Agency, where he worked his way up from re­searcher to ac­count ex­ec­u­tive. A client at Aitken Kynett was the lo­cal fran­chise of Muzak Corp., the com­pany be­hind el­e­va­tor mu­sic. He joined Muzak and rose to vice pres­i­dent.

But he didn’t like the pres­sures of the job and sought to leave. A re­cruiter brought him to Pi­o­neer Sus­pender Co., a maker of men’s ac­ces­sories such as belts, sus­penders and ties, and two years later he would buy the com­pany.

In 1961, he no­ticed that belt­less pants were com­ing into style and he be­came con­cerned that he wouldn’t sell as many belts, his com­pany’s top prod­uct. Men also weren’t wear­ing ties, shirts and cuff­links as of­ten. So he sold the com­pany.

Us­ing money from the sale, Roberts set up an in­vest­ment com­pany. A street en­counter with an ac­quain­tance led to his pur­chase of Amer­i­can Ca­ble Sys­tems.

In 1969, the com­pany was re­named Com­cast — a com­bi­na­tion of “com­mu­ni­ca­tions” and “broad­cast” — and in­cor­po­rated in Penn­syl­va­nia. Roberts be­gan ac­quir­ing smaller ca­ble sys­tems and built the com­pany into the na­tion’s fifth­largest by 1988. Two years later, his son would be­come pres­i­dent of Com­cast and con­tin­ued the ex­pan­sion Roberts be­gan.

The com­pany be­came the coun­try’s largest ca­ble TV op­er­a­tor, with 22 mil­lion cus­tomers, when it bought AT&T Broad­band, the tele­phone com­pany’s ca­ble sys­tems, in 2002.

Roberts of­ten served as a diplo­mat for the en­tire ca­ble in­dus­try, try­ing to bring reg­u­la­tors and ca­ble ex­ec­u­tives to­gether, said Reed Hundt, for­mer chair­man of the Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion. In par­tic­u­lar, Hundt re­mem­bers the ap­proach Roberts took in crit­i­ciz­ing the FCC’s poli­cies at a din­ner in 1994.

“In­stead of be­gin­ning by crit­i­ciz­ing or chal­leng­ing, he said, `I’m sure you’re do­ing what you think is best and you have a par­tic­u­lar job to do that I re­spect. Then he be­gan to tell me in a very gen­tle way the mis­takes that I’ve made,” Hundt said.

“But by be­gin­ning in the way that he did, he made it so easy to lis­ten to him,” he said.

‘Do you want to be my date?’

Bien­stock re­called how he was in­tro­duced to Roberts’ folksy man­ner when he was first hired at Com­cast. New in town, with his fam­ily still in Mi­ami, Bien­stock got a call in his ho­tel room one night from Roberts. The boss had tick­ets to the theater and Roberts’ wife had de­cided not to go.

“Do you want to be my date?” Roberts asked.

“That was Ralph’s way of mak­ing you feel at home,” Bien­stock said. “That’s a typ­i­cal Ralph thing.”

Roberts stayed CEO of Com­cast un­til 2002, when he was 82, be­fore ced­ing the ti­tle of chief ex­ec­u­tive to his son. That year he also left the chair­man’s post.

But even in 2009, as Com­cast was ne­go­ti­at­ing to buy a con­trol­ling stake in NBC Uni­ver­sal from Gen­eral Elec­tric Co., Ralph Roberts played a role. In July 2009 Roberts and Com­cast’s chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer, Steve Burke, flew to Sun Val­ley, Idaho, to meet with GE’s CEO, Jeff Im­melt. It was af­ter that meet­ing that Com­cast and GE struck a deal.

But there have been checks to the com­pany’s de­sire to grow. Its at­tempt to buy Time Warner Ca­ble, the No. 2 ca­ble com­pany, was quashed by reg­u­la­tors this year who were wary of Com­cast’s power over the coun­try’s In­ter­net ac­cess and abil­ity to un­der­mine the grow­ing online video in­dus­try.

A grad­u­ate of the Whar­ton School of the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia, Roberts also served in the U.S. Navy. He was a well­known phi­lan­thropist in Philadelphia, sup­port­ing such ef­forts as Pro­ject H.O.M.E., an out­reach pro­gram for the home­less.

Roberts is sur­vived by his wife of 72 years, Suzanne, four of his five chil­dren and eight grand­chil­dren. Brian is the only one of his chil­dren who went into the fam­ily busi­ness.

“He will al­ways be re­mem­bered for his gen­eros­ity, in­tegrity, hon­esty, kind­ness and re­spect for ev­ery­one around him,” the Roberts fam­ily said in a state­ment Fri­day.


In this March 11, 2010 file photo, Com­cast Cor­po­ra­tion founder Ralph Roberts at­tends a Se­nate Com­merce Com­mit­tee hear­ing on con­sumers, com­pe­ti­tion and the pro­posed Com­cast-NBC merger, on Capi­tol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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