By Shalini Ramachandran
Ralph Roberts, who transformed a tiny Mississippi cable company into what eventually grew into industry giant Comcast Corp., has died. He was 95.
From having early insight into consumers' entertainment desires to advising his son on multibillion-dollar deals like the acquisition of NBCUniversal in his later years, Mr. Roberts was a powerful force in shaping the American cable industry.
Mr. Roberts died Thursday night in Philadelphia, Comcast said Friday. "Ralph built Comcast into one of America's greatest companies and his vision and spirit have been at the heart of Comcast and our culture for 50 years," the company said. "He will be truly missed."
Born in March 1920 into a family that owned a drugstore chain, Mr. Roberts got his start in business at an advertising agency, eventually acquiring Pioneer Industries, then one of the country's largest makers of men's clothing accessories. Sensing that the era of suspenders and cuff links was giving way to beltless polyester pants, he sold the company in the early 1960s and began investing in the then-nascent cable industry.
Cable television, in those days, was still a tiny business of community antennas and strung-up wires. Mr. Roberts got wind of it through a chance meeting with a cable-system owner who was looking to get a struggling Southern cable distributor off his hands. Smelling opportunity, Mr. Roberts made his first acquisition in 1963: a Tupelo, Miss., cable operator transmitting signals for 1,200 local residents.
The trick for industry pioneers like Mr. Roberts was convincing viewers to pay for something they already got free. He and his team went door-to-door to sign on subscribers and, in one town, held daily Bingo contests to attract new customers.
Mr. Roberts expanded in Mississippi through acquisitions, and in 1971, the company acquired cable systems and franchises in western Pennsylvania--familiar territory for Mr. Roberts, who spent much of his youth and adult years there. By that time, Mr. Roberts was confident enough in the future of the cable industry to take the company public.
He and his top lieutenants chose the company's name by combining the words "communications" and "broadcast" into Comcast. Based in Philadelphia, the company went public in 1972 on the Nasdaq Stock Market. The shares have since gained more than 100,000%.
Other transformative acquisitions followed, including a 1986 deal to acquire a stake in Group W that put Comcast on the map and boosted its scale to more than a million subscribers. But it was the 2001 acquisition of AT&T Inc.'s cable systems that catapulted Comcast into the top ranks of pay TV operators.
Playing a major role in driving much of that growth was Ralph's son, Brian L. Roberts, the fourth of his five children, who became president in 1990 and chief executive in 2002.
Still, "there wasn't a major decision that Brian made in the last 20 years that Ralph wasn't the last person he talked to," said Decker Anstrom, a Comcast board member from 2001 to 2011. "The affection and the respect the two of them had for each other was truly amazing."
Mr. Anstrom said that even going back to the late 1980s, the elder Mr. Roberts was an advocate for uniting content and distribution in a single company. Despite other attempts in the industry that fell flat--such as AOL's disastrous merger with Time Warner Inc.--"Ralph never wavered in that vision, nor did Brian," Mr. Anstrom said. In 2011, Comcast acquired NBCUniversal, owner of cable-TV channels and the Universal studio, making it a diversified media conglomerate.
There were some setbacks for the Roberts media empire along the way. Most recently, the company's pursuit of a merger with Time Warner Cable Inc. ran into stiff resistance in Washington. After regulatory pushback, Comcast called off the planned deal in April.
Beneath Mr. Roberts' old-fashioned manners and dapper dress--he favored bow ties and fine tailoring from his days in men's fashion--lay a shrewd and tenacious deal maker. In 1994, he and Brian outmaneuvered QVC Chairman Barry Diller and CBS Corp. Chairman Larry Tisch to block a planned merger of QVC and CBS. Comcast partly owned QVC and didn't like the plan. It ended up taking control of the home-shopping channel.
"He was a natural-born entrepreneur," the younger Mr. Roberts said. His father served as Comcast's chairman emeritus until his death.
In a media industry where family businesses are often marked by intergenerational disputes and dramas, much was made of the gentle relationship between Ralph and Brian.
Ralph "was, in a way, a role model to me," said Robert Miron, a senior member of the Newhouse family media and cable dynasty. "His relationship with Brian was something I watched as I developed my relationship with Nomi and Steve," he said, referring to his own children. Both today hold top posts at Bright House Networks LLC, the Newhouses' cable company.
The elder Mr. Roberts remained a modest man despite his successes, friends say. Even as the company grew throughout the 1970s and 1980s, "we always flew coach," said Julian Brodsky, a former vice chairman of Comcast who helped start the company. "I can't think of a bigger waste of money than to spend $500 to get there at the same time," Mr. Roberts would say of flying first-class, according to Mr. Brodsky. Mr. Brodsky only got Mr. Roberts to change his mind by pointing out on one flight in the early 1980s that half a dozen Comcast employees were sitting in first class while the two of them were stuck in the back of the plane.
"Most of all, I will miss the smile, the bow tie, and the gentle sense of humor," said cable tycoon John Malone, in a statement.
When Brian told his father after college he only wanted to work for the family business rather than pursue a career on Wall Street, Mr. Roberts sent him to learn the guts of the cable business in far-reaching Comcast territories spanning from Flint, Mich., to Pittsburgh.
In his later years, Mr. Roberts advised his son on deals, and imparted a conservative approach to the kinds of financial leverage and engineering that burned many corporations during the financial crisis. He also helped push the initial NBCU transaction through Washington regulators.
Before going into business, Mr. Roberts served in the Navy and studied at the University of Pennsylvania. He cited the death of his father when he was a teenager, a move that left his family in financial limbo, for his hunger to succeed in business. In his later years, Mr. Roberts began riding horses and became involved with various philanthropic causes.
Mr. Roberts is survived by his wife of more than 70 years, Suzanne, four of his children and eight grandchildren.
Write to Shalini Ramachandran at email@example.com
Access Investor Kit for Comcast Corp.
Access Investor Kit for Comcast Corp.