On eve of his departing, Comcast's Brodsky looks back at the many wins

They were three guys from Philadelphia who coalesced around a cable TV business venture in the Deep South in the early 1960s that looked promising and came with the added benefit of attractive financing and tax advantages. By the 1970s and '80s, Ralph Roberts, Julian Brodsky, and Daniel Aaron were friends, tennis partners, and cable-deal junkies.

Each man brought his own personality and talents to the mix. Roberts was the leader. Brodsky was the accountant and Wall Street money-raiser. Aaron ran the cable TV systems.

"We were lucky, and we were good," said the streetwise Brodsky, son of a Dock Street produce wholesaler and a homemaker. "We never saw a cable company we didn't like."

That tiny Tupelo, Miss., cable venture became Comcast Corp., one of the nation's largest companies, with more than $50 billion a year in revenue, run today by Roberts' son, Brian. Aaron died in 2003 from Parkinson's disease.

And now, Brodsky, 77 - a 250-pound, 6-foot, 4-inch towering presence in the boardroom and on the tennis court - will depart from the Comcast board as vice chairman on May 11, the day of the annual shareholders meeting at the Convention Center, to make way for younger members with new skills associated with the cable company's diversification into entertainment and news.

Comcast director Michael I. Sovern also is not standing for reelection. Joining the board - if he receives the necessary votes from shareholders, which is basically assured - is Eduardo G. Mestre of the investment banking firm Evercore Partners Inc. His election satisfies a Comcast pledge to add a Hispanic director, made when federal officials were scrutinizing its deal for NBCUniversal Inc.

The other day, Brodsky - vice chairman at Comcast since the late 1980s and a board member for 42 years - was wistful about his impending retirement.

"You got a complex thing like Comcast, you have to refresh the gene pool," he said on the phone in a car heading to New York. "While it's time to do it, you do it with a certain amount of sadness."

Looking back, Brodsky takes pride in what the three amigos accomplished. Aaron, a former newspaperman with The Bulletin, once likened their management style to three men trying to drive a car at the same time: Brodsky would be stepping on the gas pedal, Aaron would be pounding on the brakes, and Roberts would be calmly holding the steering wheel.

And it worked. Comcast has grown without scandals, mass layoffs, or financial emergencies, Brodsky said. Equally important, they handed the company to the next generation, led by Brian Roberts. Brodsky's daughter Debbie works in the cable division.

Brodsky spent his formative teen years in Wynnefield and recalls blocking a shot in a summer-league game by future NBA Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlain. Brodsky was 17, and Wilt might have been 13.

He joined the Philadelphia accounting firm of Adler, Faunce & Leonard after the Wharton School, and that is how he met Ralph Roberts, who owned a belt-manufacturing business with a factory in Darby. Brodsky was assigned to help Roberts sell the belt company. Two years after the sale, Roberts bought the Mississippi cable system.

Brodsky had looked at cable systems in northern Pennsylvania and liked what he saw, and so he asked to join Roberts. The early years were famously frugal ones. Brodsky brought a card table to use as a desk and a folding chair to their small office in a building in Bala Cynwyd. Comcast remained in Bala Cynwyd until 1989, when it relocated to One Meridian Plaza in Center City, which caught fire in 1991 and was later torn down.

Roberts, 91, a man who is known for exacting standards, said Brodsky was one of the smartest men he ever met. "We were never short on money when we wanted to grow," he added, crediting Brodsky.

Brodsky and Roberts shared passions for tennis and oysters, and they recently dined together at a favorite joint, Snockey's Oyster and Crab House in South Philadelphia.

"Snockey's has big oysters. Ralph likes big oysters," said Brodsky, who has a hearty appetite.

"Julian can consume more oysters than anybody I know," joked Roberts.

Brian Roberts - 26 years younger than Brodsky - said one summer, when he was about 15, he stayed with the Brodsky family in Cherry Hill to be near a summer job in a computer center in South Jersey. It was him and the Brodsky clan: Julian; his wife, Lois, and their three daughters, Debbie, Ellen, and Laura.

As Ralph's son, Brian Roberts observed the inner workings of Comcast as a young man. Brodsky and his father had a good cop/bad cop routine when negotiating deals, he said. Brodsky "would go in there and wear them down," then the velvet-mannered elder Roberts would concede some points and ink the deal.

A lesson Brian Roberts learned from Brodsky: "He said that if you go into a negotiation, you should know where you want to come out. You need a plan."

When it came time to pass the company to a new generation of leadership, Brodsky helped with the transition to Brian, named Comcast president in 1990, at age 30.

A student of the economics of the cable industry, Brodsky said he considers the launch of HBO in the 1970s and the advent of the Internet in the 1990s seminal events.

Brodsky was among the first at Comcast to realize the importance of the Internet and organized an "Internet Day" at the corporate offices in the mid-1990s to focus attention on it. From the late 1990s and into this decade, Brodsky ran Comcast's venture-capital fund.

Brodsky, who owns $134 million in Comcast stock, according to regulatory filings, will remain a senior adviser to the company and director emeritus for at least one year. He also will keep his office in the Comcast Center.

Take the elevator to the 55th floor, he said over the phone. "It's the one that says, 'Jurassic Park.' "

 


Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.