Ralph J. Roberts, 95, the soft-spoken visionary who in 1963 bought a tiny subscriber-TV system in Tupelo, Miss., and built it into Comcast Corp., the nation's leading cable company, died Thursday night in Philadelphia.
Mr. Roberts, who had been in declining health, died of natural causes.
"Ralph has been the heart and soul of Comcast for 50 years," said his son, Comcast president and CEO Brian L. Roberts, in a note to employees Friday morning. "He was the greatest influence in my life and a joy for me to work side by side with for over three decades. I speak for all of us when I say he will be greatly missed."
Mayor Nutter called Mr. Roberts a "consummate gentleman, kind and gentle husband and father, and a great business leader."
"Our city has lost a wonderful champion," Nutter said in a statement.
At the time of his death, Mr. Roberts was past president and chairman emeritus of the public company, which has its headquarters on John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
He was chairman of the board from 1969 to 2002. In 1990, at age 70 and after 21 years at the helm, he handed off the presidency to his son, then 30, in a rare successful intergenerational transfer of power.
"His legacy is that he left a big, vibrant company, that is led by his son, that will live on for many, many years," Comcast executive Steve Burke said. "As a person, his DNA is all over our company. Even though Brian is the CEO, Ralph set the tone from a business point of view."
Word of Mr. Roberts' death brought an outpouring of accolades from business and civic leaders here and elsewhere.
"Ralph Roberts is the absolutely most clear-cut example of the American dream," said former Gov. Ed Rendell. "From selling belts door-to-door to creating the largest entertainment and technology corporation in the United States of America - it's an incredible success story.
"Ralph was a tough, hard businessman, but he never forgot his obligation to help others, help his community, and help Philadelphia. While building Comcast, he built an economic engine for the city of Philadelphia as well."
Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, his alma matter, said, "His legacy is abundant here, including Penn Medicine's Roberts Proton Therapy Center, a place of hope and healing established in 2009 through the generosity of Ralph and his family.
"Ralph served as a longtime member of the Penn Medicine board, and actively supported athletics, undergraduate financial aid, and his class." Penn honored him in 2005 with the Doctor of Laws honoris causa.
And Ed Snider, Comcast Spectacor chairman, said Mr. Roberts was "a great partner and an even greater friend."
"He had a wonderful sense of humor, and he was very inspirational to me personally," Snider said in a statement. "I will really miss him. We all will."
Comcast, with $68.8 billion in revenue and 139,000 employees, is the nation's largest video, high-speed Internet, and telephone provider to homes. It also sells those services to businesses.
"People often ask me, 'When you started in Tupelo with a few hundred customers, did you ever think that someday you'd have the largest cable company in the country?' And I always answer with a straight face, 'Of course I did,' " Mr. Roberts said in An Incredible Dream, his authorized biography, written by William Novak.
But the firm wasn't always a giant, nor was its founder a scion. The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Mr. Roberts witnessed the loss of his family's drugstore chain in the Depression and the death of his father to a heart attack in 1933, when he was 12.
Mr. Roberts went to work selling advertisements on the back of bus schedules to help support his family.
These early losses, coupled with experiences as a young salesman of golf clubs, men's accessories, cologne, and Muzak, gave Mr. Roberts an ambitious, entrepreneurial spirit.
But that verve was always tempered by a calm affability and a cautious approach to spending money. Throughout his career, he remained at the core a salesman and merchant, but one who took chances and could "see around corners" to anticipate the next new thing.
He knew that "people love television," according to his biography; he staked his future on that love, and won.
"I think maybe Ralph Roberts is the most successful businessman in the last 50 years that most people haven't heard of. In one generation, he started a company that is one of the 50 biggest companies in the U.S.," said Burke, one of a second wave of executives to join Comcast 15 years ago.
"He did it in a positive, thoughtful way, not self-aggrandizing. He felt, 'This doesn't have to be about me.' Then he turned the company over to his son at an early age. That never happens."
As an executive, Mr. Roberts had a knack for attracting talented people and giving them power, within limits. He did this by encouraging free-flowing discussion, then focusing the issue with probing questions. No one was punished for broaching a new idea.
"The trick," Mr. Roberts said in the biography, "is to make everyone feel involved."
"I have never heard Ralph raise his voice - never, ever. He had a way of leading and managing that is razor-smart, focused, intuitive, strong, but all with a velvet glove," said chief communications officer D'Arcy Rudnay.
In the first days of Comcast, when colleagues Dan Aaron and Julian Brodsky clashed over how to expand the business, Mr. Roberts acted as the cheerful referee.
"Ralph, the patient, unassuming gentleman, kept a steady hand on the wheel as they made a series of brilliant bets on the future," his son said in the biography.
Brodsky, the company's longtime finance guru, on Friday described Mr. Roberts as his best friend and a "charismatic, fearless visionary" who gave people the confidence to do things they thought were impossible. For Brodsky that was giving up the four or five packs of unfiltered Pall Mall cigarettes he used to smoke.
"It's just a miracle," Brodsky said. "He found the buttons to push."
Asked what it was like to run a company with one's father, Brian Roberts said his dad was a superb work partner, mentor, and parent.
"I never had a bad idea in working for him for 30-plus years," Roberts said. Actually, he added, "I've had a lot of bad ideas, but he would never say that."
"He's the same person as my boss that he has been as a dad; he's gracious, never interrupts when you're talking. He wants the other person to always feel good, whatever the exchange is. He always treated me with respect from a very young age."
Burke watched the father-son team when Mr. Roberts was chairman and his son president, and found their interplay businesslike and seamless.
"You could tell Ralph was crazy about Brian, and Brian was crazy about him. They both deserve credit for that graceful interplay, but the lion's share goes to Ralph," said Burke, CEO of Comcast's NBCUniversal.
Executive vice president David L. Cohen jumped to Comcast in 2002 from a high-profile job as chairman of the Ballard Spahr Andrews & Ingersoll law firm. The appeal was the Roberts team, the challenge, and the firm's culture.
"For me, the culture and comfort and chemistry have always been really important. I knew a lot of people at Comcast. It struck me as a place where culture really mattered.
"That culture says that you have to care about the people you work with. They are not your blood family, but you spend so much time with them, you should treat them like family.
"That's what he stood for. He was able to keep it alive as the company grew. . . . It shows the power of Ralph's influence, that he has been able to keep that feeling alive over 50 years," Cohen said.
There was another side to Mr. Roberts - as a mentor to those other than his son.
Sheldon M. Bonovitz joined the Comcast board in 1979 and was Mr. Roberts' personal legal adviser.
"During this period, even before 1979 . . . Ralph was my personal mentor, teaching me how to build and maintain a great organizational culture irrespective of size," Bonovitz said.
Mr. Roberts taught by example. "Ralph was always 'Ralph' to his rank-and-file employees, and a great listener who always checked his ego at the door. I cannot remember a time during our relationship where a cross word passed between us. When I think of Ralph, it is always with the utmost affection."
In its infancy, Comcast bought systems in Mississippi, the Detroit suburbs, and Pennsylvania. Through the 1970s and '80s, it built cable networks, learned to maintain them, and profited by Mr. Roberts' favorite element - recurring monthly income.
Flush with cash, Comcast went on a buying spree in the mid-1980s, acquiring part of the Group W cable system. Overnight, it went from 18th to fifth among cable firms in the United States, with two million customers.
With its acquisition of NBCUniversal in 2011, the firm took its place among the global leaders in communications and entertainment.
"It has been a dream come true for him - and for me," Brian Roberts told his father's biographer.
Comcast's decision in late April to abandon its $45 billion deal to buy Time Warner Cable Inc. was a rare misstep for the company and a trimming of its ambitions for the moment.
As the years passed, Mr. Roberts, with his shock of white hair and signature bow tie, made sure that Comcast's homey values remained in place.
"His vision was always to create a little IBM," Rudnay said. "He wanted to keep the integrity, the family feel, and the dedication of employees. The culture of Comcast was important to him."
Ralph Joel Roberts was born on March 13, 1920, in New York City, and was an entrepreneur from an early age. He recalled in a 1996 interview digging up his mother's marigolds and selling them to the neighbors. She was not amused.
Later, as a college student, he bought eggs from farms in New Jersey and peddled them to fraternities at a discount. He also sold advertising on ink blotters.
Moving to Germantown with his family from New Rochelle, N.Y., after his father's death, he graduated from Germantown High School and in 1941 from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he received a bachelor's degree.
Although eager to serve on a ship, Mr. Roberts spent his World War II duty as matériel superintendent in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. He was needed there because of his business acumen, his superiors said.
He owned various companies, including Pioneer Suspenders, which marketed wallets and belts for men. After selling the firm, he set up shop in 1961 in Bala Cynwyd.
Comcast - the name borrowed from communications and broadcasting - was incorporated in 1969 and began its legendary climb.
In 1994, Comcast, which had helped start QVC Network, a West Chester-based home-shopping company, made a $2.2 billion bid to buy a majority stake in the company. In 1996, Comcast spent $240 million and agreed to pick up $170 million in debt to gain the majority interest in the Flyers, the 76ers, the Spectrum, and what was then the CoreStates Center. It also locked up broadcast rights to the Phillies.
Soon after buying the Flyers, Mr. Roberts admitted that he had just seen his first hockey game. "But I don't think I'll be seeing too many more," he said. "These guys go out there and kill each other!"
In early 2011, after a protracted review by federal regulators, Comcast acquired 51 percent of NBC Universal from General Electric Co. It purchased for $30 billion controlling interest in the entertainment conglomerate's NBC and Telemundo broadcast networks; pay TV channels such as USA, CNBC, Bravo, and Syfy; the Universal movie studio; and Universal Studios theme parks in Florida and California.
As Comcast prospered, so did the Roberts family.
The 1998 Inquirer Executive Compensation Survey showed that Mr. Roberts was paid $45 million, ranking second on The Inquirer's list of the most highly compensated chief executives in the region. Most of his pay, he said, came from $43 million in profit from expiring stock options he had to exercise.
Mr. Roberts allowed himself an indulgence - the purchase of a farm in Chester County. He and his wife, the former Suzanne Fleisher, restored it.
"I couldn't have done that if I didn't have any money. It's been a real pleasure for the whole family," he said in 1999.
His wife agreed: "The thing that motivates Ralph is not having the money, but knowing that his children are secure. That's his legacy: not leaving his children wanting."
Mr. Roberts met his wife at a dance in 1937 when he was 17, she 16. He wanted to marry her after several years, but she wasn't ready. Then in 1941, after seeing him twirling with another dance partner, she "grabbed Ralph, took him out on the golf course, and said, 'I want to marry you.' "
"When?" Mr. Roberts said, according to his biography.
The two said their relationship had been strengthened by having much to discuss, as each pursued separate professional interests - and also by the collaboration that developed when one asked the other for advice.
The magic words, according to Mr. Roberts, were "Yes, dear."
Daughter Lisa said Mr. Roberts was an attentive father. He came home each weeknight at 7 p.m. and left his briefcase by the door, along with business cares.
"We would have dinner as a family. That was extremely important to him, that we would sit around the table - all seven of us. He was always a stickler for table manners," she said.
Mr. Roberts would help with homework and listen to each of his five children. On ski trips, he would patiently lace up five pairs of ski boots.
"So much of what he is to the public is what he was to us. Growing up with five kids competing for attention, it's not easy, but he put his family first. I never felt that Comcast was a sixth child," she said.
Brian Roberts said his parents tried to make life stimulating and eye-opening for their children. The Elkins Park family would travel to places like Haiti and Guatemala to learn about other cultures.
Ralph Roberts took the time to sort out with each child the ambitions and passions of life, and to stay engaged, as these changed, his son said.
"The amazing genius of my father is that there was not a one-size-fits-all for parenting. He evolved and personalized his relationship for each of my siblings," Brian Roberts said.
The elder Roberts was also civic-minded. He was committed to the fight against cancer, and along with his wife and family, helped establish the Roberts Proton Therapy Center. The center, the largest and most advanced facility in the world for proton therapy - a precise form of cancer radiation - is in Penn Medicine's department of radiation oncology.
In his leisure time, on which Mr. Roberts insisted, he rode horses, foxhunted, and enjoyed his family. He was a killer dancer - the only thing he bragged about.
He helped his wife, an actress, practice her lines and attended every performance no matter how many days the show ran. The couple created the Suzanne Roberts Theatre at 480 S. Broad St. in her honor.
In addition to his wife, son, and daughter, Mr. Roberts is survived by daughter Catherine R. Clifton; son Ralph Jr.; and eight grandchildren. Another son, Douglas, died in September 2011.
Funeral services will be private.
Contributions may be made to the Germantown Boys and Girls Club, 25 W. Penn St., Philadelphia 19144, or the United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey, 1709 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia 19103, or at http://unitedforimpact.org/ways-to-give.
Inquirer staff writer Harold Brubaker and former staff writer Thomas J. Brady contributed to this article.