A serial entrepreneur and showman, Ralph Roberts spun drama and advertising around golf putters and men's fashion lines for belts, suspenders, wallets, cuff links, tie pins and cologne. The well-dressed businessman married a local actress, the former Suzanne Fleisher, and led a glamorous life in Philadelphia.
So when his next business opportunity came along, a utilitarian antenna television franchise in Mississippi, he was reluctant to take it. Running wires to peoples' homes so they could watch TV. Really? Cable?
It all seemed rather humdrum. Humble cable was not about "creating shows or illusions. We were a necessity," said Comcast CEO and Ralph's son, Brian, recalling his father's initial views.
But Ralph Roberts — who unloaded his glamour businesses — would go on to become a King of Cable. Once the business got in his blood, Roberts gobbled up cable franchises relentlessly — either buying them from other cable operators or winning franchises from local governments for eventual build-outs. He borrowed heavily and fearlessly, and mostly kept a fierce focus on cable television.
Roberts also surrounded himself with independent executives whom he didn't boss around. And he refused to bail out of cable when other family-owned operators did, worried by government price controls or the growth of satellite television. Perhaps his greatest achievement was mentoring his son, Brian, to take his place.
The fruits of Roberts' accomplishments today define the Philadelphia skyline with two Comcast towers in Center City — the tallest buildings here. The corporation is now the nation's largest cable-TV company, largest residential-internet provider, and the biggest European pay-TV provider through Sky. It's also an entertainment giant, NBCUniversal, with theme parks, movie studios, and television networks, a recent cellphone entrant with Xfinity Mobile, and the owner of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Comcast has a value on Wall Street of $170 billion and about 195,000 employees in the U.S. and Europe. One thousand shares invested into Comcast when it went public in 1972, then valued at $7,000, would be worth almost $12 million.
The image of Ralph Roberts in his later years — he died in June 2015, at age 95 — was that of a kindly and gracious white-haired man, wearing a bow tie and sporting a comb-over. But business associates say he was steely nerved, tenacious, and strategic, even into his 80s.
Ralph always thought that "fortune favors the brave," said Steve Burke, a longtime executive at Comcast and now head of NBCUniversal, who met Ralph Roberts in the 1990s when Comcast hired Burke. "He had a lot of courage. He was always the most aggressive and opportunistic in the room, but he did it in a way that was gentlemanly."
Julian Brodsky, one of Roberts' original partners in Comcast and its chief financial officer for three decades, described Roberts' demeanor as an "iron fist in a velvet glove" as he tangled with ego-driven media moguls like Barry Diller or John Malone. "You didn't cross Ralph."
Said Edward Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia and governor of Pennsylvania: "Ralph never came off as a sharp, hard-driven person. But he was all of those things."
The story has been told many times. At the relatively ripe age of 43, Roberts launched Comcast on Nov. 13, 1963, with the acquisition of a cable system in Tupelo, Miss., with two Philadelphia partners, Daniel Aaron and Brodsky.
Despite initial reluctance, the reality of how good the cable business could be — particularly with consumers paying monthly bills — quickly sank in.
Comcast built out other cable franchises in Mississippi, then Florida, Maryland and western Pennsylvania over the next several years. "Eventually Ralph never saw a cable system that he didn't like," said Brodsky. "We were anxious to grow. I don't think anybody was articulating [that we would be] No. 1. But we were saying 'keep growing.' We would grow and leverage it for the next one."
Even in those early days, Ralph Roberts was thinking about the kind of company he wanted Comcast to be as his teenage son expressed a keen interest in it. Roberts continually drew organizational charts on a yellow legal pad. He would tell people that "'I want to be a little blue chip [stock]. I want to be a little IBM," Brian said. "We are going to be a real company. We will not be a mom-and-pop hardware store.'"
In the 1980s, Brodsky proposed to Ralph taking Comcast private with a leveraged buyout, using the then-popular, high-interest junk bonds. The deal would have piled debt onto Comcast's books and could have forced the company to sell off some franchises. But it also would have been personally lucrative for Ralph who would own the private company.
Brodsky recalls Ralph thinking about the proposal for a day and then telling him no. "Just keep doing what you are doing. I want to build a big safe company for Brian someday."
Ralph "never wanted to put Comcast at risk," Brodsky added.
Burke, the head of NBCUniversal, said that "one of my biggest concerns when I joined the company [in 1998] was, 'who was really running Comcast? Ralph? Or Brian? And was there room for a third person in there?'" Burke soon learned that "it was all about Brian and the company and future and it was not about Ralph."
Added Burke: "Because Ralph was always there to mentor him and not boss him, Brian has tremendous confidence. He was very, very conscious of what he was doing. No luck involved."
Burke also observed how Ralph would push Brian to be bolder. "Ralph would give [Brian] the confidence that you've analyzed this 16 ways to Sunday and now it's time to go."
Burke and CEO Brian Roberts were in the room in July 2001 when then-chairman Ralph Roberts phoned AT&T's top executive, Mike Armstrong, to tell him that Comcast was making an unsolicited bid for its broadband business, which would make Comcast the nation's largest cable-TV company. Ralph relinquished the chairman title to Brian in 2004.
Ralph "never raised his voice," Burke said of the conversation, adding that he considered the Roberts patriarch "maybe the toughest business person I ever met."
That wasn't the way that Lisa Roberts saw her father at home. "I am very baffled when I hear the term hard nosed," she said. Her father didn't bring Comcast home with him as he did sometimes with his cologne business. "We had very little awareness [of Comcast]," she added. "I never thought it was a big company until Brian got it."
They were so close as a family, Lisa said, that "I don't remember my parents going out for dinner and not being there."
One weekend she recalls driving with her father to New Hope to visit George Nakashima's famous workshop so that Ralph could choose wood for a conference table.
Ralph encouraged his children to follow their owns paths. Hers was architecture and design. "My father loved design. He was so passionate about design," Lisa said, feeling this was a connection they shared.
Ralph and Suzanne had five children: Ralph Jr., Catherine Clifton and Douglas, who passed away in 2011, in addition to Lisa and Brian. The Roberts children have pursued varied interests in planning and hospital administration, law and criminal justice, academia and research.
As an adult, Lisa would have lunch with her father every so often on City Avenue, near the old Comcast headquarters in Bala Cynwyd. Even though Ralph lost his father, Robert, when he was 12 years old and his mother, Sara, died before he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania, "I could never get him to say that anything was hard for him," she said.
Added Brian Roberts of his father's personality: "When someone would engage him in a discussion, he would sit and listen. If my mother had 30 performances of a play, he would go and watch all 30 and be transfixed."
Brodsky, 85, recalled one evening in 1988, the year of Comcast's 25th anniversary.
Ralph Roberts had set aside a night to celebrate at his home in Elkins Park on Sural Lane, named after the first letters of Suzanne and Ralph's names. Six people attended the private dinner, the Roberts, along with Julian and Lois Brodsky, and Daniel and Gerrie Aaron.