Interview Date: Thursday August 24, 2006
Interview Location: Philadelphia, PA
Interviewer: Libby O’Connell
Collection: Hauser Collection
O’CONNELL: Hi, I’m Libby O’Connell. I’m here interviewing Brian Roberts, Chairman and CEO of Comcast Corporation. Today is August 24, 2006 and I’m here conducting an interview for The Cable Center’s Oral History Program. Welcome Brian. I’m glad you could join us.
ROBERTS: Thanks, Libby. Glad to be here.
O’CONNELL: It’s nice to have you here. You know, there are a whole collection of these oral histories on the website and you can go in and they’re asking people how they got involved in cable and everyone has a different story. You have a very different story compared to most people. What was it like growing up in a cable family?
ROBERTS: Well, first of all, there are five kids in my family, my brothers and sisters, and my parents really never pushed their passion onto any of the kids so every one of my family members is enjoying their own life and enjoying their own passions. In my case, business was appealing from a disgustingly young age of like five or six that I wanted to work with my father. In those days, it wasn’t even called cable television; it was community antenna television and it wasn’t as exciting a business, I think, as it is now, but the dream was to perpetuate and build a company that could go on for generations and work with my father in doing that.
O’CONNELL: Your dad tells a story that when you were about ten you started going to meetings with him. Is that right? Is he exaggerating?
ROBERTS: Sadly, no, he’s not exaggerating. In those days there was not quite the videogame excitement of stay at home as a young kid and I used to tag along with my father. He would literally sit me in the corner and say, “Just watch and don’t say anything,” and that lasted about ten minutes and then I’d put my hand up and say, “Well, I thought of one thing…” – usually stupid ideas, but he nurtured me. He wanted it, I wanted it to work. It wasn’t because, well, this is the way I do it, sonny, so therefore this is the way you should do it. From the beginning it’s been, I think, a dream for him, too. So we’ve been very lucky.
O’CONNELL: You went to Wharton undergrad, right? I think you’re five years younger than I am.
ROBERTS: I graduated in 1981, and my father graduated from Wharton in 1941, so we’re forty years apart and it was a great place, and is a great place.
O’CONNELL: So you graduated in ’81, and then when did you start working at Comcast?
ROBERTS: I had one great summer off. I played in the U.S. squash team in Israel in the Maccabiah Games; I traveled around Europe by myself, met some friends, and then sort of thought to myself around September after a long summer of traveling that if things go really well that may be it for three month vacations for the rest of my life, which is a depressing thought but it’s an energizing thought in terms of if you find something you love. So I started in Trenton, New Jersey as a trainee. I had worked in the previous summers in high school and college climbing poles and selling door-to-door and getting on getting new franchises, but this was when the rubber met the road. If I was going to have the fantasy end and the reality begin, it was going to be September 1981. I went to Trenton and it was an urban market that the previous owner of the franchise had gone to the banks and to the equity community and said, “Raise me the money to build Trenton, New Jersey,” the state capital, a growing community because you also had the suburbs in Ewing and that part of New Jersey, and no bank would give the money because in Trenton you got the New York TV signal and all the Philadelphia TV signals, so there were 20-some channels that you could get, lots of different sports and news, and therefore, why do you need cable TV in 1981? The gentleman had to give away his franchise and take a tiny interest, and Comcast came along and said, “We’ll put up the money,” and the first 1,000 customers were signing up when I got there. We have 35,000 or so now, and all that happened in the first couple years and it was very, very exciting.
O’CONNELL: That is exciting. So from Trenton, is that when you went out to Michigan after that?
ROBERTS: Yes. So I worked in Trenton a little bit – I became the controller of the system. A bad story, but an instructive story, was we had no bulletproof glass and we had no armored car pickup to take the cash. We were very used at Comcast to just getting checks in the mail. In Trenton, New Jersey, a lot of the customers paid in cash and they wanted to pay three months in advance and give you hundreds of dollars of cash and then worry about it in three months. So when the lines got busy, we all worked the cash register, then at the end of the day we took all the cash, put it in an envelope and drop it literally in – before ATM machines – you went to the bank safety deposit box. We also had a safe in the back of the office for leaving the cash in the middle of the day. One night, it was a person’s job to take the cash and put it in the bank and they didn’t do it, and it was overnight – that wasn’t the first time that had happened. The next day the cash was gone and there was no break-in, the safe was open, and we lost about $20,000. I should have been fired because my job was to be the controller. One of our employees showed up the next day in a fur coat and resigned, said they were moving to Florida. True story. We called the police and said, “Well, it looks like an inside job, this person had access.” They said there’s no proof. The person quit, never to be heard from again, and I learned a very valuable lesson. We now have bulletproof glass, we have Brinks Security picking up the cash in the middle of the day, but in those days Comcast didn’t have a procedure or a policy and we were making it like the Wild West. About a year later I got the call from Dan Aaron who said we’d like you to move to Flint, Michigan, and I remember him saying I really think this is good for you. My mother was in tears because I’d always lived in Philadelphia or nearby and she said don’t marry a girl from Flint. I want you to come home to Philadelphia. For me that was really the first test. Flint was 24% unemployment, we were really hurting, and there was a question of could it make it in an auto town when GM was on strike and it was the highest unemployment in the nation, and I went out to do marketing and customer service and new sales. We had the best year, I think, Flint’s ever had – not because of me, but it taught me another lesson which was in tough times cable is a great value, and if you can’t afford to go to Disney World, you can’t afford to go on holiday with your family in Europe or wherever, well, let’s make sure we have 30,000 hours of entertainment in our home. We grew from something like 59,000 customers to 65,000 customers that year with the highest unemployment in the country. That was a lesson, obviously, that stayed with me for 25 years later.
O’CONNELL: Does Comcast still own the Flint system?
ROBERTS: Absolutely, and I like visiting, it’s been a couple years, but we then made a big play into all of Michigan and Michigan’s one of our most important markets.
O’CONNELL: And is your wife from Michigan?
O’CONNELL: Your mom didn’t have anything to worry about?
ROBERTS: I came back – I went back to Trenton as the general manager, lived in Princeton, and then several… maybe a year or two later I was brought to Philadelphia as an area vice-president, and that’s when I met my wife and we’ve been married for 21 years here in 2006.
O’CONNELL: So you married a local girl. That’s nice. Did you ever worry about people thinking, oh, here comes Ralph’s kid; he’s just here because he’s the boss’s son. What does he know? Did you ever have to deal with that?
ROBERTS: No, I never worried about that at all. Come on! You’re the kid of a boss and I would say that’s… one of the single most important episodes in my life also occurred when I was 16, actually I was 15. Just before I could drive a car I had a summer job in a business Comcast had then called Storecast. My father liked the word “cast” and this almost had to do with supermarket merchandising and the idea was you’d go to a supermarket and you look at certain products, you paid your money to see if their product was on the shelf and if it wasn’t, go and see a general manager and ask him to order more. So I went to fill out the paperwork to become an employee for the summer and the person who was the controller of the system, a lady, took me into her office, closed the door, looked me dead in the eye – I had my best tie on and a jacket, I’m 15 years old – and she said, “I don’t give a gosh darn whose son you are. If you work for me you’re going to work.” I practically burst out in tears – what have I done wrong and already I’m being screamed at. Obviously that one stuck with me too, and I think as I talk to other people who think of going into any family business, who are working with somebody who is a parent, you’ve got to get over this one or don’t do it. If it’s going to take the fun out of it, that people will always say, well, the only reason Brian’s successful is he was born with a silver spoon, don’t do it. If you can deal with that, it will always rub you a little bit, but in the end you say, you know what? I don’t want to give up this opportunity because of someone else’s view of me. I’m okay with that. Probably a little bit of ego/confidence that you have to have in yourself. Then it’s the best in the world to work with a family, but you will always have people say, well, I didn’t get that job because you’re here, and I think Comcast is a very different company but the kind of people who want to work here say, well, I like the fact there’s stability of the family involvement. I think it’s a positive when you’re making long-term investment decisions, there’s no politics, no one’s just taking credit for the wrong reasons, and it’s a wonderful environment if you can get it right. I really think… I give all the credit, really, to my father for setting that tone with the other employees that Brian’s not a threat, this is all part of the plan, and if he’s up to it and you’re up to it, this can be an even better outcome for the company.
O’CONNELL: Well, I think it helps that you delivered. It’s one thing to say Brian’s not a threat, it’s another to say you guys have a CEO who’s really been a visionary, and I don’t mean to sound too laudatory here, but what Comcast is doing is pretty amazing.
ROBERTS: You know, I chalk it up to being in the right place at the right time. My father was in the men’s belt business and I don’t think anybody would be calling me a visionary, but I probably would be in the men’s belt business today. So I think some of it’s luck. I heard a great quote Warren Buffet once gave – “I work 18 hours a day to be lucky.” Maybe it wasn’t Warren Buffet but somebody, you’ve got to make your own luck. It’s been a nice 25 years.
O’CONNELL: I’m going to ask you a little bit about some of the times when you thought that the industry was shifting, okay? I’m going to go back to the business stuff. I like the family history. When I do history about Gettysburg or whatever topic I’m working on, I’m always interested in the cause and… but for The Cable Center I’m going to get back to the trade.
ROBERTS: Fair enough. The business of cable.
O’CONNELL: You have built Comcast into the biggest cable media entertainment company in the country. It’s the biggest in the world, I would think, isn’t it?
ROBERTS: I hope so. We’re trying.
O’CONNELL: When you began your acquisitions or building out… when you bought QVC or your sports franchises, was there ever a moment when you thought this is when I’m going to a whole new level, this is when I’m building this company up?
ROBERTS: That’s a great question. I think there are a couple of those moments, and the answer is different for Comcast, obviously, than it is for the cable industry, which also had seminal moments as we know. For Comcast, I think, my history really began back in Trenton, so let’s call it 1981 but the company was born in 1963. If you talk to my dad and Julian and Dan, there are some moments in the company history from ’63 to ’81 that probably make or break the whole game, going public in 1972, some high and lows. But for me the first big, big moment was Storer Cable. Storer Communications was under siege. It was the beginning of the ’80s, and if you remember the movie Wall Street, the ’80s was a rock and roll period of Wall Street with junk bonds and Mike Milken, and so Comcast had made… the largest loan in the company’s history was less than 100 million dollars, and along came a company, Storer, which was in broadcast and cable, and somebody called Coniston Partners bought 5 or 10 percent of their stock and announced that they were seeking to break up the company and it was the beginning of the raiders. So Mr. Storer took to figuring out how to get out of this dilemma and he went to Henry Kravitz and KKR, and they agreed to buy all of Storer at a price of, I can’t remember, but let’s call it $80 a share. That would make Coniston happy, KKR happy, and Peter Storer sold his company, and it was a management buyout, or a private equity that we would call today – the first one of its kind in our business. The investment bankers came to us and said, well, they’re getting away with a cheap deal. Why doesn’t Comcast make a bid? Well, that was about a 2-2 ½ billion dollar deal, and we had never borrowed more than 100 million. But because we’d always made every interest payment and every principle payment… I say “we” very unfairly, “they” – Ralph, Julian and Dan. Our first long-term banker, Lehman Brothers, Shearson Lehman, said that they would put up the 2 billion dollars, they would guarantee us. So based on that, Comcast began to make a bid for Storer to top KKR. A funny thing happened. They went to their credit committee at Lehman and it got turned down after we were out there, hanging out there, which had never happened, and it took about 20 years for Comcast to get over that moment but we’re well past it. It was horrible. So amazingly, the lawyer that my dad had hired, a guy named Steve Volk, called up and said, “I have a friend at Merrill Lynch. I think Merrill Lynch might stand in where these guys walked away.” Lo and behold, Merrill Lynch did in a week. So Comcast made a bid and topped Henry Kravitz. The company then decided to run an auction and we went down – my dad and Julian went and presented to the Storer board, Henry Kravitz went and presented to the Storer board, they both revised their bids and the board picked KKR even though it was a lower bid and Comcast walked away empty-handed, lost some money but not too much. It was “Wow! Who’s Comcast? How did this company with 100 million dollar loan suddenly come up with 2 billion dollars in a month?” Shortly thereafter, Group W, Westinghouse decided to put itself up for sale and they were a big conglomerate in those days, and they needed to sell it by the end of the second quarter for whatever reason. They told everybody bids are due before the end of the second quarter and we’re going to sign a definitive agreement. John Malone and Stuart Blair, both of TCI, called up Julian and my dad and said, “Gee, you guys look like you’re hungry. We don’t really need to own all of it, could we be your partner? The same time, Nick Nicholas of Time, Inc. called and said, “Gee, we don’t really think we want it all. Can we be your partner?” And literally we were the 18th largest cable company, I think, and they were 2 and 3 trying to buy 1. But they didn’t really want to go against Comcast and the fact that we had raised all that money for Storer, and we created this first ever three-way deal, which Westinghouse was happy with, and we went in and some people think that was the buy of the century in buying Group W Cable, splitting it up, and we eventually sold some systems to some others and it was, to me, that number 2 and number 3 and number 18 were all working together, and what catapulted us into top five, top ten cable company.
O’CONNELL: The interesting thing about that is that’s because of a loss on the Storer bid. You had the assets but you didn’t make the deal, but that opened the door to making the deal with Group W.
ROBERTS: Correct. I think I’ve taken away that the entrepreneurial spirit of this industry is what it’s all about. Something good comes out of something bad. If life is about taking a swing every once in a while, even if you make a mistake, usually something good comes from that experience, and that’s exactly the point of the story. Then just as icing on the cake, Henry Kravitz was ready to sell Storer – he also got the buy of the century as we knew at the time – and he sold and got all his money back just for the cable and kept the broadcasting and tripled his money, or whatever he did, and once again, the three of us got together to buy Storer and at the very last minute Time, Inc. dropped out and we ended up going 50/50…
O’CONNELL: So you split it with TCI.
ROBERTS: Which was a real financial stretch for little Comcast and big TCI, and again, that doubled us in size again. So those two all happened in a couple years just when I got to…
O’CONNELL: Right. You could feel the jet engines starting up.
ROBERTS: In 1985, I think is when some of this happened and then it just kept going. Then we did some larger deals and we kept getting bigger and we were very acquisitive throughout the ’80s and into the ’90s.
O’CONNELL: What about program acquisition?
ROBERTS: At that time Ted Turner came to the industry and said, “Bail me out.” John Malone and Nick Nicholas put some money up, Amos put some money up from Continental, and we made a tough, probably a mistake, and we said, “We’re not going to control that. Why do we want to own 10% of Turner?” Everyone made a lot a lot of money on that deal, but we were not in the mindset of being an investor but we were in the mindset of being an operator. I think that probably has retarded our programming development for a long time because we didn’t get in on Discovery Channel or A&E and other ideas that were floating around at the time. People were all partners, as you know, you have multiple owners at A&E, same thing is true with Discovery, BET, and Turner. But we put in a few million dollars and then we bought Storer and they owned some Turner. When it was all said and done, Ted called me up and John called me up and asked…
O’CONNELL: John Malone?
ROBERTS: Yes, John Malone – called and asked whether I would come on the board. Nobody at Comcast was focused on programming, I was this young guy. I was flattered, my father thought this is fantastic. There was some consternation internally whether we were getting in with a supplier, and was it really appropriate to be on the board, but all the other cable guys were on that board that had invested, and I was Ted’s director. He and I had an understanding that he literally took his selection and said, “I’d like to put Brian in.” That shows you how smart Ted Turner is. He knew my vote would never really be the swing vote, but he knew how it would get another cable company to care more – who was now bigger than when we had started – to care about his company. And when it got down to one very tough day, Turner wanted to buy a movie studio, New Line – ultimately they made Lord of the Rings – and Castle Rock. Allen Horn was running Castle Rock, who is now the president of Warner Bros. It was a divided board and it actually did come down to… I think they could have reconvened the board and gotten around it, but the last person to vote on a tie matter was yours truly and helped Ted buy Castle Rock and New Line. So he’s very fond of me.
O’CONNELL: That’s great. That’s a great story. I had no idea that was…
ROBERTS: Well, Time Warner felt that it was a conflict and they already owned Warner Bros., and they didn’t really want Ted to do that and the movies may not make money, and it was before they bought Turner, but they voted no and TCI voted yes and it was a tie. It came down to the last vote, at least that day. It’s kind of a fun memory, as a young person to realize you could make a difference.
O’CONNELL: When did you get QVC? That was a big step in programming. That’s been a very successful network for you guys.
ROBERTS: Very successful. Well, it’s a great story. My father, one day, we were still in Bala Cynwyd so it was very early – even before that Dan Aaron had come to see my dad and said, “There’s this channel we’re carrying in our Willow Grove system that no one asked us if we could carry called Home Shopping Network, and it turns out it’s wildly successful, and if you watch it, it’s incredible. They sell things all day long.” My father’s background being in men’s belts, men’s cologne, selling things…
O’CONNELL: Made sense to him, right.
ROBERTS: Dan went and tried to buy HSN and they told him thanks, but no thanks. One day, a guy named Joe Siegal wandered into my father’s office and said, “I started the Franklin Mint, I sold it, I had a five year non-compete. Today’s five years later and I’d like to go into these 17 businesses.” Number 12 was television shopping. I wasn’t in the room, but my father likes to say, he said, “Joe, if you’re the guy that started the Franklin Mint – I love the Franklin Mint, what a great concept – if you want to start a shopping channel, Comcast will put you on every one of our system, we’ll give you a million dollars to get going, and let’s do it.”
O’CONNELL: When was this, do you remember?
ROBERTS: QVC I think is either 15 or 20 years old. I’m embarrassed to say I don’t remember sitting here this second, and it was three months before they were in business because Joe was brought in by a guy named Pete Musser, who was the guy that helped sell a system in Tupelo, Mississippi to my dad, so he had a warm spot in his heart for Pete. Joe left the room and said, “Okay, I’m dropping every other idea. I’m only working on this channel. I’m going to call it QVC.” He proved to be one of the great entrepreneurs I’ve ever met. He’d call my house at 6:00 in the morning, my wife would answer the phone, “Hello?” and he would say, “Brian there?” Not “hi”, “sorry”, just “Brian there?” “Had a meeting yesterday with John Malone. He will carry the channel if we’ll give him this.” He was all business and it was incredible. 90 days later he had put together the whole channel and he was ready to take it public. The night before the IPO – and the deal was my father dreamed up with Joe a scheme that you go to every cable company and say, “You get a share of stock at a dollar, it’s going public at 10, for every subscriber you give us. Sign this contract, we’ll pay you 5% of the revenues and on top of that you can have a share of stock at a dollar that’s going to go public at 10.” Instantly every cable company said, “Okay, count me in.” Well, some had already started another channel called CVN – Cable Value Network – and said I’ll carry two of these. If I can get a 10 dollar stock for a dollar, here’s a million subs, 2 million subs. And Joe… of course it was a brilliant concept. Everybody wins. The more subs, the more the stock’s really worth 10, and on you go. The night before the IPO, I’m sitting at my desk, I’m now a group vice-president back in Philadelphia, and after hours in those days just a few of us in the corporate office, and the phone rings – we had a system where it would ring the whole office, you didn’t have directed dialing – and so you’d pick up the after hour line if you were still working. A guy says, “Hello, is Mr. Roberts there?” I said, “Well, this is Mr. Roberts, this is Brian Roberts. I’m not really Mr. Roberts, that’s Ralph.” He said, “Well, is Ralph there?” I said, “No, he’s not.” He said, “Well, my name is Roy Furman, and you’re Brian Roberts?” “Yes.” “What’s your title?” “I’m vice-president.” He said, “Okay. I’m doing something called underwriter’s due diligence,” which I had never heard of, “and the company taking QVC public was called Furman Selz, and this was Mr. Furman. He said, “I want to know whether you’re going to carry QVC in a million homes like this contract says, and I want to know that you think if this channel ever gets on the air that you think it has the prospects that it says in the prospectus.” So basically the liability of this entire scheme is coming down in some ways to this phone call. I said, “Yeah, we’ll put it on the air. What do I know? That was what we said we’d do, we certainly will do it.” The stock opened at $27 a share. It was the hottest IPO that year. They went to 100 million in sales in a year or two. The fastest company, according to Joe who’s a great promoter, of any company start-up at that time to get to 100 million in revenues, it was faster than any other company in history. QVC went on to… we sold ultimately our stake, which we paid about 300 million for after many, many longer versions than the story here, for 8 billion dollars to John Malone. We built QVC with Barry Diller after Joe retired. It went on to prove to make a billion dollars a year in cash flow, and it all started with a little conversation in Ralph’s office.
O’CONNELL: One of the exciting things about the cable industry is that it starts just as this cable going into people’s houses and now it’s on all sorts of technological platforms. Do you want to tell us a little bit about what Comcast has done in that area?
ROBERTS: This is probably the single most important area of what makes it fun to come to work every day after a lot of years in the same business. I feel sorry for guys in other industries who enjoy their company but the product of business they’re in, let’s use radio, the same radio then is the same radio now. That is certainly not the case with cable TV. Somewhere along the line that got recognized as we went out of the construction business and the second great wave then became programming. We talked a little bit about Ted Turner, but many, many entrepreneurs got into programming and it changed the broadcast versus cable. I think the third great era was the recognition that we could do more technologically than just even deliver television. My memory would be that a lot of the credit for this goes to John Malone. He was, and is, an engineer by training. He ran Bell Labs, or worked at Bell Labs, ran Jerrold Electronics, and was yet not just an engineering guy. He was actually a business genius. So he had the idea, along with some others, particularly Dick Leghorn and others, to start something called Cable Labs. Just as with Turner and John came to me and said, “I’ve told Ted he should put on his board,” he said, “I’ve been asked to chair this Cable Labs. I’ve never done an industry thing,” I don’t think he ever was even on the NCTA board, but he was going to put this new idea together with Dick Leghorn, would I be the vice-chair? “You’re young, you’re technology oriented.” We’ve traveled the world together as a group to scour ideas for what our wire could do because now we had this wire everywhere. We were in Japan, we were in Europe, we were in Silicon Valley, we’ve been to Korea, we’ve been to consumer electronics shows together, and all over. It’s been fantastic. One of the ideas, we were sitting in Tokyo at the Japanese Consumer Electronics Show talking about high definition television, and literally the TV set was $30,000. That was the cheapest HD, and John Malone sat there and said to one of the Japanese consumer electronics companies, I can’t remember, maybe Panasonic, “What if we take 100,000 and we’ll seed the U.S. market with high def TV.” And the guy took his calculator out and started calculating what discount he’d give us if we’d buy 100,000 of these things. Now, nobody had the slightest interest in buying 100,000 $30,000 TV sets. If you’d get them for half price I don’t think we’d take them either. But it was a great memory of they’d never even heard of cable TV and who were we to come in there and suggest really making the market happen because it was the broadcasters that should be doing this kind of thing, or satellite, and from that we started a relationship with these companies and today we’re the largest distributor of high definition television in the U.S. We had a similar experience on data. Bill Schlier, John and myself, and Dick Green and others were sitting at breakfast one morning and we’re talking about “Well, what about this data business?” There was no internet. “What if we tried to do data over our cable lines? A number of us went back and we partnered with Intel and others partnered with other companies, and the next thing you know broadband was born.
O’CONNELL: So the cable modems, which I can’t imagine life without my cable modem, I’ve had it for a long time and just using dial up doesn’t seem possible anymore in our lives today. I think that’s something that’s just really revolutionized people’s life.
ROBERTS: Arguably in the long-run, maybe more than cable television will. What an amazing business that you could actually have a double, a second act, maybe even bigger than the first act. A famous act for Comcast was… one of those Cable Lab trips was to Microsoft and to Intel, and we decided to put a slide together. In those days, they would give us presentations and so we sat around and said, “Well, we ought to have a Cable Labs presentation.” So we made one slide and showed the percentage of our homes we were rebuilding with fiber optics and when we would get to a whole new platform. About 2/3 of the industry was already hybrid fiber coax. Unfortunately, the 1/3 was John; he was the laggard. He had much more pressure as the largest company and had decided to wait until the technology was more proven and the economics were more proven, but because he was the largest and wasn’t as aggressive at that moment in time, all the big companies thought cable wasn’t doing anything, and therefore the phone companies were going to be the ones to put fiber in. On this tour, it was our goal to say as politely as we could that we really had a vision and we really were going to get there first. We went to Intel and I remember meeting Andy Grove, and he was telling us how great the phone companies were and we pulled out our slide and he said, “This slide can’t be true. You’re not 2/3 done. The phone companies only have 5%.” Dick Green stood up and said, “This is absolutely true.” Andy looked over at John and said, “Well, is this true?” And he said, “Yeah, that’s what everybody’s doing, and we’re going to be right there, too.” Andy Grove said, “Well, I want to get some of my other executives right in the room right now to talk about this.” Then we went on to Microsoft and I won’t bore you with the whole story but…
O’CONNELL: It’s a good story though. People want to know this story.
ROBERTS: We got out there and we were going to meet with Bill Gates. Now everybody had met Bill Gates individually but never as a group, and he wasn’t going to join us for a couple hours and they were giving us a series of presentations. One of the presentations was about MSN, which was a new concept. Another was about something they had just purchased called Web TV. They were telling us what data meant to them, and they also were telling us just the typical Microsoft sales pitch, all the different things they were going to do to…
O’CONNELL: Revolutionize the world.
ROBERTS: Exactly. Somewhere along the line, in walked Bill Gates. In those days, and maybe still today, he doesn’t waste a whole lot of time with “Hi, how are you? How’s the weather.” He sort of just comes in, starts rockin’ and thinking and playing with his PC, and then he just kind of out of the blue erupted, and just said, “You guys are horrible.” “Well, what do you mean we’re horrible?” He said, “Well, you started this thing called At Home and the people at At Home hate Microsoft, and so you hate Microsoft.” We said, “Well, why do they hate Microsoft? What do you mean?” He said, “Well, they’re basing it on UNIX, not on Windows.” I don’t think any of us, we had the heads of all the North American cable companies in the room at that moment – Rogers, Time Warner, Comcast, TCI, Cox and others – and we said, “We don’t even know… none of us knew that, and we’ll go home and tell them to base it on Windows if that’s such a big deal. UNIX… we have no reason not to, we don’t want to upset you this much.” And he kind of calmed down, and then we put up our slide and showed our fiber chart, and he says the same thing as Andy Grove, “This can’t be right. This is fantastic!” The whole attitude changed. Then he took us to dinner at a Seattle club and we’re sitting at little tables and I happened to be at the table sitting next to him and somewhere along the line he said, “You know, I’ve been thinking about that chart. I’ve been thinking about what you guys want to do.” And I said, “By the way, our stocks are at an all-time low because we’re spending all this capital which is why some did and some didn’t because it wasn’t a sure payback.” He said, “How could I help?” Being young and brash and what the heck, I said, “Well, why don’t you buy 10% of everybody in the room?” as a joke. He sort of thought about it a second and said, “Well, how much would it cost?” “Five billion dollars.” I had no idea where I got the number, tried to do a quick calculation, and he said, “You know, I have 10 billion in cash, I could do that.” It was kind of breathtaking – Microsoft’s cash position later went to 30 billion – and then on the other side one of the other cable operators who didn’t really think this was such a productive discussion said, “Hey, Bill, where are you going? Tell us about one of your vacations that are always so famous and written about. What’s your next vacation?” He said, “Well, funny you mention that. Tomorrow I’m being picked up by Paul Allen and we’re flying to the Amazon, and we’re going to look at these rare chimpanzees. We’re going to stay on Paul’s yacht and we have a helicopter flying us into the trees. The only way you ever see these chimps is from up in the air, they don’t come down very often.” The poor chimpanzees! Can you imagine, these rotors right in your face and there are these guys staring at you? Then he turned back over to me and said, “Would there be any regulatory problems?” I thought to myself, “Wow! He’s actually thinking about it!” I said, “No, I think the FCC rules will be okay.” I’m not sure that’s the right answer, but it seemed the right answer at the time. The other guy said, “Well, tell me more about the vacation.” We kept getting ping-ponged and soon the evening was over. The next morning we had a wrap-up of our Cable Labs trip. We’d been to Oracle, Intel and Microsoft on that particular trip, and John razzed me pretty hard saying, “I can’t believe you were down on your knees begging Bill Gates to bail out the cable industry last night.” Didn’t everybody think that was a hoot? And others piled on. I called my father up and I said, ‘I may have done it this time, embarrassed us. We had this great meeting with Bill Gates and I jokingly offered this…” As usual with my father, he said, “Hey, good for you. What a great idea.” Got back to Philly, stewed over it all day, the next day I walked in my office – true story – there’s a phone slip waiting for me from a guy named Greg Maffei from Microsoft, who wasn’t even at the meeting, he said, “I’m the CFO,” I called him up, and he said, “I’d like to follow-up. Bill sent me an email from the Amazon. He’d like to invest in the cable industry.” I said, “Well, you know, to hell with the rest of those guys. They kind of joked with us. I’m not going to ask you to be monogamous, but if they want your money they can bug you separately. Why don’t we just talk about a deal with Comcast?” 30 days later they invested a billion dollars for non-voting stock, no board seat, just to send a message that people who invested in these networks were right and were going to have a good investment prospect. They didn’t really understand it until we went out to do the press conference. A writer from the Financial Times of London asked Greg – he and I were doing a joint interview at that point – “Why would Microsoft want to own cable?” He said, “Well, we’re not buying Comcast,” and went on to say they weren’t going to own cable, but he said, “Remember when we started GUIs? GUI is a graphical user interface, and we were going from DOS to Windows and the whole thing was going to be Windows.” – a lot of people said they copied Apple, but that’s a different issue – “We needed to make a mouse that could really have all the features to make Windows work. We didn’t make a mouse. Microsoft now makes a mouse. We can’t let any piece of the equation slow down the power of our software, and the mouse was the weak link, so that’s why we’re in the mouse business. Well, into the home, we believe in the future there’s going to be a lot of data coming in and out. If we don’t have a big enough pipe, then we’ve got to make it happen. Our investment in Comcast here is to send a message – go ahead and build. They will come.” A light bulb went off in my head. These guys are the smartest guys for a reason. The stock quadrupled. Cable broadband really got a shot in the arm even before we knew what was happening. He later went and invested 5 billion with what became AT&T Broadband. He bought into eventually with Rogers, and he partnered with Time Warner on Road Runner, so when it’s all said and done they really did have a deal with the whole industry. In the long-run, now the phone companies build broadband, it’s called DSL, and as the ultimate arms manufacturer, he got it going by taking sides with cable early and changing history.
O’CONNELL: That’s great. That’s a great story. Now we’re going to go to very recent history. I think of you guys as being the most successful cable company right now in VOD. You’ve had tremendous success in that. Can you tell us why you’re knocking that out of the ballpark?
ROBERTS: So AT&T came for sale – another long story I won’t go into – we managed to purchase AT&T Broadband, and probably the single most important thing that ever happened to the company was AT&T Broadband. We tripled in size, we became a national local cable company…
O’CONNELL: And when was that?
ROBERTS: That was in 2001, 2002, maybe by the end it was 2003, but in that window we had a lot of difficulties with that with Enron and some of the other scandals happened right after we signed up, but it allowed us to become the largest cable company in the U.S. and have this wonderful footprint in 22 of the top 25 cities in America. So, Steve Burke came and we sat down one time and he said, “I’ve been thinking about our new position as a leader, and I’ve been looking at these digital boxes and what they can do,” now that we’ve put so many digital boxes out there for other reasons – channel capacity, picture quality – “and we think we could start a VOD service, which heretofore has been primarily focused on movies on-demand, and take my experiences as an ABC executive and make it like television.” Let’s have sports, let’s have news, let’s have entertainment, let’s have local, let’s have kids, let’s have day parts, and let’s call it for lack of phrase Philly Vision, and let’s dream up a way to go and have on-demand with hundreds, thousands of choices of programming, and make it free, a la the internet, with the vast preponderance of the content. And since we’re the largest purchase of programming and we now think we’re entitled to a big discount because we got tripled in size, the programmers really don’t want to discount to us, maybe they’ll give us the rights to use some of their content for on-demand and then we’ll have something satellite won’t have.” It was a perfect play, except for the fact – what about Nielsen ratings, what about advertising dollars, I the programmer maybe don’t want to give my programming, will the technology work, will the consumer use it – and we had to nurse our way through that. Other cable companies said, “We should be doing telephone. Don’t worry about on-demand, there’s no money in it.” And we powered ahead. Last year, and maybe only our second full year, we did almost a billion and a half television shows that got viewed on-demand in just ten million homes. The average home uses over 20 to 25 times a month, and it’s a new platform and we are first. That was one of the reasons… we didn’t set out to be the largest; we were opportunistic in getting AT&T, but once you have that leadership position I think you really have to use it. You won’t always be right, but this industry has to innovate, has to push, has to go to some place that’s uncomfortable, and that’s how you don’t get commoditized and that’s how you don’t get caught.
O’CONNELL: You just split Adelphia with Time Warner.
O’CONNELL: How do you take those Adelphia systems and make them Comcast? What are you going to do so that they represent you as the local/national corporation?
ROBERTS: That is a business that we’ve been in for a long time as we’ve been buying other cable companies. It really clicked into focus when we bought Media One and AT&T in a very short period of time because again, Steve came one time and said, “Here’s a shocking statistic. Two out of every three people that work for Comcast didn’t work here 24 months ago.” So the stories of Tupelo and Ralph and the good old days, they don’t even know what you’re talking about, and that’s because we had just done so many deals and gotten so much larger so much faster. So we decided – again, I give all the credit to Steve, and at the time I was very skeptical – that we should create a Comcast University and take a play out of GE and a little bit out of Disney where all the executives have to go train at the theme park and you have to be a character. He had to do that when he worked for Disney. Then GE has their Connecticut training facility, which is world famous. So we set up Comcast University and we created a program called Spirit of Comcast and we brought in every supervisor and manager from an acquired system over a very short period of time, only 30 or 40 at a time, they stay here for three days and they hear from my dad, they hear from Steve, they hear from Julian, and Larry Smith and John Alchin and David Cohen, and Brian, and whomever is in town, with no script and we just go in and we talk about how we got here, others will take about our vision, and you just take questions, and then we sprinkle it with real presentations like here’s the plan this year. We’ve now had over 3,000 managers all spend time with Ralph and understand the entrepreneurial integrity, the culture, the things that matter most at Comcast. We also take our act on the road. We went to every major market that we bought in AT&T and we will do the same, I’m sure, with Adelphia, and we will get all the employees to stop working that day, we’ll shut the business down for several hours, we’ll have a skeletal crew, install no new jobs – it’s terrible. In Chicago we had 5,000 people in the McCormick Center when we bought AT&T Chicago, and we come out and we have a whole presentation about why this is the last cable company you’re going to work for, why we don’t sell systems, why this is the most important business, and here are our plans and our dreams and our aspirations, and every employee can say, “I was in a room with the company.” Steve’s introduction of my dad always chokes me up, which is he says, “I worked for the Walt Disney Company for 12 years. What I wouldn’t have done to spend 20 minutes with Walt Disney. You’re about to spend 20 minutes with Ralph Roberts who founded Comcast and you’re going to remember this moment.” My father will come out, and no disrespect to Ralph, he’ll babble away and talk about something that doesn’t matter, but you could hear a pin drop – it matters that much. He sets the tone not on cash flow and 12% versus 11%; he talks about family, what matters, your career, your co-workers, respect – and that’s why this company’s about.
O’CONNELL: That’s great. One of the things that you’re also about that I’m particularly impressed by is your leadership in diversity. I know that you personally have been honored by NAMIC and by other organizations. I don’t think any company does it better than Comcast. Can you talk a little bit about your commitment to that and why it’s important?
ROBERTS: Yeah, first of all, I’m not sure there aren’t companies that do better. I’m never satisfied. I think we have set it as a goal to look like our customers and that the company’s leadership top to bottom should stress that and value that, and that’s not easy. Again, when we hired David Cohen and we hired Steve and people who had worked in large – in David’s case for the City of Philadelphia – very diverse organizations, we asked how can this company be better? We’ve got some executive leadership programs that are fantastic, we have some outreach programs with partners to help recruit folks to the company, to talk about our products to people that are sensitive to what the channels are that we carry. Diversity is a very broad category that I don’t think you ever stop, but it’s a business… not a social objective, it’s a business objective. It’s the right way our company should run and then it has tremendous social benefits. I’m not satisfied that we’re there. I don’t think there is a there, but we have interestingly two white males in David and Steve who when I hired them each at the last interview I said, “Here’s something I hope you will do better than I’ve done and help us advance this company to a better place,” and they both have done great and we have some stars in the company and hopefully more in the future.
O’CONNELL: Can you tell us a little bit about Comcast Cares Day?
ROBERTS: That is an area I’m very proud of. It was an idea of a woman in Philadelphia who started something called Philly Cares, and it’s a day of service for the Philadelphia community to go help local organizations. Diane Tuppeny-Hess, and others at Comcast, latched on to it and said, “Why don’t we turn that into Comcast Cares Day?” And then it just spiraled. We, last year, had I believe 30,000 volunteers in our company and their families go to 300 or so community projects picked by the local managers, so some were Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, others were high schools, others will be a tech center, a rec center, a police athletic league, and go in and volunteer our time – paint, wire, clean up, garden, whatever it takes – on a Saturday in October. We then decide to fan the executives out to as many locations as possible. So I’ll hit three or four in a day. I always bring one of my kids if I can; Steve does the same, David, my dad, and John Alchin and Larry. We’ve been all over the country. Then we have something called Comcast Foundation, and for every employee who works, we stipulate so much money from the foundation to go to that organization. So at the end of cleaning up an unknowing school, or wherever we’re at, the local manager says, “And oh, by the way, from the Comcast Foundation here’s a check for $25,000 from all of us on behalf of the company.” There are incredible reactions. I don’t know that there’s a larger day of service by any corporation in America. It is not required, it’s totally voluntary, and every year it gets bigger. It’s fantastic.
O’CONNELL: I see it all over because I’m in that corporate outreach work, and I’ve been so impressed with the way you’ve worked with the local systems to choose the areas that they touch and it’s so effective.
ROBERTS: I was in Nashville and Knoxville, Tennessee last year, and I was at a Boys’ and Girls’ Club that hadn’t been touched in 30 years. It was gross and it got fixed up, not completely in one day for sure, but then plus the money we donated, plus the visibility in the community because we try to promote the fact that this organization is doing something and other people will join in. A secondary benefit, but an unspoken huge benefit is that Comcast employees say this is the kind of company I want to work for.
O’CONNELL: It helps with employee retention, I think.
ROBERTS: Everybody feels good. This is our family and you want the family to stand for something and do something. So not a from-the-top initiative and we literally have fun dreaming up the t-shirt every year that we give everybody, and my daughter one year, who came with me, said, “You ought to make it like a rock tour. You ought to list all the cities.” Lo and behold, when you look at it and we list all the cities, you can’t even fit it on one t-shirt. It’s incredible how many places get touched.
O’CONNELL: Innovation and Comcast – they seem to go together. When you’re looking out in the future for the next five years, where do you see the places that Comcast is going to be investing in for innovation?
ROBERTS: The first thing is to give you my point of view on how you try to manage a company on that question because that’s a really tough one. I don’t believe we should try to bet on one or two horses and hope they hit, and oops! – we missed. The consumer really wants this, and we went there, and so we have to make sure we’re flexible, fast, and not so in love with any one idea that it prejudices us from seeing the great ideas. I think certain trends are clear. We like to call it viewer controlled television. We’re clearly in an era where the consumer’s in control. I now can get my money out of the bank right now, at midnight, take my little card; I can get something to your house tomorrow with Federal Express. I want fast, I want to be empowered, and so speed, ubiquity, wireless, coupled with which screen doesn’t matter – I maybe want to watch it on my big TV but I also may want to watch it on my cell phone. I’m not sure but clearly something’s getting consumed more than just a phone call on those wireless devices. Kids love games; we have a generational shift where television was it for our generation but video games, internet, cell phone, text messaging is it for the next generation, and who knows what’s coming next behind that? So what have you got to do? Well, you have to make sure you have the best network, you have to make sure that you are first, and we’re trying to do all of that. We think in video you’re going to be able to get what you want when you want it, and the content companies that figure that out faster I think are going to do better, how to preserve their business model… A very good parallel to that would be to look back when cable programming took off and how some broadcasters said, “Hell, no. I’m not going to do a news channel. Why would I want somebody to leave the CBS Evening News and go watch CNN?” An entrepreneur came along and said, “I don’t have that legacy baggage.” And I always refer to it as the burden of incumbency, you’re trying to grow 5, 10, 20 percent on top of what you already got and some new entrepreneur says, “I just want to disrupt.” So we had this in cable where all the best channels were funded by entrepreneurs, later bought up by the big broadcasters, and so we now have the same thing with on-demand. Some people say, “Well, I don’t want to take the viewing away from my primary business.” That’s too late. That’s going to happen in our opinion. You have a DVR, TiVo, you can get what you want when you want it with piece of consumer electronics, so why not make it easier for the consumer. In the broadband space we’re going about 6-8 megabits a second. As we talk today, we have a project at Cable Labs to go to 100-200 megabits a second. IBM demonstrated to me 15 years ago a billion bits a second. We’re in the 2nd inning. The telephone business… today we’re having incredible success right this moment. It’s the best thing going at Comcast. We’re selling 30,000-35,000 a week.
O’CONNELL: And some of that’s to people who don’t get cable.
ROBERTS: Yes, and who only want our broadband, don’t even want the video either. They’ll take the new stuff but not the old. And others who want to take triple-play. Well, that’s just plain old phone right now, but phone is moving and one of the things we’re investing in is cross-platform. So when I’m watching TV and get a phone call, okay, I want to know, caller ID, do I want to pause the channel and take the call or send it right to my voicemail. Once it goes to my voicemail can I access that on my Blackberry? Can I access that on my email? Can I access that on my cell phone? Do I have two different voicemails or do I have one? Can I chat while I’m watching TV, while I’m watching an Eagles game, with my buddy in Boston as they’re playing the Patriots? Can I do that on a wireless device as one person’s on a television? Who knows? All those things we’re working on. But you need to remind oneself that maybe the greatest invention in the last 25 years could be a company, Google. Google’s never run an ad for Google, and Google, if I said to your viewer, “Raise your hand if you’ve used Google,” I bet 100% of the people watching and at every management meeting I have when I ask this question, every hand goes up. Think of a product that came that fast that is that impactful that’s never run an ad, and you realize today the best, right this moment, growing product on the internet is something called MySpace. It didn’t exist three years ago. So the pace of change and technological innovation has so accelerated to an unprecedented level that no one has ever witnessed before that to answer that question is frightening. It’s also an opportunity. We probably make more money, actual cash flow, off the internet than almost any company in America by delivering the best experience to the consumer. We have 10 million people who pay us $40 a month. So my first answer is make sure we remain the best.
O’CONNELL: Well, that’s a good answer. With all this new technology, it also means new content is coming into the home, and that has raised a lot of issues about decency and indecency standards. I know that you’ve worked and been very active as a spokesperson for our industry on the Hill about indecency regulation. Can you talk a little bit about that?
ROBERTS: I put two hats on. One hat is the chairman of NCTA right now, and having to think through and articulate the industry view, but probably my more important hat is as a parent. I’ve got three teenage kids and we worry about this, my wife and I, a lot. I’ve come down very strongly that having the government fix the problem is not the answer. I just think you can start and stop with that can’t be a good thing. And yet, it’s disturbing to say there’s nothing we can do about it and it’s just a race to the bottom and there is no standard in our country. And so we have hopes… My first answer is technology to the rescue and let parents parent. There are many, many people you will meet who say, “I don’t mind this for my children, and I don’t care what they watch, or I only care if it’s this type of programming.” And then there’s others who say, “My child’s not developmentally ready to be exposed to such programming and I want to make those decisions but I need the tools. I need to know what’s coming on before it comes on, I need to be able to push a button and make it go away.” Then there’s other that say, “That’s impossible. I’m incapable of managing it. It’s too stressful in the house.” Any parent knows, who has to turn something off, how hard that is. Just don’t even put it there in the first place. And so that’s the conversation that’s going on. I think Comcast should play a leading role in the cable industry in trying to manage that, but I’m a big believer in free speech even when it’s uncomfortable, and I think that’s where we ultimately come down. So we’re trying to create family tiers that don’t disrupt the experience for the programmer economics of this whole industry. We’re trying to give everybody a free digital box that wants it to easily in one click program it out of your house without a password. And we look at AOL, and AOL today is coming down the mountain, but when it was going up the mountain, in my house and therefore I’m pretty sure in many households, their parental controls were one of the reasons parents wanted AOL instead of just getting “the internet”. There were many controls, they worked pretty well, and you at least had some policing of what content was streaming into your kids’ computer. I think the cable industry has the opportunity to take this issue, turn it on its head, and actually come out the other side as part of the solution, not part of the problem.
O’CONNELL: That’s an interesting point. I hope that you’re right because I think it’s a very important issue, and if we can show people how to take control for themselves… It’s not much of an effort to click a button on your remote.
ROBERTS: There has to be a better answer than saying, “Okay, you can’t say this word at this hour.” Some of that has been the root of television and there’s nothing wrong, but I think to change and go further and to radically now apply that to the cable industry… there has to be a better answer.
O’CONNELL: I’m going to now wrap up with some questions that are more personal about leadership and big picture and something about you. How would you define your management style?
ROBERTS: Well, if I were to ask the people that work for me to answer that question, they might say chaotic, disorganized, but hopefully there’s some method to the madness. A couple of things have struck me on management. One was a book I read called The 60-Second Manager that said if you walk into somebody’s office and you see boxes and streams of paper, something’s wrong with that person’s management style. I pride myself on it always being empty and clean, meaning I’ve pushed it somewhere else. So I think that you let others do the work and you try to be there to be a resource to help. The best at that is my father, in my opinion. He nurtures, he mentors, he coaches, and he doesn’t know any of those words, but he just does those things instinctively, not just for me but for others. I took the view I’m too young to be old. Certainly 15 years ago I was thinking that way, and therefore I’m not ready to just be a coach. I also want to do, and I still feel that way, so I like to take a few projects unto myself and say, okay, I’ve got that ball and I still want to run the play once in a while. But I don’t want to do that for everything, and I think that that’s the real issue for management styles going amok are you’re either too removed or you’re too involved, and so you’ve got to find the balance. I don’t want to appear to abdicate, but I’ve got partners who are better than I am at what they do and what we do in their area. So I try to also have a collaborative style. One of the things that I am always amazed in reading articles about some companies that say, well, they did a big deal and only three people knew it – we have managed here and I hope we will always be able to, to not have a lot of leaks and therefore we have a very inclusive style. My father started a tradition which I have sort of taken to a ridiculous extreme, but we don’t make too many decisions without passing out a little piece of paper and everyone getting a blind vote. “Should we bid for Disney”, “Should we bid for AT&T,” “Should we try to buy the Flyers,” “Should we do Adelphia this way or that way,” and we’ll have 15 people in the room at that moment, all of whom have a chance to say, “Dumb idea,” and you don’t know where it came from. It’s kind of the culture, which is inclusiveness. We use voicemail excessively. I’m always amazed when companies say, “We don’t really use voicemail. Why do you need voicemail, we’ve got email?” Well, a lot of people will talk but they don’t talk in a large group and it’s actually worked for us to say, “Okay, I don’t want to bother you on the weekend, but I need to know what you think. So when you’ve got a few minutes on the weekend, reply to the voicemail rather than us agree to 10:00 Saturday we’re having a conference call.” “Well, that’s just when my kid’s swim meet is.” So we’ve tried to work very hard but do it in a way that’s inclusive, collaborative, but give a lot of individuality, and that’s a hard thing to get right.
O’CONNELL: Well, you’ve done something right by building a good team. When you’re hiring people to work on that team, what are you looking for? What are the attributes that you select?
ROBERTS: So you’ve got a fine line. On the one hand, you don’t want to surround yourself with people who all say yes, and on the other hand, if everybody’s their own island and ego, it’s not going to work. We’ve had our hits and misses like everybody else, but for the most part it’s someone who says, “I want to be part of a family and a company that wants to be professionally managed but has the good of family without the controlling, over-protectiveness of one person making all the decisions.” There’s no magic formula. We just take our best gut instincts. I think we are fortunate that we’ve got some strong leaders and they’re not uncomfortable… I’ll give you a great example. David Cohen, who was chairman of the fastest growing law firm in Philadelphia and was the managing director of the city, and who in his own right could run any institution in this city – Steve Burke came to me after AT&T before we closed and said, “We’ve got problems in River City here. We are now the biggest company and every other day there’s a crisis. We are out from under a rock; people have found their way to Comcast and everybody wants something from us. We need somebody to help manage that. You need somebody, and I think you should hire David.” I said, “Well, he’ll never take it. Why would he give up being at the biggest law firm in Philadelphia?” Steve said, “Why don’t I go try?” He recruited David to Comcast – I said at some point, “Let me take it from here.” – but he said, “That person should report to you, Brian, that job.” And you could argue very rarely would you want to attract a superstar executive to a company and have him report to your boss. That might create issues. That’s the kind of selfless… Larry Smith has been co-chief financial officer for 15 years. When we recruited Larry, the deal was he would become CFO after legendary Julian Brodsky. Then, six months later, our treasurer, Vern Gallagher, was recruited to be head of Century Cable, and so we needed to get a new treasurer. We interviewed a nice Australian banker working for Toronto Dominion named John Alchin. John said, “Do you think there’s any chance I could someday become CFO?” Now we’d already just promised it six months earlier to Larry, so I went to see Larry and said, “What do you think of John?” He said, “Oh, I think he’d be great.” I said, “Well, his only issue is could he someday be CFO.” He said, “I could care less about titles. Who cares? He’s good at what he does; I don’t want to do what he does. Why don’t we be co?” And for 15 years, I don’t know of any other public company that has had co-CFOs and it’s incredible how well it’s worked. So that is what I look for, people who say I want to help the team, and it goes back to literally my very first day in Trenton. Bill Getz was the controller and he was training me, and we were two of three college graduates working for our system, and we had about 50 employees. That day, remember we were just starting, a truck pulled up with 2,000 converter boxes, or whatever, some large amount of boxes which way a lot, and we didn’t have a warehouse facility with little lifting trucks. We went the old-fashioned way; we got a human assembly line, everybody went to the warehouse, you’d take off your jacket and tie and get the box, you’d pass it off to the next person – you unload the truck.
O’CONNELL: And you were there unloading the truck.
ROBERTS: And Bill said, “This is how it works, and if you’re not into this… this is how we do it.” It was great! I came from playing on a squash team in college; that’s what I went to college for, and my team was the experience. So I just think that that is the mentality… there are two types of people in the world: those who say, wait a minute, that’s not my job; and those who say I’ll do whatever I need to do to help, and we’ve been very lucky to have many, many great people that take that right attitude.
O’CONNELL: That’s a great example. I’m going to talk a little bit about legacies. The Cable Center asked me to ask you that, but I’m kind of wondering, do you think about your personal legacy? You seem sort of young to be thinking about legacy.
ROBERTS: Exactly. I don’t want to be in Hall of Fames or museums.
O’CONNELL: But you are! You’re going to be in the Hall of Fame.
ROBERTS: I’m 47 years old. Hopefully Comcast can be a company that helps change the world for the better and bring some entertainment and some fun, and at the same time now some information and some better use of technology, but also help the communities. If you said pick a couple things – we didn’t plan it, but Comcast Cares Day is right up there, or my own family, trying to raise my kids the same way that my father raised our family with a balance that it’s not just about the business. It’s harder the bigger the business becomes, but be there for dinner.
O’CONNELL: Do any of your three children have the type of business commitment that you had when you were a teenager?
ROBERTS: I’ve been able to duck that question. My first one is going to college next week – it’s a big milestone in our family.
O’CONNELL: Where is he or she going?
ROBERTS: She’s going to Brown. They’re all interested at some level in what’s happening, but they are out pursuing their path in life and I want them to not feel the pressure to feel they have to to get my blessing.
O’CONNELL: Although in your case, it doesn’t sound like you felt pressure. It sounded like it’s what you wanted to do.
ROBERTS: That’s true for me and true for my father, but for most people it’s natural to say come join me, or something. I don’t want them to feel that’s what they have to do because I did it for my father and they should do it for me. On the other hand, they’ve all come on Comcast Cares Day; I think we have an opportunity whether it’s inside the company or outside the company to take advantage of some of the blessings we’ve got and make sure you have your priorities right in life. At the same time, they’re kids and they should have fun.
O’CONNELL: Do you play squash with them?
ROBERTS: Sure, and they’re all active in the game. My daughter is going to hopefully play on the Brown team and I’m very excited about that. As crazy as it sounds, it’s not because I played squash. Certainly I’m familiar with the game, but it was a very popular sport, five minutes from our house there’s a very popular kids’ program and they all liked it.
O’CONNELL: That’s fun. Well, it’s fast. It’s almost like a video game when you think about it. Your reflexes have to be really in-sync with that ball. That little black ball! It hits you right in the head if you’re not watching.
ROBERTS: I’ve had that!
O’CONNELL: I actually ride the train – I commute from Long Island – and two of the guys on my train are squash players, and I told them what I was doing and they went, “Great squash player!” They’re good players, too. I think one of them’s played you. Do you have time to do anything like watch TV? Are you a consumer at all of your… well, obviously you’re going to consume your phone, you’re going to be a consumer for the broadband, but what about television?
ROBERTS: Like probably a lot of people, you go up and down in your viewing hours based on what’s going on in the rest of your life, but I’m not addicted. There are television-free periods and every once in a while my kids’ teachers will say, “We’re having no TV week. Is that okay?” And I’m like, “Of course it’s okay!” I like to get that TV turned off at my house occasionally, too. I see a lot of different shows – my wife’s a big fan of broadcast television and it’s taken me a long time to actually like a few shows on broadcast. I’ve always been more of a cable fan – really, really. I was a QVC watcher – people were shocked by that – partially because it was the business but also because I bought some fantastic products on QVC. I have dropped my viewing since we aren’t involved as much. The Golf Channel is fun to watch; I’m not saying this because you’re here, but A&E and History Channel; Discovery, but I also like the news. I watch a lot of CNN and others.
O’CONNELL: Are you a sports… Do you watch sports?
ROBERTS: A fair amount of sports. Actually I like ESPN, but also like the regional sports and that’s one of the reasons we’re going into the business, is it’s just passion of your local team and that’s one of the beauties of that business. But really, generally we watch a lot of VH1, E!… I don’t want to say – somebody will be mad at me whatever I answer to that question. It’s very general.
O’CONNELL Is there anything you’d like that I haven’t touched on that you’d like to mention so people will know about it?
ROBERTS: I hope we can continue to attract people to the industry. I think one of the goals that I have is that you don’t look at the good old days and say well, that was it and now we’re just here. What’s so stimulating is the things we’re working on today we didn’t even think about five years ago. I don’t think there’s been a more intellectually stimulating time to be in business than right now. The pace of change, the ability to harness technology, to work remotely and collaborate not just in one city – it’s an amazing time.
O’CONNELL: I’m Dr. Libby O’Connell. I’m here interviewing Brian Roberts, Chairman and CEO of Comcast Corporation. It’s August 24, 2006 and this is for The Cable Center Oral History Program. Thanks Brian. I’ve enjoyed talking to you.
ROBERTS: Thank you. It was fun.