2012 Joseph Wharton Award for Leadership
An interview with Brian Roberts, W'81, Chairman and CEO, Comcast Corporation.
15 November, 2011
category: Joseph Wharton Dinner
Celebrating its 50th birthday, Comcast serves over 50 million combined video, high-speed Internet and voice customers in the United States; has achieved a 17.9% compound return on investment since going public in 1972, and continues to grow. This interview with Brian Roberts, W’81, 2012 recipient of the Joseph Wharton Award for Leadership, focuses on the story behind the story, insights into leadership, and the core things that make both a company and a family, great.
It’s rare for a family firm to grow so successfully. How did your relationship with your father support that growth?
While Comcast is not really a family firm, a family feel is very important to us. And a family culture has clearly helped the company grow.
A lot of things have contributed to the success of Comcast. I cherish the relationship with my father [Ralph Roberts, W’41], and I think it’s been a plus for Comcast, certainly for me, and for our employees. My dad has always wanted me to succeed without hesitation. He made me President of Comcast when I was just 30 years old. He was 70 at the time. From the beginning, I wanted to move fast and he allowed me to make mistakes – but he never called them mistakes. He always supported me, as he does so many other people in the company. Over the last 20 years, I hope I’ve proved that I have the right skills to help this company grow. But that wouldn’t have been possible without my dad’s full support. I’ve been so fortunate.
Was there training toward your becoming CEO?
I just kind of hit the ground running. When I got out of Wharton undergrad as a finance major, it was the beginning of the roaring ‘80s, and I thought, “Great. Let’s work on some deals.” My father said, “Well, you can go work for Wall Street, but if you want to work for Comcast you need to learn the cable business. I started the company when I was 40. I couldn’t start on the ground floor, but you can.”
And that is what I did. When I started at Comcast, I worked in almost every part of the cable operation, from climbing the poles, to selling door to door, to being a regional manager, to being Vice President of Operations. That foundation has served me very well.
At the same time, there is really no training for the kind of growth that we have been fortunate enough to enjoy. When I started in 1981 — just to give you a sense of scale — Comcast had $20 million in revenues. In the last 12 months, we had close to $62 billion. There is no preparation for that level of growth and transformation.
What were your first actions on assuming the president’s mantle at Comcast?
Not much changed. In fact, I remember consciously trying to think about whether I should do something different. But you have to be who you are. In 1992, Ralph was the father figure of the company, and I was only 30 years old. I decided not to try to be the senior statesman when clearly I was not. Instead, I tried to continue to lead by participating and by being a doer. I was very hands-on and I had a great team around me, and I still do. I think we have built an executive team that is, in my opinion, one of the finest group of individuals in corporate America. At all levels of the company, we have tried to attract, nurture and develop our people. I think that has been a key to our success over the last 30 years.
Growing up, what did you learn from your father?
Ralph is a great listener. He has a wonderful way of never saying anything in a meeting. He just lets the person talk until they reach a decision. And finally Ralph says, “You’re absolutely right.” The person always leaves the meeting thinking, “That was a great meeting, Ralph! You’ve helped make it so clear!” He has a marvelous way of coaching and leading. But if he does want to do something radically different, he knows how to do it with a very soft touch that makes you feel like you’ve been guided by someone who respects you…yet is telling you to do something different. He’s not an “I guy.” He is a natural at being the nicest leader you ever met.
All that being said, Barry Diller once remarked, “Ralph Roberts may be the toughest businessman I’ve ever run into.” That is the great thing about my dad. He is the quietest guy, but he found a way to build a successful company in a very tough industry and still have almost everyone admire and like him.
How did he reconcile the two?
Ralph picks his moment. There are some people who go into any situation, and they are the first person to talk and the last person to talk. My father has an innate sense for knowing when to participate. I’ll give an example. Several years back there was a cable company in Timonium, Maryland we were interested in buying. However, the Timonium company was in advanced talks to sell to another company. When Ralph heard the news he got into a car and drove straight down to Maryland. He interrupted their board meeting, took the owner aside, and got him to agree to sell his company to us for about the same price. Inside the company, it became known as “Timonium Mode.” And when Ralph gets in Timonium Mode, look out! There’s nothing that’s going to stop him.
Like all folklore legends, Ralph’s tough business edge has had great value as we have built the company. It allows us to get things done. Run through any barrier. Not take “no” for an answer. And when you try to figure out why Comcast is still standing versus many companies that aren’t, I think much of it comes down to that can-do attitude, which is done in such a way that everyone loves him. I only get the nicest compliments from people about my father. He has always been our secret weapon.
How did Comcast begin to transition from a family firm toward what it is today?
As Comcast got bigger, my dad loved it when stock analysts called us the “Little Blue Chip.” He looked at IBM as a role model company, and thought, “How can we structure ourselves to be more professionally managed into the future?”
I see us as a company with a $100 billion market cap, not just as a family business. We have huge public shareholders so I actually think we have the best of both worlds. A professionally managed company, with a culture that has a family feel. If we can keep that special feeling going for the employees of the future, then I think we will be successful.
How does Comcast approach technology?
As a company, our position is that wherever the consumer wants to go -our company is there. We are more of a technology company than anything else and with the NBCUniversal acquisition we are uniquely positioned at the cross-section of media and technology. We have the best content, and some of the most cutting-edge technologies. We call our cable services, Xfinity, “the future of awesome,” and that embodies the whole attitude of the company. I think we have the best products in the business, and we’re trying to innovate every day faster and faster.
What would you like to say to Wharton alumni considering a career in media?
It’s an exciting time, and there is only more excitement ahead. Technology is revolutionizing the world in so many ways. At Comcast, you are touching products that matter most to people: television, Internet, phone, news, movies, information and entertainment. This is a great place for young alumni. Come to Comcast!
You’re receiving the Joseph Wharton Award for Leadership. Can you speak to that?
It is more important for me to think about Comcast’s leadership, not my leadership. For Comcast, we want to reimagine the entire television and communication experience. Television will change in the next five years, and Internet speeds will continue to increase. The capability to produce content —whether by professionals or by individuals — will shape what we do with our time. If our company — taking that uniqueness of content and distribution — does it right, we should be able to help lead many industries. I think we are very well positioned to lead the change that is coming through all the new technologies. I am honored to follow my Dad’s receiving the 2009 Joseph Wharton Award for Lifetime Achievement.