Comcast Founder Ralph Roberts Dead at 95

Dow Jones Newswires

Ralph Roberts, who transformed a tiny Mississippi cable company into what eventually grew into an industry giant, Comcast Corp., died Thursday. He was 95.

Mr. Roberts died of natural causes Thursday night in Philadelphia, Comcast said in a statement Friday. "Ralph built Comcast into one of America's greatest companies and his vision and spirit have been at the heart of Comcast and our culture for 50 years," the company said. "He will be truly missed."

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Mr. Roberts got his start in business at an advertising agency, eventually acquiring Pioneer Industries, then one of the country's largest makers of men's clothing accessories. Sensing that the era of suspenders and cuff-links was giving way to beltless polyester pants, he sold the company in 1961 and began investing in the then-nascent cable industry.

Cable television, in those days, was still a tiny business of community antennas and strung up wires. Mr. Roberts got wind of it through a chance meeting with a cable system owner who was looking to get a struggling Southern cable distributor off his hands. Smelling opportunity, Mr. Roberts made his first acquisition: a Tupelo, Miss., cable operator transmitting signals for 1,200 local residents.

The trick for industry pioneers like Mr. Roberts was convincing viewers to pay for something they already got free. He and his team went door-to-door to sign on subscribers and, in one town, held daily Bingo contests to attract new customers.

The official Comcast was launched in Philadelphia in 1963. Mr. Roberts expanded in Mississippi through acquisitions, and in 1971, the company acquired cable systems and franchises in western Pennsylvania--familiar territory for Mr. Roberts, who spent much of his youth and adult years there. By that time, Mr. Roberts was confident enough in the future of the cable industry to take the company public. He and his top lieutenants chose the company's name by combining the words "communications" and "broadcast" into Comcast. Based in Philadelphia, the company went public in 1972 on Nasdaq.

Other transformative acquisitions followed, including a 1986 deal to acquire a stake in Group W that put Comcast on the map and boosted its scale to more than a million subscribers. But it was the 2001 acquisition of AT&T Inc.'s cable systems that catapulted Comcast into the top ranks of pay-TV operators.

Playing a major role in driving much of that growth was Ralph's son Brian, the fourth of his five children, who became president in 1990 and chief executive in 2002. In 2011, Comcast acquired NBCUniversal, owner of cable TV channels and the Universal studio, making it a major diversified media conglomerate.

There were some big setbacks for the Roberts media empire along the way. Most recently, the company's pursuit of a merger with Time Warner Cable Inc. ran into stiff resistance in Washington. After regulatory pushback, Comcast called off the planned deal in April.

Beneath Mr. Roberts' old-fashioned manners and dapper dress--he favored bow ties and fine tailoring from his days in men's fashion--lay a shrewd and tenacious deal maker. In 1994, he and his son Brian outmaneuvered QVC Chairman Barry Diller and CBS Corp. Chairman Larry Tisch to block a planned merger of QVC and CBS. Comcast partly owned QVC and didn't like the plan. It ended up taking control of the home shopping channel.

In a media industry where family businesses are often marked by intergenerational disputes and dramas, much was made of the gentle relationship between Ralph and Brian Roberts.

"He was a natural born entrepreneur," the younger Mr. Roberts said, who emphasized that he remained a humble man even though he became very successful. Mr. Roberts became chairman emeritus in 2002.

When the younger Mr. Roberts told his father after college he only wanted to work for the family business, rather than pursue a career on Wall Street, his father sent him to learn the guts of the cable business in far-reaching Comcast territories spanning from Flint, Mich., to Pittsburgh.

In his later years, Mr. Roberts advised his son on major deals, and imparted a conservative approach to the kinds of financial leverage and engineering that burned many big corporations during the financial crisis. He also helped push the initial NBCU transaction through Washington regulators.

Before going into business, Mr. Roberts served in the Navy and studied at the University of Pennsylvania. He cited the death of his father when he was a teenager, a move that left his family in financial limbo, for his hunger to succeed in business. In his later years, Mr. Roberts began riding horses and became involved with various philanthropic causes.

Mr. Roberts is survived by his wife of more than 70 years, Suzanne, four children and eight grandchildren.

In a statement Friday, the Roberts family called the late Mr. Roberts a "remarkable man who touched the lives of so many people."