Ralph J. Roberts bought a tiny subscriber TV system in Tupelo, Miss., with 1,200 subscribers for $500,000 in 1963 and turned it into the nation’s leading cable company, Comcast, with 22 million subscribers and $6.8 billion in revenue. His vision and drive changed not only the US cable and telecom industries but entertainment and technology, with Comcast spurring innovation and changing the way Americans consume and access broadband and TV content, the Internet and broadband—in short, the intersection of technology, media, entertainment and communications as we know and enjoy it today.
Comcast, which is based in Philadelphia, announced Friday that the 95-year-old Roberts had died the night before after suffering from ill health. Roberts, a gentlemanly executive who was well-liked and known for his signature bowties, according to the Associated Press, had handed over the presidency of Comcast his then-30-year-old son, Brian L. Roberts, in 1990 after 21 years of leadership. It was Bill Gates’ confidence in the Roberts that led Microsoft to invest $1 billion in the company, and Roberts’ spirit of following your dreams that inspired Brian to pursue Disney, NBCUniversal and Time Warner Cable.
“Ralph was a born entrepreneur, a visionary businessman, a philanthropist and a wonderful human being,” the company said in a statement. “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. He will be truly missed.”
Roberts was a “consummate gentleman, kind and gentle husband and father, and a great business leader,” said Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Not a bad legacy and career for a kid who had seen his family’s drugstore chain close down during the Great Depression and who had lost his own dad when he was 12.
“I think maybe Ralph Roberts is the most successful businessman in the last 50 years that most people haven’t heard of,” Comcast veteran and NBCUniversal CEO Steve Burke told Philly.com. “In one generation, he started a company that is one of the 50 biggest companies in the U.S. 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.”
His ability to rise from humble beginnings had a lot to do with his hours on the road in the years before that, selling eggs to fraternities and advertising on the back of bus schedules. Along the way to the top, Roberts rode the American Dream and sold a little bit of everything: golf clubs, men’s accessories including suspenders, cologne, even Muzak. Sales was ingrained him from early childhood when he dug up his mother’s flowers and sold them to neighbors, much to her chagrin. He also had the gift of making fierce, loyal friends and business partners, recognizing that you can’t do it alone—and any deal must be a win for all involved to succeed.
Roberts simply saw his rise to the top as a result of good old-fashioned hard work. “I just think I’m an example of what you can do in America starting with very little, and if you have a good determination, and you’re honest about what you do, you can be successful,” Roberts told CNBC.
Below, the Cable Center’s 200 Cable Hall of Fame profile and interview with Roberts on his fabled career that led to the creation of Comcast, and check out Comcast’s tribute videos too.