The details had all been set. On a May evening last year in Redmond, Wash., Comcast Corp. President Brian L. Roberts had just nailed a deal for Microsoft Corp. Chairman William H. Gates III to invest $1 billion of his company's money in Comcast. But as Roberts was finalizing the transaction, he picked up the phone to call his dad, Comcast founder and chairman Ralph J. Roberts. "I wanted to tell him we got it," Roberts says. "But I also wanted to get his O.K."
That conversation says much about Brian Roberts. He has worked for his father for 17 years, the past eight as Comcast president. Over time, Roberts, 39, has emerged from his father's shadow to become a savvy dealmaker and industry leader in his own right. But although he now pretty much runs the show, the younger Roberts continues to rely on his dad's counsel at critical junctures. "My father has the golden gut," says Brian. "When you have those moments of `I don't know,' that's when my father is spectacular."
Fortunately for Comcast, Brian seems to be developing a pretty good gut himself. And he'll need it. With the cable industry undergoing sweeping changes, and Ralph Roberts, now 78, pulling back, Brian is coming into his own at a time of dizzying realignment within the industry. Cable companies are rushing to deliver a huge array of offerings from video to data to phone service as they face stepped-up competition from popular satellite services and, in some markets, telephone companies themselves. And if it comes off as planned, the pending merger of AT&T and cAble giant TCI Group will only heighten the pressure on ComcAst and other independent cable companies to pierce new markets. Says Robert P. Norcross, a vice-president at Mercer Management Consulting: "This isn't an easy horse to ride."
So far, the younger Roberts seems to be holding on just fine. His deal with Bill Gates has helped Comcast speed up a three-year, $1.5 billion upgrade of its cable systems and accelerate the ambitious rollout of new services including digital TV and Internet access. That puts Comcast squarely at the technological forefront of the industry.
HOT PROSPECTS. Roberts is also working hard to bolster Comcast's position in its traditional cable business, where, with 5.5 million subscribers in markets from Philadelphia to Sacramento, it is still dwarfed by rivals such as Time Warner Inc. But the Microsoft deal has allowed Roberts to move swiftly, as in his recent $700 million deal to acquire a controlling stake in Jones Intercable Inc. and its state-of-the-art systems in markets such as Washington, D.C. "I look at Brian as the next true leader in the industry," says William T. Schleyer, former president of cable operator MediaOne Group and now a private investor.
Already in the wireless phone business, Roberts is now repositioning Comcast to be an up-and-coming telecom competitor as well as a potentially powerful player in entertainment. Earlier this year, he lured one of Walt Disney Co.'s top execs, Steve Burke. Indeed, signing up Burke, a marketing guru on whom Roberts is counting to burnish the Comcast brand, was a huge coup. After building up the popular Disney Store chain and helping to turn around Euro Disney, Burke was on the fast track at Disney and in the running to become president under Chairman Michael D. Eisner. But Roberts sold Burke with his conviction about Comcast's hot prospects. "Most people thought I would never leave Disney," says Burke. "I was even surprised myself. It was really Brian."
The fourth of five children, Brian was a strong-willed kid who always knew he wanted to work in the family business. Hypercompetitive and an avid athlete, Roberts was crushed when he was cut from his junior high school basketball team because he was too short. But he didn't mope around. Instead, he insisted that his mother, Suzanne, a former actress and now a child therapist, take him to a doctor to see if anything could be done to speed up his growth, according to his dad. Brian, who says he doesn't remember going to see a doctor, later grew to a lean 6 feet 2 inches.
A precocious teen, he read The Wall Street Journal in high school. "He questioned almost everything and tended to believe ideas he hatched himself," says Edwin Probert, Brian's English teacher. Fascinated by the stock market, Brian occasionally dropped in on his private school's financial administrator to ask about investments. In college, his zest for finance grew. "He was talking about covered options and all sorts of complicated trades even as a freshman," says Peter Monaghan, co-captain of the squash team with Roberts.
DUMBFOUNDED. As a youngster, Roberts often tagged along with his father at work. And he spent summers learning the ins and outs of the company, doing hands-on work like installing cable, and discovering the downside of being the chairman's son. When he was 15, on his very first day on the job, his boss pulled him aside, saying: "I don't care whose son you are; if you work here, you are really going to work." Although the incident left him shaken, it drove home a lesson Roberts has yet to forget. "You are always the son of the boss," he says. "You can either deal with that, or you shouldn't be there."
If Ralph Roberts had had his way, his son would have first tried his hand outside Comcast. The elder Roberts was dumbfounded when his son passed up promising offers, including one from an investment bank and the likelihood of another from Goldman, Sachs & Co., after graduating from Wharton in 1981. "He's out of school, and he's hanging around, and he won't go to these interviews. Finally he says, `You are rejecting me. You aren't getting any younger, and I'd like to have a few years where I can work with you.' I said, `O.K., Brian, you can start tomorrow."'
Since that moment, by all accounts, father and son have evolved into an extremely close-knit team as Ralph gradually readied his son to run the company. "Their relationship is one of the most unusual I've seen," says media dealmaker Herbert Allen. "I think they are equal in their mutual respect for each other." Ralph Roberts puts it this way: "The older generation has to be willing to give up some of their prerogatives rather than waiting until you are six feet under."
After spending three years in the field learning everything about local operations, from marketing to building systems, Brian moved to Philadelphia headquarters in 1984. In meetings, he was like "a fly on the wall," recalls Steven Rattner, deputy chief executive of Lazard Freres & Co. and a longtime investment banker for Comcast. "Brian spoke when spoken to and deferred to his elders," says Rattner. That changed as Roberts gained experience, but he never passed up a chance to learn from the pros. Schleyer recalls a trip by a number of cable execs to Japan in the early '90s to examine some new technologies. Roberts, nudged by his dad, made sure to snag the seat next to Tele-Communications Inc. CEO John Malone. "They spoke the entire flight, and no one could get a word in edgewise," says Schleyer.
In 1990, at age 30, Roberts became Comcast's president. Ralph and Brian split management duties, with Brian focused on technology and programming. Still, it was Brian who took the initiative to reach outside the company for fresh talent. In 1992, he lured Barry Diller to run Comcast's QVC Inc. home shopping channel after Diller left Fox, though the two eventually split over Diller's ill-fated attempt to buy CBS Corp.
Brian's stature grew when he became chairman of the National Cable Television Assn. in the mid-'90s, and pushed for industrywide standards. Then, he hit the jackpot with the Microsoft deal. Comcast is the single largest investment outside Microsoft that Bill Gates has ever made. And Gates, feared as much by his friends as his enemies, agreed to forgo voting shares, a rarity for him. The deal made sense for the software giant, long frustrated by the failure of phone and cable companies to offer consumers high-speed hookups to the Internet. "The idea was to spur investment in connectivity in the whole cable industry--and that was quite successful," says Craig Mundie, senior vice-president for consumer platforms at Microsoft.
Now, Brian Roberts has to keep up with the wild horse he helped unleash. With his four siblings pursuing other careers, Brian governs his family's 80% voting control, worth about $400 million. The early-morning-to-late-night hours, broken only for dinner every night with his wife, Aileen, and their three children, aren't an issue. Nor, it seems, is his father's eventual stepping down. Ralph, who comes to the office four days a week, shares adjoining offices with Brian, who often pops in to bounce ideas off him. But though Ralph has no plans to retire, one day Brian's fun "will be significantly diminished when his dad isn't there to share it with," predicts his wife. That no doubt will be true. But Brian Roberts is as ready as he'll ever be to run his father's company.