The man who transformed a tiny Mississippi cable company into the industry giant that Comcast Corp. has died. Ralph Roberts was 95 years old.
“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,” Comcast said in a statement Friday. “He will be truly missed.” Mr. Roberts died of natural causes Thursday night in Philadelphia, the company said.
Mr. Roberts got his foot in the door in the business world 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 and began investing in the then-small market cable industry.
Back then, Cable TV 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 sell a struggling Southern cable distributor. Smelling opportunity, Mr. Roberts made his first acquisition: a Tupelo, Mississippi cable operator transmitting signals for 1,200 local residents.
The trick for trailblazers in the cable industry 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 subscribers.
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, where Roberts spent much of his youth and adult years. 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 picked the company’s name by combining the words “communications” and “broadcast” into Comcast. Based out of Philadelphia, the company went public in 1972 on the NASDAQ.
Comcast continued to grow through acquisitions, 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 to top dogs.
Playing a major role in driving much of that growth was Ralph’s son, Brian L. Roberts, 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 Universal Studios, 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.
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.
“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. His father served as Comcast’s chairman emeritus until his death.
When Brian told his father after college he only wanted to work for the family business rather than pursue a career on Wall Street, Mr. Roberts 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 patriarch a “remarkable man who touched the lives of so many people.”