The Life of Brian

12/19/2009 2:00 AM Eastern

Brian Roberts has been preparing for Comcast’s recently announced deal for control of NBC Universal for almost his whole life.

Roberts began attending Comcast company meetings with his dad Ralph when he was about 10 years old. When Comcast was preparing to go public in 1972, the 13-year-old Brian found a typo in the document that could have negatively affected the initial public offering. At 32, he was the youngest guy in the room when he leaned over and urged Bill Gates to buy 10% of the industry in 1997. A few weeks later, Gates’ Microsoft Corp. invested $1 billion in Comcast, setting off a string of investments and partnerships that revived and propelled cable to new heights.

Now 50, Roberts could become one of the country’s youngest — and surely most powerful — media moguls once the NBCU deal is completed. It is against this backdrop that Multichannel News has named Roberts as its Executive of the Year.

“That Microsoft story is so indicative of Brian,” said Julian Brodsky, one of the original founders of Comcast and someone who watched and mentored Roberts throughout his career.

The young Roberts knew that Microsoft’s endorsement could benefit the entire industry, and he was right. The software giant’s investment legitimized cable in the eyes of Wall Street and led to a 10-year rally for MSO stocks, which in turn funded the development and rollout of new services and the creation of new revenue streams.

“It took the youngest guy in the room to do what the rest of us couldn’t,” said Liberty Media chairman John Malone, who at the time was CEO of the then-No. 1 MSO, Tele-Communications Inc. “Brian thought out of the box then and he continues to think outside the box today.”

Roberts’ long experience of living inside the cable box is one of the reasons why he can look outside it so effectively, his peers said. “Brian literally grew up in this business and he has a backpack full of experience to bring to the table,” said Cox Communications CEO Pat Esser.

InterMedia Partners managing partner Leo Hindery, who has known Roberts for 24 years, put it this way: “Brian was born mature. He has become wiser with age. He has proved he deserves to be the CEO of Comcast and he deserves every accolade and responsibility that has come his way. He takes that responsibility very seriously.”

His deep familiarity with the past has enabled Roberts to focus his sights firmly on the future. And a significant amount of his attention has been centered on technology and new services. He’s even a bit geeky about it from a consumer’s perspective, Brodsky admitted.

Roberts isn’t an engineer, but he understands what consumers want to do with their TVs, computers and phones. He may spend most of his time looking at the big picture, but he can just as easily drill down into specific issues or areas, said Comcast executive vice president of operations Dave Watson.

For instance, Roberts has lately taken a keen interest in Comcast’s customer service and the attention has been helpful in accelerating programs and initiatives. His personal interest in this issue also trickles down to the rest of the company, Watson said. And while Roberts has always been more attuned to technology issues, he has become very interested in the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing’s Cable Mover Hotline program and cooperative marketing efforts.

“Brian saw the Mover Hotline program as important from day one,” said CTAM CEO Char Beales. “I send CEOs quarterly reports on the program, and I’ll get back e-mails from Brian asking about specific aspects of it on a regular basis. He has made Comcast a leader with its internal processes to best take advantage of that program.

“This program was a departure for CTAM, but Brian took a personal interest in it. Now, more than half our resources go toward cooperative marketing.”

Back at the macro level, the NBCU deal may not be unique in its vision. The melding of content and distribution has long been a goal of many media companies, although most of the big conglomerates — notably Time Warner Inc. and News Corp. — have unraveled those efforts in recent years. Yet he is considered a visionary by many in the industry for his consistent ability to see beyond the horizon.

It’s too soon to tell whether the NBCU transaction will have the same kind of impact on the cable industry and cable stocks as Microsoft’s investment in Comcast did. However, most observers believe the deal will change the landscape for the cable business. At this point, most industry players are publicly in accordance that the deal will be good for everyone. Many say the transaction itself was elegant and inspired.

“Brian was opportunistic when he went after [The Walt] Disney [Co.] ,” Malone said. “He was aggressive when he went after AT&T ... This [NBCU] deal epitomizes the way Comcast and Brian Roberts go about doing things. They share the risk and they control the action. Brian looked at what was going to be good for GE and what was going to be good for Comcast. He has definitely come of age as one of the world’s great deal-makers.”

Roberts clearly enjoys the game of the deal, said HBO chairman and CEO Bill Nelson. And he knows how to go for the last dollar in a negotiation. “But once the deal is cut and he shakes hands, he becomes a wonderful partner. He stands by his word and it’s one of the reasons he is so deserved of his accolade,” he said.

Roberts may be the “consummate deal guy,” said Andy Heller, vice chairman of Turner Broadcasting System. But he is also spends a lot of time looking at the future and figuring out how to position Comcast, and the rest of the cable industry all along the way.

Comcast’s acquisition strategy was aggressive when Ralph Roberts was at the helm. But the younger Roberts’ appetite for growth has been equally, if not more, voracious. Under Brian Roberts’ leadership, Comcast acquired a slew of cable operations including Maclean Hunter’s cable systems and Jones Intercable, among others. After unsuccessfully trying to buy MediaOne and later TCI (both of which went to AT&T instead), Comcast ended up with both when the MSO bought AT&T Broadband, which was twice as big as Comcast at the time. Comcast and Time Warner Cable split the Adelphia Communications systems a few years later, firmly placing Comcast at the top of the MSO heap with 24 million customers. All along the way, Roberts also steadily added to the company’s stable of cable networks.

Roberts has always envisioned Comcast as an integrated and diversified distribution and content company, said Comcast executive vice president David Cohen. “And he has pushed that goal in a disciplined manner that respects the balance sheet and the long-term interests of the shareholders very well. The NBCU deal is the culmination of a 20-year vision that Brian has refined and articulated over that time.”

Roberts’ deal-making track record may be strong but he hasn’t been able to hit all the targets he has set his sights on. The biggest may be when he went after The Walt Disney Co. in 2004. Faulty intelligence from Disney insiders and a backlash from investors doomed that deal. But rather than look at it as a failure, Roberts saw it as a lesson learned. And learn he did. Malone, known as one of the industry’s pre-eminent deal-makers, called the NBCU-Comcast transaction one of the most elegant he’s ever seen.

“He didn’t bet the farm. He kept it control and he kept the negotiations private,” Malone said. “It’s brilliant.”

It would be easy for Roberts to take an imperial attitude when it comes to working with his industry peers and partners, but he is keen to make sure that doesn’t happen. He is sensitive to the fact that he not brandish undue power, said CableLabs president Paul Liao. “Brian reaches out more than I anticipated when I took this job. He doesn’t want to be perceived as a dictator. Still, people look to him to take the helm and use Comcast’s size in a leadership role.”

Said National Cable & Telecommunications Association president Kyle McSlarrow: “Brian is not one of those guys who thinks it’s his role to tell everyone, 'This is the way it’s going to be.’ I have been surprised at how often he has set aside Comcast’s interests to make sure a consensus was created that was good for everyone.”

His predilection for cooperation and consensus extends to the negotiating table as well. “Brian is a long-term player in this game. He is a straight shooter and he really loves this business and has helped it move forward. I think he understands the burdens of being so big,” Heller said.

Added HBO’s Nelson: “Brian has long understood the power of a win-win situation and knows that a win-lose scenario won’t take a partnership very far. He obviously wants his due in any given bargain. But he understands the big picture and that means something for everyone. Brian sees over the horizon better than most people and he understands the flexibility of the short-term to achieve long-term goals.”

“Brian is inspiring,” said Cox Communications CEO Pat Esser, who was Multichannel News’s 2007 Executive of the Year. “He has had an indelible impact on all of us. He’s a good listener even when he’s the biggest player in the room. He understands what collaboration means and understands we all have to work together.”

That train of thought runs toward out-of-the-industry partnerships and relationships as well. It was Roberts, as a CableLabs board member, who suggested CableLabs develop relationships with IT companies and even pushed the organization to hire someone with IT experience in the 1990s, said former CableLabs president Dick Green. “That turned out to be a very important step for the industry,” Green noted.

Roberts also floated the idea of field trips for CableLabs’ executive committee. Many of those trips — to Japan, Europe, the Silicon Valley and South Korea — ended up being turning points for the cable industry in terms of developing new technologies and relationships, Green said.

Roberts’ leadership style doesn’t change when he enters Comcast’s building either. He is “unbelievably smart,” Cohen said. But he is also “incredibly open to input and discussion. He is not a monarch. His vision for Comcast is not divine intervention. It’s been developed over time with the input and confirmed by his peers and colleagues.”

Roberts has continued a tradition his father Ralph started when Comcast’s executive team consisted of just him, Dan Aaron and Brodsky. After a lengthy discussion, small pieces of paper are handed out and everyone votes on the issue at hand. Everyone gets a blind vote and more discussion usually follows.

“Brian wants to hear everyone’s opinion,” Brodsky said. “Ralph’s style was similar with Dan and me. We didn’t do things until we all agreed. There was no back-biting. No turf wars. Ralph was a genius at building consensus, and Brian is the same way. I used to think that Ralph was the smartest guy I have ever known. But Brian is right up there.”

Roberts’ inclusive leadership style is one of the reasons Roberts has been able to build one of the strongest management teams in the business. Several of his top lieutenants could easily run companies on their own, but they are happy staying within the Comcast family — partly because of the family-like atmosphere that is fostered there, some inside executives said. But Roberts also gives his staff the resources that a large company can provide and cultivates an entrepreneurial environment that gives employees a feeling of ownership. Roberts has a knack for creating a team approach when it comes to his management team, Cohen said. Yet he also supports individual initiatives.

“If someone has a good idea and can help the company, Brian is more than willing to support it,” Watson said. That’s the way Roberts was treated by his dad and his dad’s partners, and it worked well for him. He sees the benefit of extending that philosophy.

Few multigenerational corporations have had as much success and so little internal strife as Comcast. Industry observers see the relationship between Ralph and Brian as the keystone to Comcast’s long-term success. Before Heller got into the cable business, he was a bankruptcy lawyer and saw plenty of second-generation businesses go down in a ball of flames because of internal squabbling or kids being ill-prepared for the tasks given them.

“But Ralph did it right from the beginning,” Heller said. “He brought Brian in when he was young and sat him at his knee and let him watch him work.”

Brodsky credits the elder Roberts for making the transition from Ralph to Brian seamless and stress-free. “So many transitions fail because of a lack of respect between the generations,” Brodsky said. “That is certainly not the case here. Ralph made the transition early and we all provided Brian with a safety net so that by the time he took full control he was ready.

“The culture here has always been pretty apolitical. There are no turfs or territories. It’s the same today. I think one of Brian’s greatest achievements may be his ability to build the company to what it is today and maintaining the family values and personal values he has lived with his whole life.”

Roberts graduated from college in 1981 and Ralph Roberts, Dan Aaron and Brodsky urged the young graduate to gain some work experience outside the company for awhile. But he was insistent on staying with Comcast. Father and son have worked closely together ever since, and even though Ralph has no formal corporate title or job description, the two talk daily about issues affecting the company and industry.

“Comcast has always had a strong family culture. Ralph is a wonderful guy and he’s been consistent in wanting to see his son build a great company wherever that may lead,” Malone said. “And Brian, with his education, experiences and personality, has worked hard to build that company for his dad. They both get psychic pleasure out of each other. And they’ve been very successful. It just doesn’t get any better than that.”

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