Comcast Corp. last week hired a senior Disney executive to
run its cable operations, signaling the MSO's belief that it is ready to be more than just
a cable company.
Steve Burke, the 39-year-old president of ABC Broadcasting
at The Walt Disney Co., starts June 8 as president of Comcast Cable Communications Inc.
and senior vice president at the Philadelphia-based MSO.
During his 12 years at Disney, he helped to found the
Disney Stores chain, and he served as chief operating officer at Euro Disney S.A., helping
to steer a turnaround at the troubled French theme park. Those efforts impressed Comcast
president Brian Roberts more than Burke's experience in running Disney's TV and radio
stations and the Buena Vista TV distribution business.
"How about running a theme park in France that
everybody said was a bomb, and managing to turn it around to what is considered a success
today?" Roberts said last week.
With Disney Stores, Roberts added, Burke helped to create
"a whole culture and environment that is customer-friendly and unique and that has
changed the face of retailing. That's a pretty amazing set of accomplishments."
Roberts said Burke "was just head and shoulders above
others that we had met," and he has the potential to "help us ... bring a whole
operating perspective to a lot of things that we would like to do in the future -- to
really help us build Comcast for the 21st century."
Comcast -- the operations of which already include cellular
telephony and programming, the latter through E! Entertainment Television, QVC and Comcast
SportsNet -- is building new business lines, such as high-speed data, and it will be
rolling out high-definition television and interactivity, Roberts said.
"Ultimately, where a company goes is a function of its
people," he said. "Having Steve, I think we'll go to greater places. If we
don't, for whatever reason, it won't be for lack of trying."
For his part, Burke, whose Disney track record indicated
that he was in the fast lane to corporate stardom, said in an interview that he wanted to
be somewhere "smaller and more entrepreneurial, where I could affect the future of
the company more than just managing the existing businesses."
He said he thought he would have continued to move up at
Disney, "but I think that I will have more fun at Comcast."
The hire didn't have much impact on Comcast's stock price,
but Wall Street analysts were pleased.
"It sounds to me like it was a good hire,"
Goldman Sachs & Co.'s Barry Kaplan said. "Burke has a sterling reputation. He's
not a cable expert, but I think that in some sense, that's good," as cable companies
broaden into media companies.
For Disney, Burke marks the latest of several recent
high-level departures. The week before, Disney/ABC Cable Networks president Geraldine
Laybourne left to form her own company. And Disney's chief financial officer, Richard
Nanula, resigned in April to take over Starwood Hotels & Resorts.
Media analyst Tom Wolzien of at Sanford C. Bernstein &
Co. said that while Laybourne's role never fully materialized at Disney, "Burke
clearly had a job."
It's always a concern when a company loses talented
executives, Wolzien said, adding, "If somebody offered you $10 million, you might
think about leaving, too."
Burke said he thought that reports of the Disney brain
drain were "overblown."
"Disney is a great company, and [chairman Michael]
Eisner is a great executive," said Burke, the son of former Capital Cities/ABC Inc.
chairman Dan Burke. "Part of the problem is that Disney has so many good people, and
it's such a high-paced, stimulating environment, that the training that you get there
makes you attractive to other companies."
The job at Comcast opened up when longtime cable president
Thomas Baxter resigned in January.
Roberts said he and others in senior management decided at
that time to broaden the scope of finding a replacement beyond the cable industry. Comcast
already had plenty of experienced cable executives, he said, and it was in good shape
Roberts said Comcast took its time, wanting to see if the
company that was attractive enough to draw a $1 billion investment from Microsoft Corp.
would appeal to "somebody who would bring a new dimension to the company."