Roberts Reflects

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MCN: Congratulations on Comcast's being named Operator of the Year. In our talks with senior executives, one thing that keeps coming up was that you're still actively involved. You're in here every day. You're in all the important calls and decisions. But we were told the key for you is establishing the process and letting it work. Describe for us what the process is and how has it survived all the changes in the company?


RALPH ROBERTS:

It's an amazing thing. You have a group that has the right to voice their opinions, their thoughts and their thinking, and out of that comes the direction, and it's worked very successfully for us. We like to say we have no prima donnas here. Everybody has his own right to speak and everybody does.

And as a result, we've got a closely knit group who probably are right in most of their decisions. They make them collectively. Brian of course is our leader. And he was made president of the company when he was 30 years old. His poor old father just sat in the office over here.

It almost sounds Pollyannish, but it's really true, that this group that we have here do remarkably well.

MCN: The company historically was ruled by a troika of you, the late Dan Aaron and Julian Brodsky. Now it appears the cast is bigger but still a solid collective – one providing enough checks and balances to prevent some of the apparent, alleged abuses that occurred at Adelphia Communications and Charter Communications from happening here.

ROBERTS:
I think you're a very good observer, and there is a similarity. In one case, it was fewer people because we couldn't afford more people. The other case is where we have expanded that there-man group in a sense.

I think in our case, each one of us was different and had different capabilities. Dan was a very good cable operator. Julian was a very good financial man. And I was in there trying to make the thing bigger and better, but again doing it in an intelligent way so that we didn't get improper financing, for example, and we could afford to avoid what's happened to some of the other companies.

If you look back, you'll see that there are an awful lot of people who had cable franchises. Many of them were technical people, and over the years, they got to a certain point where they sold out, or they did something to get the benefits of their years of experience. I've always felt that this was a long-term business, that decisions were made were not just for today, and they gave people a feeling that they're coming home when they come here.

And I think that's what the group that Brian has established. They're more energetic, and they want to get the job done. It's an amazing thing, I think, that you can keep people that way and make it so desirable that people want to come to work for the company.

We just took a trip, as I'm sure you've heard, around to the new areas where we took over AT&T properties, and we made little talks to the people. Told them we're glad they're here. And we'd ask how many people here have worked for more than one cable operator, and everybody raises their hands.

They say you can't come home. Well, we still have our first cable system in Tupelo, Mississippi. Our approach has been to be a long-term player, to do it with people who can gain benefits from it. We gave stock options to our managers 30 years ago, so they'd all feel they've had a share in what was going on in the company. And by doing that, it's amazing the loyalty, the friendliness, the willingness, the desire to succeed is always ever-present.

MCN: Did you ever seriously consider selling out? Were there some serious offers on the table that you considered?

ROBERTS:
You can only spend so much money. I'd much rather have a business that was good and successful than all the money in the world. What are you going to do with all the money? But when you have a business, your mind is moving, you're active, you enjoy it. It gives you a purpose for living. And it's fun.

The idea [of selling] never crossed my mind. It doesn't cross my mind today. Today the business is so much more exciting than it was back when we had three or four channels. Today it's an exciting operation and you want to share in that, get some of that excitement. It requires different skills.

No one person could run a business like this. There are too many new things happen every minute, and if you don't have the people who know how to be leaders in that area and want to do more and try to make it work, then you're going to fall behind, and I think that's recognized in the cable industry. We're all on a kick right now because so many exciting things have been happening to the business.


MCN: What excites you most about the business now?

ROBERTS:
The other question is: What do you think the business'll be like in five years? The answer is, it'll be a hell of a sight better than it is today, no matter how good it is today, because we'll have so many new products. People are sitting around in their garages or their laboratories or wherever, dreaming up new ideas that can be utilized on the cable. Cable is capable of handling thousands and thousands of signals that are still not fully used.

So it's a challenge to see what you can do to make the business even more exciting. I think that's true with all the cable operators. I think we probably have a larger group of people who all think that way, and the force of that is tremendous. It produces new things and profitable things and excitement.

MCN:
What's your feeling about cable consolidation and the loss of some of the original entrepreneurs?

ROBERTS:
Consolidation has eliminated a few people along the road, which is a normal thing to happen. If you look at Comcast, you look at a cross-breed of young people, relatively young, in connection with the world, taking an instrument like this company and saying what can you do with it? How can you make it even better? And that's the challenge that I think every one of us here faces. We're all in the same boat. So that makes it easy.

That doesn't mean you don't have disagreements or challenges made to your judgment from time-to-time. That's part of the game. But if you said what is the one thing that's driving this company? I'd say, it's collegial activities, with lots of people, with a common objective, and wanting to make it better.

And you just look at these guys: Mike Tallent, and Dave Watson, John Alchin. Larry Smith, who is a sensational guy. He's one of the best negotiators I think I've ever met in my life. And people don't hate him when he makes a deal with somebody because he can't do it so that one person suffers.

We're all dealmakers. That's part of the industry's charm.

People ask me, did you think that when you first bought Tupelo, Mississippi, that someday the business would become the largest cable operator in the United States? And I usually with a straight face say: Of course I did. Which brings a little bit of tittering and laughter. But here it is. If you just stay in with it, keep going, the odds are in your favor that you're going to have something good.

MCN: How has your family influenced the course of the company, now run by your son, Brian? Did he learn what he needed to, in part, at the family table?

ROBERTS:
I think if you went back to the Roberts family at the dining room table, you'd see that influence. My wife is a very active woman. She's an actress. And I've always been fairly active in something. And here we have these five children sitting at the dinner table and we'd tell them, when you grow up and you want to get into some kind of activity — music, business, whatever — do it. Go into something that you think you will enjoy because most people go through life and they say, gee, if I'd only done this, things would have been better.

So you pick the thing that you like and don't worry about what anybody else says. Do what you want to do. If you can be happy doing that, then you're going to have a happy life. You want to be a lawyer, you want to be an architect — they all wanted to be something different. And we only had one who wanted to get into the business, and that was Brian.

So each of them has got their own world, and that's the sort of dinner-table conversation. Give you the freedom to do what you want to do. And not be restricted by overbearing parents. It works for us. We have very nice kids who still talk to us today. And that's an accomplishment.

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