Comcast CEO talks about Dad, Disney and Bill Gates (1 Viewer)

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Comcast CEO Brian Roberts is one of the most powerful people in television. Comcast is the nation's biggest cable company, with 21.4 million subscribers. It owns or has stakes in everything from The Golf Channel to the Philadelphia 76ers basketball team. A $1 billion investment from Microsoft in 1997 rocketed Comcast into broadband Internet, and in 2004 the company made an audacious, but unsuccessful, bid to buy Walt Disney.

When Roberts, 46, graduated from college in 1981, the company that his father, Ralph Roberts, started from a single cable system in Tupelo, Miss., had $20 million in revenue. As the younger Roberts gained control and took chances, the company grew into today's behemoth with $20 billion in revenue. The company reports earnings today.

Roberts was interviewed by USA TODAY's Kevin Maney at the second USA TODAY CEO Forum — this one in conjunction with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management.

The interview took place on stage in front of a live audience at the Sloan School.

Family ties

Q: Julian Brodsky, your father's longtime business partner, once said: "I think we have known Brian would take over the company since he was about 8 years old." Were you really that directed that early?

A: I was born in 1959. Comcast started in 1963, so all my life it basically was there. The fantasy could have ended and the reality could have begun when I had my first real job, but I loved it and it's been a fantasy ever since.

Q: Why did you and not your five siblings decide to do this?

A: My father is a marvelous mentor, and if you're going to have a mentor, the ones that work best let you make your own mistakes. You're ready to do your own thing and just at that moment of being unbridled, if somebody's trying to manage you too tightly, it's going to be tough — particularly if that person's got the same last name.

I like to joke that working for him for 25 years, I've never had a bad idea in his eyes. But he has a way of saying, "Well, that's very interesting, and have you thought about it like this?"

And basically what he's saying is, "That's a really bad idea and you should do exactly the opposite."

Q: So he didn't push his kids to join Comcast?

A: He wasn't one of these parents who came home at dinner and said, "OK, so here's what I did today." He came home and said, "What did you do today?" And somebody would say, "Well, I enjoyed this drawing class," and he would say, "Well, tell me about it." Comcast was never mentioned at the dinner table.

In a sense, the company has allowed everybody to live their own lives, and for me, this was what I wanted to do.

Q: I understand there is a story about you going for your first job.

A: I was 15 years old, and I got my first summer job at Comcast. I had to first fill out the W-2 forms. So I went in to meet the controller — unfortunately, I forget her name. She played a big role in my life, though.

I dressed up in a tie and put on a jacket. She came in. She closed the door, sat me down, looked me dead in the eye and said, "I don't give a goddamn whose son you are, you come to work for me, you're gonna work."

And I was like, "Whoa, what did I do wrong?" I was about to tear up. It reminded me right there, "You're going to have to work hard to prove that you're not a bozo."

And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Q: You have three kids, 18, 15 and 12. Is there a third generation that will run Comcast?

A: I've been able to fortunately duck that question.

I would take the same approach my father has. I hope they can live their own lives and do their own thing.

I'm 46, so I hope to hang in there for a while.

The cable industry

Q: You and your father have always tried to have an image of, "We're good guys." How do you manage that in an industry that's often not seen as good guys? Customers don't often like their cable company. Congress gets all over the cable industry.

A: It is no fun when people say bad things about your company or your industry. I've managed to convince myself that it's because we're doing an inherently tough thing, which is we have to charge for free television. Television was free and now people have to pay. We're in the unpopular position of saying, "Well, we've got to turn around and give money to CNN and ESPN and Fox News and every one of the channels you enjoy."

Q: Does the new AT&T scare you?

A: It's daunting that any company would have $120 billion a year in revenue. They're clearly putting Ma Bell back together again, and you need to ask whether it's happening too soon. It probably is going to have a lot of different competitive and strategic issues to challenge us, and my view is we've got to redouble our efforts to go faster and do better.

Q: You have how many customers making phone calls on cable lines today?

A: About 1.5 million. We hope in less than five years we get to 8 million. We hope to not lose 8 million video customers by then. We are very fortunate that it is a lot harder to do television over a phone line than it is to do telephone over a cable line.

Q: What about Internet television? Is that a threat?

A: I think you're going to see a generational split. The Internet presents an opportunity someday to really do television, I'm sure. I suspect that it will be used to enhance (TV shows for) hardcore fans — the way a ring tone enhances but doesn't really threaten CD sales.

Q: What's the coolest thing we'll see from the cable company in the next year?

A: The thing that will be cool for our shareholders and customers is actually un-cool, and that is Comcast digital voice. We're selling 20,000 a week right now. If you just want phone, it's $39.95 including all your long-distance, all your local — but it's not Vonage or Skype.

It's Verizon reliability that we hope to achieve.

Q: What about wireless?

A: Just to be in the cellphone business, we're not that excited. To be in the integrated wireless entertainment business, it's not so clear. A lot of guys are showing us (products that) dock your phone into your set-top box. You walk away and it's all loaded with just what you chose and you didn't use up a lot of bytes in the air.

The Gates connection

Q: The $1 billion Microsoft invested in Comcast in the late 1990s was a real turning point for Comcast. How did that happen?

A: The cable operators were under attack from this new thing called DirectTV. So we rebuilt all our cable systems, but the largest cable company (Tele-Communications Inc.) at the time said they were going to stop rebuilding because Wall Street was saying there's no payback.

I helped organize a trip. We went to Intel, Oracle and we went to Microsoft.

The concept of broadband had not really dawned on us in a big way yet, and the stocks were at an all-time low. Gates told us all the things he was going to do. We told him all the things we were going to do. And then he hosted a dinner. I happened to get seated next to him.

Q: And you're the young guy here? All these other guys are the old cable guard?

A: Absolutely, and Comcast is maybe No. 10 in size. So Gates said, "By the way, I really want to help you guys. What could I do?" Nobody said anything so I just jumped in with a joke and said, "Well, why don't you buy 10% of everybody in the room?" And he said, "Well, how much would it cost?" I did a quick calculation and said, "Five billion dollars."

Q: Nice to know being a CEO is a precise science.

A: On the other side of me is a (cable) guy, and he doesn't like the direction of this conversation and says to Gates, "Well, tell me where you're going next on vacation." And he said, "Funny you say that. Tomorrow I'm going to the Amazon with Paul Allen." But just as he's saying that, Gates turns back over to me and he goes, "Would there be any regulatory problems?" And I thought to myself, "My God. He's actually thinking about this."

I got home to the hotel and I called my father and said, "I may have made a jerk of myself." We had the wrap-up meeting the next morning with just the cable team, and I got a lot of razzing. Flew home. Next day, there was a phone message on my desk from Greg Maffei, the CFO of Microsoft. Called him back, and he said, "I got an e-mail from the Amazon. Bill wants to follow up on the idea."

And 30 days later, Microsoft invested $1 billion in Comcast.

Q: How was negotiating with Gates?

A: I said, "Our stock's at an all-time low. I don't want to sell stock. I'd love to have you, but this doesn't really work." He said, "Well, we'll pay a little premium."

He said maybe 15%. Our stock was about $16, so you add 15% and get to $18.12 or something. I said, "Well, why don't we round it up to $18.50." Gates said, "$18.12." I said, "Well, let's call it 18 and a quarter. It's got to sound like a round number." Gates said, "Brian, I don't even know why I'm paying you a premium. I could go on the stock market and buy this thing all day long at $16. Why am I giving you $18?" I said, "OK, fine, $18.15." And he said, "$18.12, and you're lucky to get that." I said, "OK, I'll take it."

Acquisitions

Q: In 2004, you made a bid to buy Disney — which really shot Comcast into the headlines. How did that come about?

A: Disney looked like it was in distress in some respects. We believed, perhaps improperly, that some of their board had reached out to some friends of ours and middle folks to suggest maybe this would be a great combination. We'd have the largest broadband company and one of the largest content companies and could make beautiful music.

Unfortunately, when presented with the proposal, Disney's board said, "It's not acceptable to even talk about it until the price is higher, and we're not for sale." We looked at our own company, and we were so confident and bullish on the prospects of our business that we weren't willing to pay up. It was a good idea, but they wanted a huge premium.

Q: Speaking of some of these big acquisition decisions, how do you wrestle with them? How much is spreadsheets? How much is just your gut feeling?

A: This is where I feel very fortunate to have a partner, if you will, in my father because he does it one way and I do it another. And I'm a spreadsheet guy. But you get to that moment of truth, and it has nothing to do with a spreadsheet. You've got to factor in what your competitors are doing, what the technology is doing, what your shareholders want, what your employees want, what your customers want, and you've got to make it happen sometimes.

Every single deal, I get the core team together and I rip up a piece of paper — I think my father started this tradition but I do it now and the next generation sort of looks at me sideways like, "Here we go again." But I think it's the only way to get the honest input of people who are a little afraid to speak up against their boss.

So I say to the folks in the room, "Yes or no, and what price?" Everybody gets a vote in a true secret ballot.

Q: Majority wins?

A: No, you know, we didn't say it's a democracy! We said we wanted to get everybody's input. But usually we get consensus.

http://www.usatoday.com/money/companies/management/2006-04-26-ceo-forum-usat_x.htm?csp=34
 

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