Comcast CEO Brian Roberts on the Early Days of Dad’s Company, Maccabiah Games

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts talked with renowned financier and philanthropist David Rubenstein about the company he helped build with his father Ralph, his early life experience, as well as his love of the game of squash and his experience competing in the Maccabiah games in the latest episode of “The David Rubenstein Show: Peer-to-Peer Conversations” on Bloomberg TV.

Rubenstein: When you graduated from college in 1981 – you went to University of Pennsylvania – you then joined a company that your father had started, Comcast. At that time, it was a relatively small company. Did you ever in your wildest imagination think it would become the leading company it has become in the telecommunications area?

Roberts: “We had about 20 million in revenues that year, and my father – when asked that question many, many years later – would say: ‘Of course.’ And the reality is, of course, no way did we ever – either of us – dream we would be lucky enough to be Comcast NBCUniversal sitting here with the kind of wonderful products and company we have, and I pinch myself every day.”

DR: Did you ever say to your father, I don’t want to join the company. I might want to do something else. What propelled you to want to join this company?

BR: “Well, I’ve thought about that. I just always wanted to work for my dad. He used to be in the men’s belt-suspender business way back before he started Comcast, [and] men’s cologne. We used to play with the cologne growing up as kids and he would have the passion about it. He just made it seem fun for me and he never pushed me, even in a little bit, to want to work for the company.”

DR: What was your father’s background?

BR: “He got out of the Navy. He was living in Philadelphia, met my mom and they got married. They were married 72 years until he passed away a couple of years ago. He was very interested in business, also went to the Wharton school, and he was an entrepreneur… He liked the advertising and marketing side. And one day he got into men’s cologne and he just loved the smell and marketing aspect, and the same with a product like a belt or suspender. Technology came along and he got himself convinced that sansabelt slacks – those that is polyester pants without belts – would be the technology that could put him out of business, so he sold his business. He was walking around Philadelphia, apparently, (1963) and a guy came up to him and said, ‘Ralph, I got a new venture for you. You ought to buy a community antenna television system in Tupelo, Mississippi.’ And as he told the story, he said, ‘Where is Tupelo? And what’s community antenna television?’ And the answer was the birthplace of Elvis Presley. And in Tupelo they couldn’t get CBS from Memphis – it was a valley town – so they put up a big antenna on the top of a mountain and ran a community antenna (CA) TV, and those were the early roots of cable television.”

DR: Television was free in those days and now you had to pay for it in Tupelo. So was that hard to convince people to pay for television?

BR: “What he liked about the business was the subscription nature… And what he liked about recurring revenue is, you had to go borrow a lot of money, build it, and hope they will come, and then you have a recurring business that you have a base to work from.”

DR: In college, you were a squash player and an all-American squash player…

BR: “I love the sport. And the best players in the world, which I never was close, are super and superb athletes and as good as any athletes, I think, in a sport. When I got to Penn I got a squash coach who was the opposite of my dad — I have always said, maybe the second or third most influential person in my life – one of the top is coach Molloy and he really drilled into me hard work, winning, strategy, tactics. I went on and played a great run in squash and had a chance to compete internationally after college.”

DR: So now you compete still at the Maccabiah games. You’ve won the gold medal there and the silver medal and you are now going to play again there?

BR: “My children have both done it. My two daughters and my son said, ‘Let’s you and I do it, dad.’ So we are going to go this summer to Israel and compete one more time. It will be my sixth time. I proposed to my wife on one of the trips. It has had a really significant meaning in my life to be able to compete, represent my country, be a Jewish athlete, and at the same time share my family experiences as we have all played the sport and had a lot of fun with it.”

DR: “You are now in your 50s. Is it hard to get in shape to play in the Maccabiah games when you are in your 50s?

BR: “I was retired for about 10 years and it is very hard – in a short answer – very body part of mine hurts right now from training. But it gives you a purpose. I guess I like goals. It is very similar to Comcast, and you don’t always win, but it is fun to try.”

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