NEW YORK — Comcast Corp., the fourth largest cable operator in the United States, has stunned the industry by luring away the president of Disney’s ABC Broadcasting, Steve Burke, who becomes the fourth top executive to resign from the Walt Disney Co. in the past few weeks.
Burke, 39, was on the fast track at Disney after 12 years with the company, landing on some short lists as a possible replacement for Disney chairman Michael Eisner. “His career path was definitely not blocked at Disney,” says one insider.
But various sources say Burke, whose title will be president of Comcast Cable Communications and senior VP of Comcast Corp., has a chance to rise to No. 2 at Comcast in the next three years when Ralph Roberts, the company’s chairman, is expected to retire and his son Brian, 38, now president, assumes the chairman’s role.
In that scenario, Brian Roberts would elevate Burke to president and chief operating officer of the corporation. Comcast, worth about $12 billion, derives most of its revenues from its cable systems, although it also owns the home-shopping network QVC and has equity stakes in E! Entertainment TV, the Golf Channel, Primestar satellite distributor and pay-per-view distributor Viewer’s Choice, among others.
Latest to leave Disney
For Disney, Burke joins a recent exodus that has left Eisner reeling. Disney’s chief financial officer, Richard Nanula, has just taken over Starwood Hotels & Resorts as its top executive; Richard Murphy, Disney’s No. 1 strategist, ankled last month; and just last week Geraldine Laybourne quit as president of Disney’s cable operations to start her own company.
And reports persist that Robert Iger, president of Capital Cities/ABC Inc., is planning a shakeup in the ABC Entertainment division that could happen before the summer is out.
In an interview, Burke declined to comment on speculation that he’d end up as the eventual No. 2 executive at Comcast Corp. In a memo to ABC executives, Iger said “at this point in his career,” Burke “wants to work for a smaller, entrepreneurial company.”
Burke’s role is to replace Tom Baxter, who quit as head of the cable division earlier this year.
Liked turn-around success
Brian Roberts says he selected Burke less for his experience running ABC’s television and radio stations and its syndication division Buena Vista TV in the past year and more for his work to jump-start 680 retail Disney Stores in 11 countries into a thriving operation in the late ’80s and his leadership role in turning around the fortunes of Euro Disney when it was losing money in 1992.
“Cable systems are in the business of serving customers,” Roberts says. “And Burke made sure that people felt better about the Disney brand when they came out of a Disney store. He also succeeded with an American theme park in France, a country whose people don’t particularly like Americans.”
Burke says one of the reasons for his career change is that “Comcast is a company that can grow dramatically over the next few years.”
Roberts agrees, saying: “We’re getting involved in digital interactive television, high-speed access to the Internet and telephony. Steve will be important in helping us figure out what we have to do to get our subscribers to buy all of these new products that we want to sell them.”
“Brian is strong in deal-making and in technology,” Burke says. “I’ll complement him because my strength is operations and strategy.”
Move was inevitable
If he had stayed at Disney, Burke would have eventually had to move to Los Angeles, a transfer he and his wife dreaded, according to observers, because they have five children and want to bring them up on the East Coast.
Burke will say only, “Philadelphia is an attractive place to raise a family,” referring to the fact that he’ll move from New York this summer to join Comcast at its headquarters in Philadelphia.
Although personal considerations helped spur Burke’s decision, “it’s a huge tribute to Brian Roberts. It takes great talent to recruit talent,” said James Citrin, managing director of the communications-industry practice at Spencer Stuart, the executive-search firm.
ABC had no announcement on a successor to Burke.
Comcast stock closed up 53 cents Tuesday to $34.65.
(Jenny Hontz, Richard Katz and Martin Peers contributed to this report.)