Ralph Roberts, the cable pioneer who founded Comcast in 1963 and saw it grow under the leadership of his son Brian into one of the industry’s largest media conglomerates, died Thursday night in Philadelphia of natural causes. He was 95.
“Ralph was a born entrepreneur, a visionary businessman, a philanthropist and a wonderful human being. Ralph built Comcast into one of America’s greatest companies, and his vision and spirit have been at the heart of Comcast and our culture for 50 years,” Comcast said in a statement. “He will be truly missed. Ralph’s greatest love was his family, and our deepest sympathies go to his wife Suzanne and the entire Roberts family.”
Roberts started Comcast with the purchase of a small cable system in Tupelo, Miss., serving 1,200 subscribers. A forerunner in the cable business, he built the Philadelphia-based company through acquisitions and aggressive marketing that made Comcast well positioned to ride the wave of cable growth in the 1980s and ’90s.
Today, Comcast ranks as the nation’s largest cable operator and provider of broadband service. The company has grown so big that its now-scuttled acquisition of Time Warner Cable became a referendum on the size and scope of the company’s market power.
Ralph Roberts was a revered figure in the cable biz, known for his folksy style and signature bow tie. The American Cable Assn., a trade org for small cable operators that has often clashed Comcast on policy matters, was quick to praise his legacy.
“Amid a digital revolution that disrupted and confused so many in the business world, Ralph Roberts saw the future clearly and encouraged Comcast to become a broadband and technology innovator benefiting industry and consumers here and around the world. At heart, Mr. Roberts was an entrepreneur like so many of our members, and we will miss his passion for our industry,” said ACA president Matthew Polka in a statement.
Time Warner Cable CEO Rob Marcus hailed Roberts as “a pioneer, a visionary and a role model” whose vision for Comcast helped “shape the way consumers use content today and how they communicate with one another.”
Cablevision chiefs Charles and James Dolan called Roberts a “giant not only in cable and entertainment but in the modern history of American business.” Cablevision like Comcast is a family dynasty run by father and son.
“We had the honor of working with him for nearly half a century and came to admire his many personal qualities including his devotion to his family and his enduring commitment to the company he founded and built. He was our friend, we will miss him dearly,” the Dolans said.
Before setting his sights on cable, Ralph Roberts served as president and CEO of the men’s clothing company Pioneer Industries, a vice president of Muzak Corporation and an account executive with Aitken Kynett Advertising Agency.
Born in New York City, Roberts moved to Germantown, Pa., as a teenager. Roberts was a 1941 graduate of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He served four years in the U.S. Navy after graduating from Wharton.
Comcast was originally named American Cable Systems after Roberts acquired the company in Tupelo, Miss. It was renamed Comcast in 1969 and had its initial public offering in 1972.
The Roberts family, which has maintained a sizable ownership stake in the company, remembered their patriarch as “an inspiration to us all.”
“Ralph was a remarkable man who touched the lives of so many people,” the family said in a statement. “He was a wonderful husband, father and grandfather and perhaps most importantly, a kind and humble human being. He will always be remembered for his generosity, integrity, honesty, kindness and respect for everyone around him.”
Roberts was well known as a philanthropist and as a pillar of Philadelphia’s civic and social circles. At the time of his death, he served on the boards of the Council of Emeritus Directors of the Philadelphia Orchestra and Brandywine Museum and Conservancy, as well as the advisory board of the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition and Penn Medicine Board of Trustees.
His many accolades over the years included honors from the Anti-Defamation League, the Urban League, the National Conference of Christians and Jews and the UJA Federation’s Steven J. Ross Humanitarian Award.
Roberts is survived by his wife of 70 years, Suzanne; four children; and eight grandchildren. He was predeceased by a son, Douglas, in 2011. A public memorial service is being planned.