Monday, March 15, 2010

Comcast's Ralph Roberts at 90

I opened up my Sunday Philadelphia Inquirer this past weekend to see an article on Comcast co-founder Ralph Roberts celebrating his 90th birthday. According to the article, Roberts "still keeps a near daily presence at company headquarters as a senior adviser to son Brian Roberts and other top managers."

We had the pleasure of having Ralph Roberts as a member of the Directors & Boards editorial advisory board during the late 1980s and early '90s. How could you be based in Philadelphia and not want such a preeminent business leader also working here to play such an advisory role? Not us.

As you might imagine of someone who has lived a long life and built a major corporation from virtually scratch, many tales abound of Ralph's trajectory of success. In a Fortune profile in 2001, the magazine traced his roots thusly: "Ralph Roberts started humble in 1963, with a 1,200 subscriber cable television franchise in Tupelo, Miss. He'd already been in such varied businesses as golf, cologne, Muzak, and suspenders, so he knew he was onto something with this one when, he says, 'People chased our truck down the street yelling, Please stop at my house!' "

Many tales are of his legendary frugality, perhaps not surprising for a child of the Depression. Here is a choice one from a Philadelphia Inquirer piece in 2001: "Just this past week, Roberts — who routinely is at or near the top of the list of the region's best-paid executives, making tens of millions in salary and stock options annually — proudly boasted of a bargain he found at a local store. 'I wasn't going to buy it,' he said, holding up a bottle of vitamin E tablets — retail price, about $22. But the store was running a deal: buy one, get one half off the next sale. He couldn't pass that up."

I have my own favorite tale that I tell of Ralph. When someone wants to schedule a business breakfast with me, I have us meet up at a restaurant called Little Pete's. It is a 24-hour no-frills diner-type establishment a few blocks from my office — with a long U-shaped counter and a set of about 10 booths lining the wall, serving hearty basic food at reasonable prices (you can scarf down a bacon and egg breakfast, hash browns, toast, coffee and juice for about $6). Who have I seen on a number of occasions also grabbing breakfast there? Yes, Mr. Comcast himself. I get a huge kick out of telling my dining companions that one of the richest men in Philadelphia also eats at Little Pete's. (Ralph has actually gone on record with Philadelphia Magazine as describing the joint as "my favorite restaurant.")

That same Philadelphia Magazine article from 2006 also had Ralph summing up his credo for success: "The advice I gave my son Brian was to follow his own instincts, do it well, don't be thwarted by those who find your objectives are not to their liking. Be creative. Tell the truth. Maintain a high level of integrity. And do the right thing for people."

On his 90th birthday, I can't help but think of this credo as a gift that Ralph gives to all of us to follow — and may we have as near a long and bountiful life in following it as he has had.