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Cable's Dynamic Duo the Envy of the Industry : Telecommunications: The well-liked father-son team of Ralph and Brian Roberts is credited with positioning Comcast for the future. Today the company is at a crossroads.

April 17, 1994|KATHRYN HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — Brian L. Roberts started the hard way in the cable TV business, climbing poles to string cable for new subscribers' homes. He admits now that he had "trouble carrying the ladder. I was too weak. I was too skinny."

As the boss's son, however, he survived that summer job and returned to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Competitive by nature, he became an All-American squash player. After his 1981 graduation, he returned to Comcast Corp. to work his way up a different ladder. In 1990, he was named president at the tender age of 30.

Today, Comcast is the nation's fourth-largest cable TV operator, boasting 2.7 million subscribers, significant holdings in the cellular telephone industry and 1993 cash flow of $606 million. As much for its assets, the company is admired for the father-son team at the helm and its graceful preparation of the next generation of managers.

At 74, founder Ralph J. Roberts still controls 78% of the company's voting stock. He is wealthy (with a net worth exceeding $400 million, according to Forbes magazine)--but not as rich or famous as media moguls Sumner Redstone, John Malone and Ted Turner. No matter. He's the envy of many businessmen because he has an heir so eager--and well-equipped--to run the company.

In the last two years, Brian Roberts has championed a series of deals that look quite smart, and he is emerging as one of the cable industry's ablest executives. During the recent takeover battle for Paramount Communications Inc., he showed a flair for shuttle diplomacy as he sought backers for the QVC Inc.-led bid. It was Roberts, for example, who first contacted the Newhouse family's Advance Publications, which pledged $500 million toward the losing cause.

At 34, he has a knack for spotting new opportunities--and enlisting his father to clinch a deal. At his instigation, Comcast became an early investor in Nextel Communications Inc.'s new national wireless network. And it was he who initiated a successful effort to recruit MCI Communications as an equal partner in that venture four months ago, prompting the stock to soar. In 18 months, Comcast's stake more than quintupled in value to nearly $1.1 billion.

"He and his father have one of the great things going. . . . They have complete trust," says Barry Diller, chairman of QVC, in which Comcast is a major investor.

"It's worked out better than we ever could have hoped," says blunt-spoken Comcast Vice Chairman Julian A. Brodsky, who has served as the company's financial wizard since the beginning. "Every so often, Ralph and I have to bite our tongues, you know, and hold back, but it's clearly Brian's show."

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Despite these successes, Comcast is at a crossroads. The issue: How to be a bigger player without relinquishing family control. If it is to move into the top tier of cable operators, Wall Street analysts say, Comcast needs a partner with deep pockets to upgrade its cable systems or acquire additional systems.

Until recently, it seemed the most likely partner would be a regional telephone company. But two big cable-telephone deals have collapsed in the past two months, and the short-term value of cable TV systems has dropped in the wake of 17% rate rollbacks ordered by the Federal Communications Commission.

For now, regional phone companies have cooled to cable deals, increasing the likelihood that cable firms will again find ways to do business together.

"The good news is the football team of cable is back together," Brian Roberts says with characteristic ebullience.

Without naming names, he indicates that Comcast is considering various alliances, but not the outright sale or spinoff of its cable business.

A source outside Comcast spins one scenario: A long-distance carrier such as AT&T or MCI could invest in Teleport Communications Group--20%-owned by Comcast--which operates fiber-optic networks that link businesses in 30 communities to long-distance carriers.

Such a deal would enable the long-distance-carrier partner to re-establish direct contact with consumers, while funneling telephone expertise and money to cable companies as they upgrade their systems for two-way data and voice transmissions. (Teleport's other owners include Tele-Communications Inc., Continental Cablevision and Cox Enterprises; Time Warner has also announced plans to invest.)

Meanwhile, Comcast insists it can ride out the current rate-rollback storm.

It has about $500 million in cash at its disposal--the same amount once earmarked for QVC's failed bid for Paramount. The company has always tried to keep cash on hand so it can maneuver quickly without begging a bank's permission.

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