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Comcast Strives to Stay Just Folks

Executives at the U.S.' biggest pay-TV company see a family atmosphere as key to its success.

November 17, 2003|Sallie Hofmeister | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — Ralph Roberts, the 83-year-old chairman and co-founder of Comcast Corp., has his own bobblehead doll.

In the cable company's workaday world of engineers, technicians and customer service representatives, the soft-spoken pay-TV pioneer is the equivalent of a rock star. He routinely gets standing ovations at company events. Employees want his autograph and compete for his bobblehead.

When Roberts visited the Denver office last week, employees surprised him with a cake shaped like his trademark bow tie to commemorate Comcast's 40th anniversary.

"The feeling that it's a family company is a feeling we should try to keep," says the white-haired Roberts, one of the only cable pioneers still in the industry after a decade-long consolidation.

Today, Roberts and his 44-year-old son, Brian, who runs the company from its headquarters here, are on a mission to preserve Comcast's folksy culture in the face of speeding growth.

One year ago today, Comcast became the nation's largest pay-TV provider through the audacious $51-billion merger it executed with its much bigger rival AT&T Broadband.

Overnight, the company tripled in size to 21 million subscribers, or 1 in every 4 U.S. pay-TV households, including 500,000 in Los Angeles. Comcast also absorbed 35,000 AT&T employees, a workforce that dwarfed its own 20,000 people.

The merger stands out amid the wreckage of media mega-deals gone awry -- most notably America Online's union with Time Warner and Vivendi's marriage with Universal Studios.

Comcast is a year ahead of the turnaround schedule it promised investors after buying AT&T's troubled cable properties. It has so quickly paid down the $30 billion in debt it assumed in the merger that Comcast's balance sheet is stronger today than at any time in its history, analysts say.

Comcast's stock price has nearly doubled in the last year, making the company more valuable on Wall Street than media giants twice its size, such as Viacom Inc. and Walt Disney Co. Its shares closed Friday at $31.72, down 10 cents, on Nasdaq. At the same time, Comcast has averted a potential culture clash between AT&T's top-heavy and hidebound traditions and its own lean, decentralized and entrepreneurial approach. The key was communication.

In February, senior Comcast executives -- including father and son -- departed on a 90-day whistle-stop tour of the 16 largest former AT&T cable markets to roll out the Comcast name. They held massive rallies for employees tailored to each city.

In Chicago, 4,150 employees piled into the Aria Crowne Auditorium to hear the top executives followed by R&B singer Chaka Khan. In Seattle, 2,750 employees went to a fashion show at the Tacoma Dome Expo, where Comcast uniforms were modeled and repainted trucks driven on stage.

The 1,400 Los Angeles employees and their spouses spent an evening at the California Science Center, previewing the Titanic exhibit and hobnobbing with Hollywood celebrities lined up by Comcast's E! Entertainment Television cable channel.

"Keeping the intimacy and the small-family feeling -- it's a major priority," said Chief Executive Brian Roberts, who is widely viewed as a mogul in the making. "If you get it right with employees, then you're going to win those new customers, invent those new products, meet your financial goals."

At the rallies, the former AT&T employees got a sneak peek at Comcast's new advertising campaign before it was rolled out to the public. The ads, introducing Comcast into the former AT&T markets, featured five-time Tour de France winner and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, hard at work, pedaling his bicycle. He intones: "No one will give you respect. You have to earn it."

Comcast officials say they didn't want AT&T customers to think their new cable provider was cocky.

"We didn't want some James Earl Jones voice of God saying, 'Aren't we great?' " said Comcast Cable President Stephen Burke, who cycles in his spare time. "We wanted someone who had overcome obstacles, who was not a flash in the pan, to signal customers we would be there day in and day out."

Comcast is plotting its next move, with Roberts eyeing ownership of more of the entertainment carried on Comcast's cable systems. The company already owns the Philadelphia 76ers, several regional sports channels, E!, Outdoor Life and Golf.

Wall Street and industry speculation has focused on a possible acquisition of ESPN's owner, Walt Disney Co., although Comcast executives say privately that the Burbank entertainment giant is too troubled and would take a hostile takeover to land.

Not that Comcast is averse to hardball tactics, despite the friendly image it attempts to convey. Its first run at AT&T was hostile, and the company has used its new clout to shave $270 million in fees it pays programmers.

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