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For Steve Burke, Comcast job is the role of his life

The Comcast chief operating officer's resume and bloodlines prepare him for the task of making a union with NBC Universal work.

December 03, 2009|By Meg James

The Comcast executive also hews to a disciplined regime. He rises every morning at 5:15 a.m. to run about five miles, and has completed several marathons. He's in the office by 8 a.m. and usually home by 6:30 p.m., in time for dinner with his wife and five kids.

In his 12 years at Disney, Burke launched the company's Disney Stores retail business. He was sent overseas to shape up the troubled Euro Disney theme park before running ABC's television stations and network. For a while, Burke even had occupied his father's old office at ABC headquarters in New York.

But in 1998, Burke hung up his mouse ears to move to Philadelphia to take the job with Comcast. His co-workers, friends, wife and even his father questioned the career switch.

"Looks like a good job for your little brother," Dan Burke said, according to family lore.

Colleagues were stunned when Burke left Disney, said Sony Pictures Entertainment CEO Michael Lynton, who was recruited by Burke to join Disney in 1987.

"He was viewed as a potential successor to Michael Eisner. People thought he was destined to run the company, so when he left people asked, 'Why would Steve leave?' " Lynton said. But "he saw the opportunity to grow a business and he seized the moment."

Since Burke joined the company, Comcast has grown from offering TV service to 4 million customers into the nation's largest cable operator, with 24 million subscribers. It has also become the nation's largest Internet service provider, with 16 million customers, and the third-largest phone company, in addition to its cable and sports channels.

"I think he found a simpatico colleague in Brian Roberts," Lynton said.

Burke makes sure that he doesn't upstage Roberts, and credits his boss for major decisions. When headhunters have come dangling CEO jobs, including a recent overture by DirecTV, Burke declined.

Some have wondered why Burke seemed content to be the No. 2 when he could run his own show. But people close to him said that Burke learned firsthand that an entrenched deputy can wield enormous power.

One of Burke's early mentors at Disney was Frank Wells, Eisner's lieutenant who helped the company run smoothly until his death in a helicopter crash in 1994.

"My dad for 30 years was Tom Murphy's No. 2" at Capital Cities, William Burke explained. "For Steve, I think he wants to work for someone whom he respects rather than being concerned about who is No. 1 on the organizational chart. It is the ethos of 'do your work, do what's right for the company, and your opportunities will come from there.' "

meg.james@latimes.com

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