The father of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts was also a founding father of the cable industry as he helped to build a system in Tupelo, Miss. into a global media power. The company says he died of natural causes last night in Philadelphia. He was 95.
“Ralph was a born entrepreneur, a visionary businessman, a philanthropist and a wonderful human being,” Comcast said in a statement. “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. He will be truly missed.”
The Roberts family, in a separate statement, called him “a remarkable man” who will be remembered for “his generosity, integrity, honesty, kindness and respect for everyone around him. He was an inspiration to us all and we will miss him greatly.” The family will have a private service, but plans a Remembrance Ceremony.
Liberty Media’s John Malone calls Roberts “a one-of-a-kind; consummate gentleman, businessman, father, husband. Friend to all who knew him. Most of all, I will miss the smile, the bow tie, and the gentle sense of humor.”
Another of his long-time colleagues, Cablevision founder Charles Dolan, said in a statement joined by CEO James and other family members that Roberts “was a giant not only in cable and entertainment but also in the modern history of American business…. He was our friend, we will miss him dearly.”
National Cable & Telecommunications Association CEO Michael Powell says that Roberts “built much of the cable industry with his own hands.” He calls the Comcast founder “a man of grace” who “showed us that you can succeed, while remaining warm, kind and generous to others.”
Roberts ended up in cable by happenstance after he graduated from the Wharton School, and served a stint in the Navy. For a time he sold golf clubs, cologne, Muzak, and men’s apparel — his company was No. 2 in men’s belts and accessories before he sold it, fearful that it would be made obsolete by Sansabelt clothing. Looking for a new venture, in 1963 he bought a Tupelo cable system at a time when the technology was mostly used to extend the reach of broadcast TV stations to rural communities.
Believing in the power of the technology, he picked up other systems which provided the foundation for Comcast — a name he derived by blending the words “communications” and “broadcasting.” In the mid-1980s Roberts signaled his growing ambitions with an unsuccessful $2.5 billion bid for Storer Communications. Later Comcast joined a consortium that bought the Westinghouse systems.
He also invested in programming ventures including QVC. Comcast contributed $5 million to the cable industry’s bailout of Ted Turner when his programming company was sinking in debt He named Brian the company president in 1990. The son who liked to say that he always aspired to work for “dad’s business,” became CEO in 2002.