Ralph Roberts, who over decades turned a tiny Tupelo, Mississippi cable operation into the communications titan that Comcast is today, has died at age 95. In a press release, the company announced that Roberts — who had been serving as chairman emeritus since 2002 — died of natural causes. "Ralph was a born entrepreneur, a visionary businessman, a philanthropist and a wonderful human being," Comcast said. "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." His son, Brian Roberts, is Comcast's current chairman and CEO.
Ralph Roberts graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in 1941, and from there entered a four-year tour of duty in the US Navy. Before Comcast became his life's work, Roberts led careers in advertising and also became chief executive of a successful men's clothing manufacturer, according to his company biography.
But it was Roberts' voyage into a then-nascent cable business that proved his smartest business decision. He acquired Tulepo's American Cable Systems, which had 1,200 subscribers, for $500,000 in 1963. A few years later in 1969, Comcast was officially incorporated and, through a series of expansions and acquisitions, began building out what would become a cable, voice, and internet empire.
Major victories included Comcast's purchase of AT&T's cable business in 2002, which cemented its spot atop the US cable market with (at the time) 21 million total customers. To get a sense of its growth, Comcast now serves that many broadband customers alone. Roberts witnessed his company's 2011 acquisition of NBCUniversal (he made a triumphant appearance at 30 Rock celebrating that deal's closure), but also the failure of another ambitious business deal; Comcast's attempted takeover of Time Warner Cable was called off in April.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler offered kind words for Roberts. In a statement, he said, "Ralph Roberts was a pioneer, an entrepreneur and a good man. It was my privilege to know, work with, and learn from Ralph. He has left a lasting legacy on the communications landscape of America." Roberts is survived by Suzanne, his wife of over 70 years, along with four children and eight grandchildren, according to Comcast.
Disclosure: Comcast Ventures is an investor in Vox Media, The Verge's parent company.