Money talks: Comcast’s Brian Roberts has an almost quenchless thirst for deals
One of Brian Roberts’s proudest moments came at Philadelphia University when he won a key squash fixture no-one expected him to against rivals Harvard.
He credits his victory to his coach, a fiery ex-marine called Al Molloy, whose instructions were: ‘This is the Harvard match. Do whatever you have to do to win.’
Such sanguine advice set the tone for much of his career. Media moguls don’t come much more competitive.
He is chairman and chief executive of Comcast, a once humble cable TV firm founded by his late father Ralph, which under his succession has swelled into a sprawling, multi-headed media beast comprising everything from TV to broadband, film production and theme parks.
With an almost quenchless thirst for deals, Roberts has spent 15 years embarking on gigantic acquisitions, buying big names such as AT&T broadband, Universal Pictures and broadcaster NBC.
Now in his crosshairs is Sky, for which Comcast has launched a surprise £22billion bid, threatening to gazump an original offer made by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox.
With Fox now expected to up its bid, the tussle looks set to make Game of Thrones look like an episode of Peppa Pig.
Ruthless and uncompromising he might be, with a megabucks £26million-a-year pay packet, but Roberts is a less daunting figure than rivals like Murdoch or Liberty Media’s John Malone.
He’s a dedicated family man for starters. Roberts has been married to wife Aileen for nearly 30 years.
They spend much of their time in Martha’s Vineyard, where they socialise with glitzy names like TV anchor Diane Sawyer and the Obamas.
The oldest of their three children, Tucker, 27, works in Comcast’s sports division and the plan, one assumes, is that the baton will also one day pass to him.
He is open and chatty with journalists and is blessed with a kind of folksy charm, which he deploys to great effect.
Empire: Roberts has spent 15 years embarking on gigantic acquisitions, buying big names such as AT&T broadband, Universal Pictures and broadcaster NBC
His quaint story about being persuaded to make a bid for Sky after chatting with a London cabbie this week was, say keen observers of his career, a classic Roberts manoeuvre.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, his mother had been an actress and his entrepreneur father originally sold men’s belts before pioneering America’s first cable TV company in the sixties.
One of five children, Brian was the only one who took any interest in the family business, beginning work there at 15, installing cable aerials in people’s homes.
After a brief flirtation with Wall Street upon graduation he chose to work full time with his father, whom he describes as both his mentor and best friend. Gradually, the old man turned over power to his son.
By 1990, aged 30, Brian became president; in 2002, chief executive, and in 2004, chairman.
The turning point in Comcast’s history came when Roberts met Bill Gates at a dinner in Washington. The pair bonded over their geeky passion for technology, and Roberts jokily asked the Microsoft mogul if he fancied investing his business.
Two days later, Gates said he wanted to take a $1billion stake. ‘It was a shot heard around the world,’ Roberts later remarked. That moment prompted the firm’s rapid expansion.
Away from business, he maintained a fierce squash game, competing in the Maccabiah games, the so-called Jewish Olympics, winning gold in 2005.
His main hobby these days is yachting. He owns a 35ft boat, Aileen, in which he’s regularly seen at the helm around Cape Cod, mixing it up with the local sailors.
The one black mark on his career has been a failed bid for Disney in 2004, a cack-handed move which left him with Donald Duck egg all over his face.
That it is Disney which stands to lose should Comcast nab Sky from under 21st Century Fox’s snout – Disney’s Bob Iger wishes to buy Fox outright eventually – will no doubt be a nice little bonus.
Roberts versus Murdoch versus Iger. Talk about a clash of the titans. How it will all end?
All we can be sure of is this: it is Roberts’s Harvard match. He will do whatever he has to do to win.