The last time we ranked the most powerful people in Philadelphia, in November 2009, Brian Roberts came in at a solid but not spectacular number 11. The book on Roberts was that he used his clout to run his company and not necessarily to influence life in the city.
So what’s happened in four and a half years that’s vaulted him to the top of our list? Simple: Comcast is vastly larger, more powerful and more ambitious than it was then — a reflection of Roberts’s growing vision for the company.
Since acquiring control of NBC Universal in 2011, Comcast has become one of the world’s most prominent and profitable media conglomerates, with interests in everything from Internet service and home security to movies, TV production and theme parks. And its momentum shows no sign of stopping. In February the company announced its intention to buy Time Warner Cable, which — if the sale is approved by the FCC and the Justice Department — would give it control of 30 percent of all U.S. cable and Internet markets. Perhaps more importantly for Philadelphia, the company also announced plans to build a second office tower in Center City — this one designed by renowned architect Norman Foster. (Ground will be broken this summer on the new building, which will bring 6,300 temporary construction jobs and 2,800 permanent positions to Center City.)
Philly Mag editor Tom McGrath talked with Roberts, 54, about the state of the company, plans for the new building, and how Philadelphia’s fate is now entwined with that of its most high-profile corporation.
With the focus on innovation and technology, your new building seems to be a statement about where Comcast is headed as well as a major commitment to Philadelphia. Does it feel that way to you? It does. Initially the project was started by simply … we’re out of space, which is hard to imagine. We’re always careful not to get ahead of ourselves, but we have a thousand employees who work in downtown Philadelphia who don’t have an office in the Comcast Center. And so the project began purely out of space needs. Once we started to discuss what we would build, that’s when I felt we should try to think about what the company’s needs are going to be. Where is the growth coming from? And a lot of that growth is around innovation and technology.
And that raised the question: Should we build that in Philadelphia? And the answer is, we think we can successfully recruit and attract the talent, and retain the talent, and do something that perhaps no one is doing anywhere in the country — build a vertical campus, and have the newest part of the campus be completely different from the last building and give it its own personality and sense of purpose.
Ten years ago, Comcast was mostly a cable company. After the NBC Universal acquisition, you became a cable and content company. How do you see yourselves going forward? We’ve thought about that question a lot, and with the help of [chief communications officer] D’Arcy Rudnay, we have a real definition. We view ourselves uniquely at the crossroads of media and technology. We are helping to create news, entertainment, sports, broadband, connectivity for homes and businesses, new advertising platforms. There are other news and sports and media companies, and there are other cable companies, and there are people who only focus on phone and wireless. Our company has the opportunity to touch all of those spaces here and, hopefully in the future, around the world.