Remembering Ralph Roberts

Lipson: The Comcast founder was a gentleman — and a fierce competitor.


Ralph Roberts | Comcast

Ralph Roberts | Comcast

I heard about the passing of Ralph Roberts on CNBC on satellite radio today. My thoughts immediately went to Brian and the entire Comcast family. It is a family whose culture and mores were imprinted by the man who founded the company many years ago.

I met Mr. Roberts on a number of occasions and was always struck by his gentlemanly demeanor. There is a word in Yiddish that best describes him – “Hamish” –a man who is unpretentious, warm and loving. And he was the best example I know of the advice attributed to Boston Celtics hall of famer Red Auerbach: “Dress British Think Yiddish.”  He always wore a properly fitted suit and bow tie.

But he was a tough competitor as well. 

I remember being at a wedding in another prominent Philadelphian’s home and I was following Mr. Roberts into the party. He noticed that there was a satellite dish partially hidden by a shrub. He instinctively ripped off a piece of the shrub and threw it at the dish. I’m certain he thought that no one saw him, as I was right behind him. No damage was caused but the symbolism was huge. As big as Comcast had grown, he was always in the hunt for more market share.

Mr. Roberts loved Philadelphia. Comcast could have placed their headquarters anywhere in the country or built a campus in the tax-advantaged suburbs. Instead, he planted the Comcast flag proudly in the center of town.  What’s more, as I have watched many proud Philadelphia business institutions evaporate in a cloud of mergers and acquisitions and often greed, Comcast continues to invest, grow and remain independent.

The gift Mr. Roberts has given us is something Philadelphians rarely get: The sense that we can accomplish something great. Too often we think of ourselves as a city that can’t be on top or world-class. He has shown us, that with a little humility and a lot of hard work, our city is limited by our own imagination.

David Lipson is the Chairman and CEO of Metrocorp, the parent company of Philadelphia magazine.