Brian Roberts' Jewish Roots and Outsized Ambition Drive Comcast's Rise in Media

Philadelphia Cable Guy Builds Family Business Into Empire

Cable Guy: Brian Roberts took over his father’s Philadelphia business and turned into a major player in the media world.
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Cable Guy: Brian Roberts took over his father’s Philadelphia business and turned into a major player in the media world.

By Nathan Guttman

Published March 02, 2014, issue of March 07, 2014.

(page 2 of 3)

Of the couple’s five children, Brian Roberts was the only one to take an interest in the family business and the relationship he developed with his father is still considered unique. Brian Roberts, who considers his father a mentor and his closest business partner, started visiting the Comcast offices at the age of 13, poring through annual reports and documents. In high school, he spent recess reading the Wall Street Journal, and after graduating from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, he asked his father if he could join the business. Ralph Roberts sent the designated heir to start from the bottom, selling cable subscriptions door to door and climbing cable poles. But by the age of 30, Brian Roberts was already CEO.

His focus has always been on business, with one clear exception: squash. Roberts’s love for the sport has also been his sole public manifestation of his Jewish identity, using a squash racquet to express his closeness to other Jews and to Israel.

Roberts made his first visit to Israel for the 1981 Maccabiah Games. Four years later, again representing the United States at squash, he proposed to his future wife Aileen Kennedy in Israel, and in later years both of their daughters played in the Maccabiah Games.

“We are a mixed marriage, so our kids were raised with a little less Judaism than I was raised with,” Roberts said in video produced by Maccabi USA, “and so I was always looking for a way to connect them in a way that felt natural.”

He recalled that his daughters were moved by the symbolic bat mitzvah ceremony held for young Maccabiah participants, prompting the family to decide to “have a normal bar mitzvah for [their] son.” The world of Jewish athletics, Roberts added, “really played a very meaningful role in helping us go through some very complicated and personal issues.”

It also left Roberts with a gold medal and three silver ones from the five times he participated. “These are the only things he has hanging in his office,” said Jed Margolis, executive director of Maccabi USA. Roberts donated squash courts in Ra’anana, Israel and has supported Maccabi USA, hosting the recent send-off party for athletes on the rooftop of Comcast’s Philadelphia headquarters.

“He has a real strong affinity to Israel,” said David Pudlin, a Philadelphia lawyer and Roberts’s squash partner, “and he is a great squash player.”

Described by all as low key and media shy, both calculated and aggressive, Roberts has led Comcast into a series of acquisitions and mergers that have turned the family business into a media giant. The company took over the shopping TV channel QVC, then a chunk of AT&T broadband subscribers, and in 2009 bought the majority holding of NBCUniversal.

According to Forbes Magazine, Roberts’s net worth reached $1 billion last year. His philanthropic giving spans many local and national charities; one of the highlights of his efforts was providing the funding to restore a synagogue located in the historic Eastern State Penitentiary. Donations by Ralph and Brian Roberts allowed the synagogue, which was used in the past by Jewish inmates, to open to visitors in 2009. It was named after Alfred Fleisher, Brian Roberts’s maternal grandfather, who founded the Jewish house of worship while serving as president of the prison’s board of trustees.



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