When Brian Roberts attended college 30 years ago, the most important things in life were a television, a book, a friend, and a beer.
Today, Roberts suggests the most important things in a college student’s life include a mobile device, a personal computer, the Internet, friends, and online social networks.
In speaking to a packed audience of graduate students at the Tepper School of Business, Roberts — the chairman and chief executive officer of Comcast Corp. — predicted that tomorrow’s college student will find indispensability in items yet unseen.
“The things that will be most important to them when they’re in college don’t exist yet,” he said. “There’s no doubt that the pace of that change has never been faster.”
Yet Roberts, who was named one of America’s top CEOs for six consecutive years by Institutional Investor magazine, has made a career out of betting on change.
Addressing the audience as part of the school’s W.L. Mellon Speaker Series, Roberts recalled the time he and Mark Coblitz, MSIA 1982 and senior vice president of strategic planning, caught their first glimpse of high-definition televisions while on a trip to Japan. The sets cost $30,000 — far out of reach for the average consumer. Believing high-definition programming was still a long-range proposition, Comcast decided instead to invest heavily in data, building its fiber optics business to expand its channel capacity so the cable company could compete with satellite providers.
Several skeptics scoffed at the idea of a cable television company moving into the Internet provider business. But one early supporter was Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who invested in the expansion and quadrupled his money. (“There’s a reason he’s Bill Gates,” Roberts told the audience.)
Today, Internet service is Comcast’s biggest business, and Roberts believes that “wired is going to remain relevant in a wireless world.” Nonetheless, the company still is moving into the wireless space by aligning with a group of wireless have-nots, such as Sprint and Intel, to compete with heavy-hitters AT&T and Verizon.
Envisioning where the world will be in five years, Comcast has rolled out “Project Infinity,” which seeks to provide consumers the ability to watch any movie, television show, user-generated content, or other video on demand to whatever device they choose.
Roberts told the audience he believes the project will distinguish Comcast from all competitors.
“Our view is the world’s changing. We can lead this technological revolution,” he said.
The company also recently announced plans to merge with NBC/Universal, but structured the deal to buy only 51 percent as a safeguard against failure.
Roberts’ advice to the graduate students was simple: “Take a risk. And you’ve got to create a culture in the company that if you fail, it’s OK,” he said.
Paraphrasing a philosophy espoused by the legendary General Electric CEO Jack Welch, he said: “All this analysis has to end. At some point, someone has to take a swing.”