Comcast: Not your traditional Phila. firm It's big and bold - a fierce competitor.

Posted: December 13, 2009

Philadelphia is home to many big, old companies, but few big, bold companies.

Companies that can measure their histories in centuries, not decades, but whose growth days are over.

Familiar corporate names have faded from the city's scene - moved, merged, or mothballed. Far too often, its largest companies have been acquisition targets. Think Rohm & Haas Co., a venerable Philadelphia corporate giant that actually went to court to force its sale to rival Dow Chemical Co.

That is why Comcast Corp. seems so not Philadelphia. It is confident and strong enough to negotiate with much-larger General Electric Co. to win control of NBC Universal Inc. It saw Walt Disney Co. as a good fit for its strategy, not the other way around.

Comcast thinks bigger than any other enterprise in this region. Brian L. Roberts and his management team are considered tough negotiators and fierce competitors. You know a company has made its mark in the top ranks of corporate America when consumer advocates, regulators, lawmakers, and a host of competitors draw a big target on it.

In Philadelphia, Comcast is that company.

Steven Wray, president of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, said the region probably has not seen a similarly ambitious, innovative company since early in the last century. He mentioned Rohm & Haas and Sun Oil Co. as homegrown corporations that grew into giants after developing groundbreaking technology for products everyone used: paint, in the case of Rohm & Haas; fuels for what is now Sunoco.

"Is Comcast one of those companies that comes to define an image of a region?" he asked.

Given that the joint venture being established by Comcast and GE to own NBC Universal will not receive regulatory blessing for at least a year, the deal announced Dec. 3 does not mean anything tangible right now.

But it is the intangibles that have so tantalized the governor, the mayor, and everyone else who watches TV and goes to the movies.

Asked about the Comcast-NBCU deal the day it was announced, Gov. Rendell lauded the "prestige" it would bring to the city and the state.

"It's a little bit like Coca-Cola in Atlanta," Rendell told reporters at a news conference. "It's a signature company in the world, and for it to be based in Pennsylvania is terrific."

Mayor Nutter issued a statement in which he congratulated Comcast for "this very exciting development for the corporation and for the entire city." He went on to praise Comcast founder Ralph J. Roberts; his son, Brian, the chief executive; and executive vice president David L. Cohen as "great business and philanthropic leaders."

On a chilly afternoon in Center City, such magnanimity was not on the minds of about a dozen people interviewed. For most, it was the sizable amount of their monthly cable or Internet service bills, and the knowledge that those will not get any smaller.

Lynne Miller of Philadelphia said buying NBC Universal may be good for Comcast, but she would like to get back some of the money she has spent on Comcast's services over the years.

Carla Downs, also of Philadelphia, said she hoped Comcast's ownership of NBCU would boost the city's image, but she is concerned about any large corporation getting even larger.

J.P. Gerhold, who recently started a shipping business with his wife, Elizabeth, in Bala Cynwyd, was more enthusiastic, because he said he believed the deal would mean more business and jobs locally. So did Jerry Olinik, an Aramark retiree who lives in Hatboro.

What effect, really, will this transaction have on Philadelphia? NBCU will not relocate from New York, after all. Universal Studios will stay in Los Angeles.

In the end, what may be more important is that Comcast's executives pledge to keep Philadelphia its headquarters after the deal closes, unlike the denouement of so many other transactions.

Sellers, not buyers

Philadelphia has experience with multibillion-dollar acquisitions involving corporations based here. But the local company usually is the prey, not the predator.

Several big-name local companies were scooped up in the 1990s: Scott Paper Co. was bought by Kimberly-Clark Corp. in 1995; the biggest Philadelphia-based bank, CoreStates Financial Corp., was bought by First Union Corp. in 1998; Philadelphia's Conrail was carved up between Northern Southern and CSX Corp. in 1999.

Even the biggest companies birthed by a new generation of entrepreneurs wound up with "sold" signs on them. Begun in 1976, managed-care insurer U.S. Healthcare Inc. was bought by Aetna Inc. for about $9 billion in 1996. Started in 1973, Commerce Bancorp Inc. was bought by TD Bank N.A. for $7.1 billion in 2008. Centocor Inc. (circa 1979) was bought by Johnson & Johnson for $4.9 billion in 1999.

The good news is those transactions did not mean the end of all local operations. Aetna continues to have a big presence in Montgomery County. There are TD Bank branches all over. And what is now called Centocor Ortho Biotech has never been bigger, in fact.

But the CEOs of the merged companies sit in places like Hartford, Conn.; Toronto; and New Brunswick, N.J., not Center City.

Comcast got its start in 1969, but its meteoric growth is a recent phenomenon. Twenty years ago, when Brian Roberts was promoted to president, Comcast had revenue of more than $500 million and was just one of many players in cable television. By last year, revenue hit $34 billion, and the company was the biggest provider of cable and high-speed Internet services.

When the Economy League's Wray talks about companies defining their regions, that can be for good or ill. Seattle lost Boeing Co. when the aircraft and defense giant moved its headquarters to Chicago. Though it was a blow to Seattle's ego, its image has been defined in recent years more by Microsoft Corp. and Starbucks Corp., whose products brought a "cool factor" to Seattle itself, Wray said.

Coolness - an intangible if ever there were one - has been largely missing from the Philadelphia corporate community. Nearly everyone interviewed for this article said they hoped Philadelphia would get an image boost from Comcast's being the parent company of the NBC broadcast network, popular cable channels, a movie studio, and theme parks.

The team at the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. said the city had already gotten some benefit from being Comcast's hometown. Tourists actually plan visits to the Comcast Center, which looms slick and silvery above the rest of the skyline. Many come for the massive, street-level video wall. Only the Liberty Bell gets more page views on the tourism group's Web site, said spokesman Jeff Guaracino.

Past and present

The bookends of Philadelphia corporate power can be found on two blocks along John F. Kennedy Boulevard. Built in 1930, the Suburban Station building, between 16th and 17th Streets, served as the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Railroad until 1957. Across 17th Street, soaring between JFK and Arch Street, is the Comcast Center, completed in 2007.

During the mid-1930s, the Pennsylvania Railroad was the largest and richest U.S. railroad connecting people and freight from one point to another. The rail network employed 100,000 people and stretched from New York to Chicago to St. Louis to Washington, D.C. It was powerful, aggressive, wealthy - and it was Philadelphia's. By the 1940s, however, the century-old railroad was in decline; it finally went bankrupt in 1970.

Comcast is the Philadelphia company that connects businesses and consumers now, using a different kind of network. It is the nation's biggest provider of cable TV and high-speed Internet services. It runs the nation's third-largest phone company. All told, it employs 100,000 and shows no signs of being in decline.

Comcast employs just over 11,000 in the 10-county region. It also owns Comcast Spectacor L.P., the parent company of the Philadelphia 76ers and the Flyers, the Wachovia Center, and the soon-to-be-demolished Wachovia Spectrum. The company said its charitable contributions were more than $14 million in the first 11 months of 2009.

But there are those in the business community who wonder why Brian Roberts is not more visible.

Executive vice president Cohen defends his boss by saying that Brian Roberts creates an environment in which service to the local community is expected and encouraged. It is one reason Cohen is the chairman of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, the biggest business-advocacy group in the area. It is why Steve Burke, Comcast's chief operating officer, is chairman of the board of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"Brian's vision and his tenaciousness" pushed Comcast from a regional to a national company, said Cohen. "In my opinion, that's the kind of leader that he is, focused on his best skill, which is building the company."

Comcast's size and influence are so considerable now that it is easy to forget where the company came from. Twenty years ago, it had about 3,000 employees and revenue of $562 million.

"If we had more corporate leaders like Brian Roberts, this town's corporate landscape would look a lot different than it does today," said Cohen, who joined Comcast seven years ago.

The Roberts family is committed to keeping Comcast in the city, Cohen said, repeating a story from the talks over Comcast's purchase of AT&T Broadband in 2001. During those discussions, Ralph Roberts said moving the headquarters from Philadelphia was nonnegotiable.

"I remember feeling proud and fortunate that the company was as committed to its Philadelphia roots," Cohen said.

In Philadelphia, the long-term trend has been the loss of corporate headquarters. Comcast's is staying put. Though TV studios will not pop up along Market Street, Comcast will add jobs over time here. For example, Cohen said that Comcast would assume the internal audit and tax functions for NBC Universal, and that work would be done in Philadelphia.

Likely to attract the paparazzi? No.

But Thomas G. Morr, president and CEO of Select Greater Philadelphia, would rather have more companies that have the ambition to grow. Morr runs an arm of the Chamber of Commerce that markets the region to new employers. Comcast's pursuit of NBC Universal is clearly much more palatable to him than Pfizer Inc.'s acquisition of Wyeth, which employed more than 5,000 in the region.

"For the community, it will be some time before we see how it works out," Morr said, referring to Pfizer, which is cutting jobs here.

And it will take years before the region knows how Comcast's purchase of NBC Universal works out. The deal is being compared to America Online's purchase of Time Warner Inc., which turned out to be a flat-out disaster.

Cohen is amused that people are congratulating him on NBC Universal, because the deal is not done yet. "We've only gotten to the launching pad," he said.

That is a remarkable place to be, compared with where many other Philadelphia giants ended up.

Contact staff writer Mike Armstrong at 215-854-2980 or marmstrong@phillynews.com.

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