IT STARTED with marigolds.
Ralph Roberts' first business venture at the age of 7 was to dig up his mother's marigolds at their home in New Rochelle, N.Y., and sell them door-to-door to neighbors.
His mother was not pleased, which puzzled the boy.
"She had plenty of flowers," he recalled thinking, "so why not make a couple of bucks?"
Ralph J. Roberts, the founder of Comcast who died Thursday night at the age of 95, knew even in childhood that he wanted to be a businessman.
He turned into a pretty good one. Comcast is a multi-billion-dollar business that started humbly in 1963, but thrived on the growth of the cable TV business and the shrewd maneuverings of a leadership team headed by Roberts and eventually his son, Brian, building the company deal-by-deal until today it has total assets of $159.33 billion and is a leading provider of entertainment, informaton and communications products in the nation.
Before Comcast, Roberts ran a number of enterprises that included men's belts and suspenders, cologne and perfume, eggs, ink blotters, a bacon straightener and a golf putter. He also did a tour in the Navy in World War II, stationed at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
In addition to his obvious business acumen, Roberts was also simply a nice guy. He was a pleasure to work for because he was genuinely interested in his employees' welfare, and not just his employees. He was a great listener who always had time to talk and offer advice and help when needed, those who knew him say.
He could be tough when necessary, but when he showed up at meetings or to discuss a pending deal, dressed conservatively with his ever-present bow tie and a self-deprecating smile, it was often his patience and charm that won the day.
"I was never in any business I didn't enjoy," he once said. "Somehow or other, I found the fun parts."
The Roberts family said in a statement Friday: "Ralph was a remarkable man who touched the lives of so many people. He was a wonderful husband, father and grandfather and perhaps most importantly, a kind and humble human being. He will always be remembered for his generosity, integrity, honesty, kindness and respect for everyone around him. He was an inspiration to us all and we will miss him greatly."
Although Ralph's first effort at entrepreneurship ended badly at age 7, the experience left him with a sense of satisfaction, as well as a realization that he could do it.
He certainly had good genes. His father, Robert, a Jewish immigrant from Russia, was making a fortune with a chain of drug stores, with the flagship store in the Biltmore Hotel next to Grand Central Terminal in New York City.
One of the customers was the movie star Tom Mix, who bought a $100 bottle of perfume from Roberts Pharmacy, a lot of money in the 1930s.
Bob Roberts enjoyed his wealth. Family legend had it that when he took his wife, the former Sara Wahl, to the Metropolitan Opera, he bought three seats, one for her mink coat.
Ralph was driven to school by a chauffeur, and his memories of his childhood were close to idyllic. His parents - his mother was also a Russian immigrant - loved each other deeply and home life was comfortable and fun.
However, disaster struck when his father died on Feb. 18, 1933, of a heart attack. Ralph was 12 and the Great Depression was raging. His father had lost his fortune and, after his death, the family had to move into a small apartment in a less affluent neighborhood.
Ralph was in high school when he hit upon his next business venture. A private bus served residents of their apartment complex, and Ralph noted there was no schedule.
He checked with a printer and decided to produce bus schedules on which local businesses could advertise. He signed up half a dozen businesses and sold them advertising space on the schedules.
In 1936, the family moved to Germantown so that Sara could take care of her sister, Ida, who had cancer.
Ralph graduated from Germantown High School and went on to the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. While in college, he hit upon the idea of printing advertisements on ink blotters. He sold advertising to local retailers and had several thousand blotters printed.
He then discovered that Penn fraternities were paying too much for eggs. He borrowed his mother's Studebaker, traveled across the river and bought eggs in bulk from New Jersey farmers. He daily checked the price of eggs in newspapers and offered his customers discounts.
While still at Wharton, he took a job with a dairy and went door-to-door to convince housewives to switch to homogenized milk for a little more money. He was obviously a consummate salesman because 80 percent took the deal.
Ralph idolized his older brother, Joseph, who was a student at Columbia University and intended to be a writer. His younger sister, Shirley, was a student at Penn. Joseph died of cancer in 1972 at the age of 53.
Their mother died of uterine cancer in 1939.
Ralph joined an officer recruitment program at Wharton and when World War II broke out, he entered the Navy. He spent the war at the Navy shipyard, where he could watch ships, like the USS New Jersey, being built outside his office window.
He met his future wife, Suzanne Fleisher, an actress, in 1937 when he was 17 and she was 16. After some delays, including her initial rejection of his proposal, they were married in 1942. They later moved to Wyncote, Montgomery County, and eventually to a farm in Chester County.
After the war, Ralph was looking for something to do when he joined a friend, Carroll Stover, a Navy Yard engineer, in a company they called Altair. It was then they came up with the idea for the bacon straightener. But their best idea was for a new type of golf putter, in which the shaft would come down just behind the middle of the club's head.
When Ralph heard that Bob Hope, who was known to be passionate about golf, was appearing in Philadelphia, he waited at the stage door to see him. Hope agreed to pose for pictures with the new Centric Putter, giving Altair their best endorsement.
However, after traveling up and down the East Coast, successfully selling the putters at golf courses, Ralph discovered that the shafts bent like pretzels. It turned out the metal hadn't been sent out for proper heat treatment.
Altair ceased to exist and the partners took to the hills before the complaints started coming in.
That experience put Ralph's business interests on hold. He went to work for others.
He took a job with a Philadelphia advertising agency, which included the Muzak Corp. as one of its clients. Ralph captivated the Muzak executives when he came up with the idea of mixing safety tips with the music for factory workers.
In 1950, when he was 30, Ralph went to work for Muzak. He worked for William Benton, a former U.S. secretary of state and a future senator. Ralph liked Muzak, but when he heard that the Pioneer Suspender Co. in Darby was looking for an executive, he applied - for one major reason: He hoped to be able to buy the company someday.
When that opportunity arrived in 1954, Ralph took a loan from Philadelphia National Bank and one from his wife's brother, Bob Fleisher, and bought the company, then the second largest manufacturer of men's belts, behind Hickock.
Ralph promptly employed his flair for promotion by staging shows during Fashion Week in New York, including performances by Suzanne and others from the Philadelphia theater world, with songs like, "Braces Are a Man's Best Friend."
He also got into the fragrance business with a cologne called "Inferno," and a woman's perfume called "Entree" to start with.
One of his promotions was to get a jeweler to create a gold bottle for a cologne called Mark II with a shiny black cap and offer it for sale for $2,500, the purchase of which would entitle the buyer to a lifetime supply of the cologne. He hired a Pinkerton guard to stand next to the display in Saks Fifth Avenue in New York.
The promotion got a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal. Ralph never intended to sell a gold bottle of cologne, of course. It was just a gimmick. The product actually went for $3.50, although people could buy a simulated gold one for $7.50.
Ralph finally sold Pinoeer to Hickock. He hated to lay off his employees so he donated money to the International Ladies Garment Workers Union to provide severance pay for them.
One fall afternoon in 1962, Ralph was walking on Chestnut Street when there occurred one of those life-changing moments that happen when least expected. As Louis Pasteur said, "Chance favors the prepared mind."
Ralph was prepared.
As recounted in his biography, An Incredible Dream, by William Novak, Dan Aaron, a broker in the new community antenna television (CATV) business, and Pete Musser, half-owner of a CATV system in Tupelo, Miss., spotted Ralph. Musser told Dan, "Here comes our fish."
Musser, who owned the system with Milton Shapp's Jerrold Electronics, wanted out.
Ralph, then head of International Equity Corp., was looking for business opportunties and he heard something about CATV from Shapp, the future Pennsylvania governor. Shapp was convinced that CATV, soon to become cable television, had a great future.
People who lived in regions of the country that couldn't receive TV broadcasts clearly from nearby cities, were natural customers for cable.
Ralph, however, suspected that it was not an industry he would be interested in. He was quoted in Novak's book as saying, "Cable looked like the dullest business in the world for a man of my temperament."
Nevertheless, he listened to Aaron and Musser and after contacting some other cable owners to get their views, decided to buy the Tupelo system - but only if Dan was part of the deal.
Dan Aaron, a onetime business writer for the old Philadelphia Bulletin whose family had barely escaped Nazi Germany in the '30s, agreed. After taking a loan from his old friend Jack McDowell at Philadelphia National Bank and lining up some partners, Ralph bought the system on Nov. 13, 1963.
And the rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Ralph was operating out of a tiny office in Bala Cynwyd, and when a CPA named Julian Brodsky came aboard, there was no desk for him. He brought a card table and a folding chair from home.
The cable system in Tupelo - birthplace of Elvis Presley - had only about 1,500 customers. The second system the partners bought was in Laurel, Miss., headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan. From there, expansion was continuous and in 1972, the company, then called Comcast, went public.
Investors who bought 1,000 shares of Comcast in 1972 at the price of $7 a share, could have sold it for $3.4 million by 2011.
Comcast was run by the triumvirate of Ralph Roberts, Dan Aaron and Julian Brodsky for many years. They were referred to by associates as "the Boys."
"The three of them were a great team," Novak quoted Glenn Jones, an early cable entrepreneur, as saying. "They were a good composite of talents, and because they talked to each other all the time, their knowledge grew like a crystal."
Of course, Ralph made the final decisions and sometimes overrode his more cautious colleagues in making a deal, but not often.
Aaron died in 2003 of Parkinson's disease, and Brodsky retired in 2011.
"I could see from the beginning that Ralph was there for the long term," said Ted Turner, founder of the cable news network CNN. "He loved the business, and he struck me as a sold citizen who would still be there when they played the last song."
Ralph Roberts badly wanted to bring cable service to his adopted city of Philadelphia, and in 1984, Comcast was granted the cable franchise for the northeast quadrant of the city, after spending over $1 million on its various applications.
It created Comcast of Philadelphia to run it with 20 percent of its shares going to women and minorities, as demanded by City Council.
Over the next 20 years, Comcast acquired the other three quadrants, and today Philadelphia is an all-Comcast cable city.
Over the years, Comcast grew to become the nation's largest provider of cable and high-speed Internet services, runs the third largest phone company, owns Comcast Spectacor, owner of the Flyers and 76ers and the Wachovia Center, the NBC broadcast network, with its popular cable channels, a movie studio and theme parks, among other holdings.
Comcast has 24.1 million customers and 139,000 employees. Its gleaming headquarters building soars above John F. Kennedy Blvd., a far cry from the cramped quarters in Bala Cynwyd.
Since 1990, Comcast has been run by Brian L. Roberts, 55, the fourth of Ralph's five children and the only one interested in the business. Ralph named himself chairman, and, although he theoretically could have overriden his son's decisions, never did.
The great personal joy of Ralph Roberts' life was no doubt his marriage on Aug. 23, 1942, to Suzanne Fleisher, a former actress and playwright whose name adorns the Suzanne Roberts Theatre at 480 S. Broad St.
The Robertses bought a 143-acre farm in Chester County and restored the 18th century farmhouse. Su-Ral Farm, which includes stables for horses and other outbuildings, was featured in a five-page spread in Architectural Digest in 1994.
The Robertses had four other children, two daughters, Catherine and Lisa, a son, Ralph Jr. and a son, Douglas, who died in 2011.
Services are pending.
Donations may be made to either of the following
* Germantown Boys & Girls Club
25 W. Penn St.
Philadelphia, Pa. 19144
* United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey
1709 Benjamin Franklin Parkway
Philadelphia, Pa. 19103