Is this a good time to talk?" Brian Roberts asks. The CEO of Comcast, the largest cable company in the U.S., is on the phone for a quick interview before jetting off to meet with investors and pitch his latest gambit: a $66 billion hostile takeover of the Walt Disney Co.
He had just asked that very question, after a fashion, of Disney CEO Michael Eisner. "I asked Michael, did he see a scenario where we can do this together?" Roberts recalls of their phone conversation. He won't characterize the rest of their chat, although you don't have to be an Imagineer to know Eisner's answer. So Roberts, polite as ever, precipitated a takeover brawl that has Wall Street investment bankers and Hollywood power players salivating: the Cable Guy from Philadelphia vs. the Monarch of the Magic Kingdom. For Roberts, who started his career selling subscriptions door to door for his father's fledgling cable company, it is the boldest move of a 23-year run at Comcast. And it threatens the reign of Eisner, one of the information age's legendary moguls. "He will not go down without a fight," says Joe Roth, former chairman of Walt Disney Studios.
Eisner, 61, took over a doddering Disney in 1984 and made it spout money. But since 1996, Disney has been sputtering. Eisner's outsize compensation, his somnolent board of directors and poor performances at ABC and Disney's theme parks and animation business have made him a target. Eisner's micromanaging style, imperious mien and inability to groom a successor--all perfectly acceptable when you're coining money--are now liabilities. Chief dissident Roy Disney, the founder's nephew, has called for his head, and Institutional Shareholders Services, an influential investor-advisory group, has recommended that its clients withhold their vote for Eisner at the company's annual shareholders' meeting next month.
Roberts, 44, keeps his ego in check and his checkbook handy. The trim, bespectacled executive is renowned as a shrewd bargain hunter and corporate strategist. "He's one of the most likable people, but whoever sits on the other side of the bargaining table should have a healthy dose of fear," says Terry McGuirk, vice chairman of Turner Broadcasting and a longtime friend. Roberts, an all-American squash player at the University of Pennsylvania, has a "black belt in strategy," says McGuirk.
That was certainly evident 15 months ago when Roberts bought AT&T's cable assets for $51 billion and promptly turned them from an albatross into a moneymaker. He recaptured or replaced subscribers lost under AT&T management in 2002, boosted operating cash flow and upgraded the systems to make high-definition television available to more than 80% of subscribers ahead of schedule. With $18.3 billion in revenues in 2003, Comcast bills 21.5 million cable subscribers each month (out of 40 million potential customers in the areas it services) and, after unloading its stake in the QVC home-shopping network for $7.9 billion, has a balance sheet healthy enough to go at Disney.