The Cable Guy
Art Block has been structuring deals for Comcast since 1978
Published in 2009 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine
on May 21, 2009
Updated on June 11, 2009
It had only been one week of billable hours, introductory meetings and pressed suits when Art Block, fresh out of the University of Michigan Law School, landed the account that would determine his professional career.
Sitting in his office at Philadelphia’s now-defunct WolfBlock (no relation), the nascent lawyer caught the attention of a partner pacing the halls looking for a new associate. “That partner was a slob,” says Block, who today is senior vice president, general counsel and secretary for Comcast Corporation. “He’d made the mistake the year before of picking an associate who was also a slob. If you’re going to be a hurricane lawyer, you need an anal-compulsive lawyer on your team or things fall through the cracks. He picked the wrong guy and he realized it, so he said to himself, ‘I need a different associate. I need someone who’s going to catch my mistakes.'”
That someone was Block, who only had a few pieces of paper on his desk, but the partner noticed they lay at perfect right angles. “He said, ‘I don’t know who you are, but you’re going to work with me on the Comcast account,'” says Block, recalling that fateful encounter in September 1978. He waves to his current desk in a corner office on the 52nd floor of the Comcast Tower. Not one errant paper escapes the neat checkerboard of piles. “That’s why I’m sitting here today,” he says.
Well, that and a few other things, including an aptitude for dealmaking and navigating complex transactions that crescendoed in 2000 with Comcast’s aggressive bid for AT&T Broadband. The acquisition brought its customer base from 8.5 million to more than 21 million, effectively crowning Comcast king of cable.
Block’s lofty perch atop Philly’s newest, highest skyscraper is a steep upgrade from the company’s headquarters in 1989, when he became the fourth member of its in-house legal team. The cluttered array of mismatched carpets and uneven desks was not exactly the picture of a company on its way up. In fact, soon after he moved in, Block nearly perished beneath a teetering filing cabinet.
Nonetheless, he was thrilled to be a part of the team. He had previously spent more than a decade at WolfBlock, where, by the end of his tenure, he devoted 75 percent of his time to structuring deals for the cable company. “Comcast was starting to grow like crazy through acquisitions,” he says. “I just showed up when the client’s demands for legal services were going through the roof.” In 1986, Comcast doubled its size by purchasing a 26 percent stake in Group W Cable and became a founding investor in the QVC home shopping network. In 1988, the company bought a 50 percent share in Storer Communications Inc. and acquired American Cellular Network Corp. for $250 million.
“I knew from the first day I met Art that he was the type of lawyer we needed,” says Ralph Roberts, who founded Comcast in 1963 by investing in a small cable operation in Tupelo, Miss. “As a lawyer at WolfBlock, he did not just provide strict legal direction on our transactions. He always took matters an extra step and weighed factors that made business sense for Comcast.”
Block remembers meeting Roberts on a train ride to New York City as a first-year associate. They were en route to meet with the Estée Lauder family about a possible partnership when it came up that Block had never been to Manhattan. “Some other client would have said, ‘WolfBlock is fired, how could they send someone like this with me on a real business matter?'” Instead, Roberts bought the young attorney an “I Love New York” T-shirt at Penn Station before returning to Philadelphia.
It was his initiation into a company whose familial culture he admired. He fondly recalls receiving Comcast’s five-year employee award when he wasn’t technically an employee. Even so, he couldn’t help but feel like an outsider looking in. “I’d work my butt off to close a deal and then we’d all go out,” he says, “but the bottom line was I wasn’t part of their business. I couldn’t talk their language. And I really didn’t like the feeling of being that hired gun where I didn’t feel like I was part of what was growing.”
By the late ’80s, Block had fulfilled his mother’s checklist for his future: graduate from magnet school Central High, matriculate to the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, attend a top-ranked law school and make partner at WolfBlock, the most brag-worthy Jewish firm in the city. Growing up in Mount Airy in the 1950s, he points out, this was all predetermined. “There’s this saying that was actually very true for me,” he says, “It goes, ‘What’s the definition of a lawyer? It’s a Jewish boy who can’t stand the sight of blood.'”
Seeing his father struggle to keep the family furniture store afloat also nudged him toward a professional path. He watched as Block’s Furniture, his father’s shop on Kensington Avenue, began to bow under competition from department stores. “I remember my father coming home Saturday night after collection day and he would have a bag full of one- and five-dollar bills, and he would stack them up on the table,” he says. “I would look at my mother’s face to see if it was a good week or a bad week.”
Life grew more difficult after Block’s father died suddenly from a heart attack a month before his son’s bar mitzvah. Still, Block studied and worked his way to the University of Michigan Law School, where he discovered that he wasn’t destined for the courtroom. The adversarial nature of litigation turned him off. “That’s not my personality,” he says. “I didn’t want to spend my days fighting.”
During the lunch hour on the Michigan campus, future litigators would debate Supreme Court decisions while the non-litigators discussed football. Block gravitated toward the latter group. In litigation, he points out, there’s always one winner and one loser. In business, both sides can win—and then the lawyers take each other out to dinner. “Winning isn’t what makes me feel good about myself,” he says. “It’s coming up with a solution that creates something productive and positive as an outcome.”
So it was no surprise that Block developed a niche in corporate transactions. When he was offered a permanent place on the Comcast team years later, his mother wasn’t so sure about his decision to leave an established firm for a public company. “She said, ‘It’s OK as long as you become the president,'” Block says, smiling.
Her reservations were understandable—in fact, they were shared by the general public. “It was the mindset until relatively recently,” he says, “that in-house lawyers were the less smart, less successful lawyers and that maybe the people who can’t get jobs in the big law firms end up in corporations.” Some questioned his move outright. Block trusted his instincts.
“What’s great about Comcast for me and for my lawyers in-house is that we are valued,” he says. “We’re not seen—as I think lawyers are in many in-house environments—as negatives. Businesspeople see lawyers as overhead. They’re cost. They’re a necessary evil, because the world has necessary evils like regulations and litigation, but they don’t see them as potential contributors to move their business forward.”
Conversely, senior management has always invited Block to participate in brainstorming growth strategies and to helm acquisitions and mergers. This has added up to many highlights during his 30 years as counsel for Comcast, but he names without hesitation the one that was the most fun: managing the company’s 1996 acquisition of the Philadelphia Flyers and Sixers. The deal started with a call from Roberts asking him to look into a mysterious message he’d received about signing a nondisclosure agreement about a possible purchase. Block went to see about the call and ended up not only handling the deal but convincing senior management at Comcast that buying the two teams—and with them, the rights to broadcast Flyers and Sixers games in a region known for its zealous sports fans—was the right move.
If the Sixers-Flyers acquisition was the most fun, the merger with AT&T Broadband was the most exciting. The months of negotiating while the deal came together were thrilling for Block, who was promoted to general counsel in July 2000. “Art saw the tremendous long-term benefits of the acquisition,” says Brian Roberts, son of Ralph and Comcast’s chairman and CEO, “and his participation on the transaction team was critical to the deal’s success.”
Now that Block oversees 75 lawyers across the country and must spend time addressing the requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, there is less day-to-day deal making. “I’m managing, in effect, a small law firm,” he says. “And at the same time the company tripled in size, we were thrown into—like every public company in America—having to evaluate dozens and dozens of governance issues. That was an entirely new challenge. My life, in terms of what I do with my time, has changed.”
For one, Block now serves on several nonprofit boards in Philadelphia. “My nose was put to the grindstone by the world I grew up in,” he says, “and I didn’t look up from that grindstone until probably about five years ago when I achieved my career goals. And then decided that I needed to give back. It’s made a big difference in my life, and I think it’s been something that’s also been important for me as a parent, so that my kids can see that this is something I’m choosing to do.”
Looking back on a career that has seemed to just fall into place, Block marvels at his luck. He also wonders whether gravitating toward a corporate counsel job was partly psychologically driven. “I think for someone who grew up as kind of an only child, who lost their dad at 12, I was looking for a family that unconsciously I didn’t know I was looking for,” he says. He has no doubt that he found that family here. His one and only regret is that his father isn’t around to see it. “I think it’s sad that my dad could never see what I’ve accomplished. He probably never made $20,000 in any given year,” he says. “I don’t take any of this for granted.”