Joe Donnelly: The Art of the Dealmaker
Donnelly’s talent for mergers and acquisitions helped transform Comcast into a world player
By Jonathan Hemingway -- Broadcasting & Cable, 9/30/2007 8:00:00 PM
Joe Donnelly, chief financial officer of Comcast Corp.’s programming division, sits in his office, which has a sprawling view of his native Philadelphia. The placid scene is a stark contrast to the volatility of his early career years, when Donnelly worked in the world of corporate buyouts. He is understandably relieved to be far removed from the recent troubles plaguing that market.
And yet, the past experience is what best prepared him for a key role in Comcast’s corporate development department. With Donnelly on that team, the department orchestrated, starting in the late 1990s, a series of acquisitions that transformed Comcast from a company with 3 million subscribers into the country’s biggest cable powerhouse. The culmination of the effort was Comcast’s $47 billion merger with AT&T Broadband in 2003, but Donnelly’s involvement with a number of other deals is what also led him to move to his present office.
“I admired his perseverance,” says Bob Pick, Comcast’s senior vice president of corporate development, who hired Donnelly in 1996. “He really wanted to work here. It turned out to be a good thing.”
WORKING ALL THE ANGLES
Donnelly worked for buyout firms Pitcairn Financial Management Group and Berwind Financial Management Group from 1987 to 1994, positions that encouraged him to roll up his sleeves and dig into companies from a variety of angles. These were blissful jobs for a freshly minted graduate of The Wharton School. “It was a nice mix of finance and operations,” he recalls.
But some overarching factors soon arose. With a wife and four kids, the potentially volatile nature of the M&A market wasn’t the most stable of environments. Donnelly wanted the security of the operational side without giving up the excitement of deal-making.
Settling ultimately for stability, his first stop was at a consumer finance division of NationsBank; the company soon moved operations from Allentown, Pa., to Dallas.
“I went to an operating job because of the stability,” he says, “and ended up at a job that was shutting down after 12 months. Kind of crazy.”
The Philly native decided to stay put and search for the job that would offer the best of both worlds he sought. He found it by chance. Combing through the paper one day in 1996, he came upon an ad for job that grabbed his attention, but the source was a bit of a mystery.
“It wasn’t labeled Comcast,” Donnelly recalls, “but it sounded interesting.” Donnelly took a chance and called the number in the ad, and by “dumb luck” it turned out to be a recruiter he had known for years who got him in for an interview.
“You could just tell, even back then,” Donnelly says of his first impression of Comcast, “there were only 3 million subscribers, but with a top-notch management team, aggressive growth.”
He joined Comcast’s corporate development team in the spring of 1996. In the years ahead, Donnelly found himself and the team evaluating and executing a wide array of deals ranging from investments of a few million in startups like wedding-planner Website TheKnot.com, to the AT&T Broadband deal, which transformed the industry.
“It was a lot of cable,” Donnelly remembers about those first few years, with Comcast swallowing up the likes of Jones Intercable and Philadelphia’s Greater Media. Donnelly often found himself gravitating toward the small-scale enterprises, many of which were new media. “I liked working on the startup companies; they were fun,” he says.
Donnelly’s ability to be open-minded and strategically focused is what makes him successful, says Pick. Being able to justify targets to senior management from an operational and financial standpoint was essential as well, Pick adds: “You have to be able to hold your position around here, and people respect that.”
In TheKnot.com, Donnelly found merchandising synergies with another Comcast asset. “We saw it as a way to benefit from the expertise we had at QVC,” of which Comcast had a majority stake. “It was not going to move the needle for Comcast, but it was a pretty neat investment.” Comcast sold its stake in QVC to Liberty Media for $7.9 billion in 2003.
No matter the scale of the transaction, Donnelly is quick to note that the success of the deals Comcast did were the result of quality people working at every level of the organization: “Every deal was a team effort. We did a lot of good deals because we had a lot of smart people thinking through these things.”
The setting changed for Donnelly in 2005 when Jeff Shell, the president of the newly formed programming group, made landing a CFO his first priority. The new group would consolidate all of Comcast’s network and programming assets, and Shell needed someone who could manage the financial operations and increase oversight.
“Because [Donnelly] comes from a deal background, he knows how to take a broad look at the business,” Shell says, “Joe was invaluable. We completed our consolidation and we couldn’t have done it without him.”
These days Donnelly doesn’t worry too much about the state of the M&A market. Although acquisition opportunities always present themselves to a company with the resources of a Comcast, he sees the growth coming from within.
“We’ve really ramped up and improved our programming,” Donnelly says, “and as a result we are able to improve our distribution.”
With some pride, he points to the company’s recent successes in developing key partnerships to exploit opportunities for niche programming across platforms, such as PBS Kids Sprout, Fearnet.com with Sony and Lions Gate Films, and landing the PGA tour on The Golf Channel. When he turns on Comcast, Donnelly likes the view.
“Joe had the right mix of talents for the job,” his old boss Pick says of Donnelly’s new station. “I miss having Joe around, but it’s great for the organization.”
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