Interview with Robert Roth ’77

By Toby Speed

photo969As Home Box Office’s Executive Vice-President & Chief Financial Officer, Robert Roth ’77 is making an impact not only in the entertainment world but at the university where he earned his undergraduate degree and launched his career. The ties he has maintained with Stony Brook over the years reflect a deep commitment to the arts and to the mission and vitality of the university he once called home.

Rob has served as a member of the Dean’s Council of the College of Arts and Sciences and has become increasingly involved with his alma mater. He and his brother Richard Roth, CNN’s Senior UN Correspondent, named “The Jerome Roth Reed Room” in Stony Brook’s music department in memory of their father, who was an oboist with the New York Philharmonic for 30 years. Through Rob’s efforts, HBO has been a sponsor of the Stony Brook Film Festival.

After graduating from Stony Brook, Rob went on to earn his MBA. in 1979 at the University of Michigan. With his wife Linda, and children Jaclyn and Benjamin, he makes his home in Weston, Connecticut.

Question: As an undergraduate at Stony Brook, was there a particular professor who inspired you or influenced your career path?

Answer: I graduated from high school at 16, and when I came to Stony Brook I had no clue what I wanted to do. A number of my friends were thinking of going into pre-med; it was a very popular major at that time. I took one semester of chemistry, and I was absolutely convinced I had no place being in a pre-med program.

I thus began searching for an alternative major, and I came across an introductory economics class taught by Professor William Dawes. Since neither of my parents had a business background, I wasn’t really sure what economics was all about. Economics 101 involved numbers and I liked math, so I thought I would give it a try. Professor Dawes turned out to be a great teacher. He made the class very entertaining and stimulating, and so piqued my interest that I decided to major in economics.

At the beginning of my senior year I came to the realization that college was ending and I had to do something with my degree. I sought out Professor Dawes and asked him what one does with an economics degree. He gave me three choices: go into teaching, work for the government, or get an M.B.A. Maybe it was because I knew I could extend my school years a bit longer and avoid going out into the real world that I opted for the M.B.A., and went to the University of Michigan.

The M.B.A. degree led to my pursuing a career in finance after becoming a CPA. After I graduated from Michigan in 1979, I went to work in New York for Arthur Young and Company, which was at that time one of the eight largest public accounting firms. I worked there for three and a half years before coming to HBO in 1982. And I’m still at HBO, 28 years later.

Q: At HBO, you have what many people would consider a dream job. What do you enjoy most about working there?

A: I’ve been in my current position for almost 10 years. The aspects that are most appealing are twofold: the industry is constantly changing, and I get the opportunity to participate in a wide variety of business issues that impact HBO.

Pay television in both the U.S. and internationally is an industry that’s affected by so many events, whether technology-driven or consumer-driven; it’s constantly changing and it’s never boring. HBO is an incredibly dynamic place to work, with an extraordinary number of extremely talented people. In my position I get to see a broad spectrum of the activities of the company, whether it’s in sales, marketing, technology, or programming. As Chief Financial Officer of the world’s largest pay television company, I’m proud to be part of a wonderfully collaborative senior management team.

Q: What is your interest in the Stony Brook Film Festival? How did you become involved?

A: I was on the Stony Brook Alumni Council a number of years ago, when Jane MacArthur [Development Officer, University Advancement] suggested I meet with her and Alan Inkles [Festival Director]. Jane and Alan stopped by to see me in the city and Alan described the Festival and what he was trying to accomplish.

Film festivals aren’t typically a major forum for HBO; however, we do have a limited presence at certain festivals to make our name known in the creative community with up-and-coming talent whom we might want to attract for a future project.

I was taken with Alan’s passion for his Festival, so I followed up by talking to others at HBO to raise the idea that we might be able to provide financial support. Coincidentally, another senior executive at HBO happens to be a fellow Stony Brook alum. He was someone I actually knew when I was at Stony Brook who had also been an economics major. Since his department is responsible for supporting HBO’s activities at film festivals, I filled him in on Alan’s need for support. He was convinced by me and by Alan that it would be money well spent, and thus HBO became a sponsor of the Festival that year and has been one ever since.

Supporting the Festival has been a mutually beneficial relationship for both HBO and the University. I’ve attended the Festival most of the years in which HBO has been a sponsor. I was there with my kids when they were very young. My daughter’s now a junior in college, and she still remembers the weekends when we made a family event of going to the Festival. It’s been a very rewarding experience both personally and professionally to have HBO be supportive of the Festival. HBO gets publicity from being a sponsor, and it’s been great to see the Festival grow into the type of event that HBO is proud to support.

Q: You and your brother Richard named “The Jerome Roth Reed Room” in the music department in memory of your father, who played with the New York Philharmonic. Tell us about your connection to music.

A: My dad was an oboist for the New York Philharmonic for about 30 years. During both his years with the Philharmonic and in his years of retirement, music was always a significant part of both his and our family’s life, whether it was going to concerts or going with our dad on orchestra tours during the summer. My mom passed away a long time ago, but she was also a lover of music as a pianist, and it was certainly a common bond within the family.

After my father passed away in 2005, my brother and I were kicking around some ideas to honor his legacy as a gifted artist. My father was never really associated with Stony Brook, but at other schools with which he was associated, such as the Juilliard School, I thought the impact of a gift wouldn’t be as meaningful. We wanted something that would honor my father’s memory and be more personal. Jane had been consistent in saying that at Stony Brook, the money could really be put to good use. Subsequently, she called me with the idea to name a reed room after my dad.

The oboe, English horn, and bassoon are all double-reed instruments, unlike the clarinet, which is a single-reed instrument. Double reeds are quite temperamental. They have to be carefully crafted to make the exact sound quality that the musician wants to produce. Professional musicians and those who aspire to be in the top-tier orchestras make their reeds themselves, because they all have specific and unique tastes.

I knew that reed-making was a very painstaking process that requires expensive equipment. Jane told me there was a real need for reed-making equipment and that there was space available in the Staller Center that could be used for such a purpose. My brother agreed that making a contribution to fund the purchase of the equipment and renovation of the space would be a good idea.

During the Film Festival this past July, my son and I were taken down to the lower level of the Staller Center and shown the Jerome Roth Reed Room. A plaque had been hung outside the room describing my father’s legacy. One of the things I still want to do is hang a picture of my dad and other related photos in the room, so that future musicians will know more about the man for whom the room is named.

My dad was a very humble individual who never sought any attention. He was an extraordinary musician with an excellent ear, who taught himself to play the piano and to compose music. He was really a musical genius and my brother and I thought that helping to establish a reed room was a small way to recognize his lifetime accomplishments.

Q: Outside of work, what are some things you enjoy doing?

A: I played the oboe when I was growing up, but I stopped playing after graduating from high school. When my daughter was in the fifth grade about 10 years ago, she was asked what musical instrument she would like to play in school. She wasn’t sure which instrument would be most suitable, so I talked to the gentleman who runs the music program to help decide. After advising my daughter to take up the clarinet, he also mentioned that he was the conductor of a community band in the local area. When I noted that I had studied the oboe years ago, he asked if I’d like to join his group.

I told him that I hadn’t played in 25 years, didn’t even own an oboe, and had a busy schedule commuting to and from Manhattan. He said that the atmosphere is informal with no required attendance so why not give it a try.

Coincidentally, at that time I had been thinking that I missed playing music in the group environment of an orchestra. I discussed playing the oboe once again with my dad and he was all for it. He said he’d get me an oboe and some reeds, and give me some lessons. He was absolutely thrilled. So after two or three months of practice, I figured I’d put my toe in the water, and I went to my first band rehearsal. I’ve now been part of the Westport Community Band for almost ten years, as well as a member of a woodwind quintet. It’s really been a positive experience to once again have music as part of my life.

Q: What advice would you offer young people who are studying economics/finance now?

A: Be open minded and be willing to explore as many opportunities as possible. Don’t think of a career as only being a step-by-step vertical progression.

My career certainly didn’t progress in a straight line. I made a number of lateral moves along the way. That progression was partly because of my willingness to take on different responsibilities, even if they weren’t something I initially sought. If I was offered an opportunity to change jobs and learn something new, I always said yes. I think that approach served me well, because years later when there were opportunities for advancement, I was usually qualified, partly due to my diverse background and experience.

Also, be inquisitive. Don’t assume that something is the case just because someone tells you it is. In the business world, I have found that asking those questions helps you make better, more informed decisions.

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