John Malone: everything you need to know about America’s single largest land owner
Meet the most powerful man that you’ve never heard of
He has more money invested in British media assets than Rupert Murdoch, at times he’s invested better than Warren Buffett and he also owns services and TV channels you’ve most likely used or watched; yet, the name John Malone still draws a sea of blank faces.
For everything you need to know about one of the most powerful, yet unknown, individuals in America, look no further.
Who is he?
As Liberty Media’s chairman and largest stakeholder, John Malone is one of the world’s most influential media magnates. He also possesses 28% of Discover Communications (which recently snapped up fellow cable TV stalwart Scripps Network for $14.6bn), has 25% shares in Liberty Global (the largest international cable company that boasts just under 30m subscribers) and owns 8% of professional baseball team Atlanta Braves.
Oh, and he currently owns more land in America than anyone else: 2.2m acres to be precise.
As a result, Malone has a net worth of around $9.22bn, and thanks to his buccaneering role in media deals and land ownership, he’s been nicknamed the ‘Cable Cowboy’.
Early life, education and the makings of a television mogul
Malone was born on 7 March 1941 in Milford, Connecticut, a suburb north of New York City which then had a population of 2,500.
Following an education at the prestigious Hopkins School, Yale University and John Hopkins University, Malone enrolled in New York University’s electrical-engineering programme at Bell Labs, an institute renowned for developing several major telecom innovations, namely the laser beam and radio transmission. It was during these years when he first got a taste of the telecoms industry.
Then, after having returned to John Hopkins in 1967 to gain a PhD in Operations Research, Malone joined the worldwide management consulting firm McKinsey & Company in 1968. However, fatigued from the constant travelling his job required, he left after five years to join General Instrument; while at GI, he ran Jerrold – a subsidy which produced minicomputers for the cable TV industry – and was eventually offered the role of CEO of Tele-Communications Inc (a fledgling cable company that only had 400,000 subscribers and owed creditors $132m) by founder Bob Magness. Malone was only 29 at the time.
Within 17 years of snapping up smaller operators and acquiring minority stakes in other channels, TCI, under the management of Malone, had accumulated 8.5m subscribers and grew into the second largest cable company after Time Warner.
Because of his business deals in the byzantine world of cable TV, Malone was compared to ‘Darth Vader’ by former US Vice President Al Gore.
After a failed merger between TCI and multinational telecommunications conglomerate Bell Atlantic (a deal that would’ve been the largest in American telecommunications history), Malone soon brokered a deal that saw AT&T acquire his company for $50bn in 1999. TCI subsidiary Liberty Media would remain a separate organisation, with Malone heading the operation.
At the helm of Liberty Media, the young American changed the organisation from just providing cable services to actually owning the networks broadcast on its infrastructure, including the Discovery Channel, QVC and Virgin Media.
In 2007, Liberty Media purchased the baseball team the Atlanta Braves and, earlier this year, also bought auto-racing league Formula One from Bernie Ecclestone. Whereas the 87-year-old tycoon received criticism for failing to embrace new forms of media, LM has stated that it hopes to expand the sport’s reach, especially in the US.
Because of its success throughout the years, Liberty Media’s holdings have almost always beaten the market average.
Malone’s other company, Discovery Communications, has also announced that it will purchase Scripps Network, including UKTV – the owner of channels such as Dave and Gold. This deal won’t only flesh-out a European portfolio that already includes Eurosport and Bear Grylls’ shows, but it’ll also allow Malone to slowly loosen Rupert Murdoch’s iron grip over the British pay-tv market.
Man of the land
Malone hasn’t just been content with dominating the cable television industry. He’s also taken control of vast plots of terrain.
Inspired by a summer spent on a family farm in Pennsylvania, he decided to invest his multibillion dollar profits into land. One of his first major purchases was Bell Ranch in New Mexico, a 290,100-acre plain that’s saturated with mesas, rugged rimrock canyons, pastures and a distinctive bell-shaped mountain. Other notable assets include Bridlewood Farms in Florida (which cost $14m and has 800 acres) as well as territories in Maryland, Maine, New Hampshire, Colorado and Wyoming.
In total, he owns 2.2m acres of US cropland, ranch land and wood land (all of which have a combined area that’s approximately three times the size of Rhode Island), and as of 2011, once he bought 1.2m acres in Maine (a location where he stores his collection of yachts), he became the largest landlord in the US, surpassing his old friend Ted Turner.
Beyond American shores, Malone possesses the 32,669-square-foot Humewood Castle in Wicklow, Ireland as well as hotels in Dublin.
John Malone is many things – a multibillionaire, a yachtsman, a telecommunications titan – but one of the lesser-known roles he has is that of a philanthropist.
In 2000, he gave $24m for the construction of Yale’s Daniel L. Malone Engineering Centre, a facility named in honour of his father; in 2011, he donated $50m to the university’s engineering school; and, in that same year, he gifted $30m to the John Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering in order to construct a new building – the Malone Hall – on Homewood Campus. The Hopkins School has also benefitted from the mogul’s generous $60m offering.
Most recently, Malone and his wife, Leslie Malone, granted $42.5m to Colorado State University to help develop regenerative medical therapies for animals and people; while $10m of the donation will go towards operations, the other $32.5m is specifically for construction of an institute building. Not bad for a man who was once likened to cinema’s most famous intergalactic villain.
In recent years, Malone, like fellow magnate Rupert Murdoch, has supported Donald Trump – an unsurprising move given that he is a former chairman of the Libertarian think tank, Cato Institute.
Speaking to a Liberty Media investor day in 2016, Malone forecast a stronger American dollar, accelerated growth and some inflation under a Trump presidency. “I think the deregulatory aspects of a Republican administration will be favorable. I think the likelihood you will see government intervening to support one particular industry’s goals, relative to another’s, is probably less risky today,” he told investors.
In January this year, Malone and Liberty Media were among the biggest contributors to the president’s inauguration, donating a collective $1m to the festivities.
The future for Malone
During a special shareholder meeting in New York late last month, Discovery’s pending merger with Scripps Network got overwhelming support. Experts have predicted that the deal will close in early 2018, and once it does, channels such as Food Network and HGTV will be added to Malone’s already-bulging television portfolio. There’s also nothing to suggest that he will cease his landownership any time soon either.
And why should he? Although soon to reach the age of 77, his recent deal with Scripps has proven he’s still dictating the way TV is run today, while his time as a landlord doesn’t seem to have sapped his energy; quite the opposite, in fact. If, as the German philosopher Georg Hegel posited, “property is the first embodiment of freedom,” Malone has certainly proven to be one liberated individual.
Who wouldn’t want their life to continue that way?
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