February 5, 2013 7:12 pm

Malone’s appetite for deals undiminished

This year marks the 50th anniversary of John Malone beginning his career as a trainee in Bell Telephone Labs. In the intervening half century he has done more multibillion-dollar deals than most businessmen would manage in a dozen lifetimes.

Described by one media analyst as “the most cerebral man in our industry”, the bearlike 71-year-old joined TCI’s founder Bob Magness to construct the US’s largest cable company by revenues before selling it for $54bn to AT&T in 1999.

With an undiminished appetite for deals, a powerful mind, a contrarian view on life and a deep reluctance to delegate important decisions, Colorado-based Mr Malone tempts comparison with that other media titan: Rupert Murdoch.

In fact, he is one of the few people ever to have bested the News Corp chairman, having covertly built up an 18 per cent holding in the Murdoch-controlled conglomerate before exchanging it for News Corp’s controlling stake in DirecTV, the US satellite business.

When rumours were flying about a bid for Virgin Media in 2007, Mr Malone expressed concern about the challenge of competing head-on with the Murdoch-controlled BSkyB in the UK, asking: “Can anything flourish under the Death Star?”

But the Liberty Global founder has also emerged profitably from partnerships with Barry Diller’s IAC and Mel Karmazin’s Sirius XM in a series of opportunistic deals.

Variously known as the “King of cable” and “Darth Vader”, he is renowned for spotting chances to exploit Byzantine tax structures in different countries. He has built up an empire of cable groups in Germany, Belgium and elsewhere. Bankers believe he has his eyes, too, on Ziggo, the Dutch cable business.

“Whether he ever does anything not motivated by tax positions is debatable – and Virgin Media’s historic losses rather than its growth prospects must be at the heart of this deal – but there is no one better at making deals work,” one banker who has had dealings with him said.

Thwarted in the UK a decade ago when his efforts to buy both NTL and Telewest, the struggling cable groups, fell through, Malone now has an eye on adding Virgin Media to a stable that includes stakes in Barnes & Noble, Sprint Nextel, the Atlanta Braves baseball team and LiveNation, the music industry group.

The owner of one of the most crushing handshakes in the business world, Malone is a philanthropist, giving tens of millions to educational charities, and also the largest individual landowner in the US, with almost 2.2m acres in five states.

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