John Malone, the Cable Cowboy, Isn't Ready to Hang Up His Spurs

(Bloomberg) -- When John Malone retired from the boards of Lions Gate and Charter Communications last month, the media and telecom industries shuddered: Was the Cable Cowboy finally calling it quits?

Not quite.

The 77-year-old billionaire, who helped build the pay-TV industry and now sees it threatened by cord cutting, remains on the boards of eight public companies and has no plans to leave them. He’s still the largest shareholder of Charter, the No. 2 U.S. cable company. Two of his deputies are still directors at Lions Gate, an independent studio. And when he calls, executives still listen. Nothing is really changing, he says.

John Malone, the Cable Cowboy, Isn't Ready to Hang Up His Spurs

He just wants to spend more time with his wife.

“My primary effort has been reducing business travel as much as I can so my wife is alone as little as possible,” Malone said in a phone interview. “And I’m getting old. What else do people expect? Am I going to jump off all these boards all of a sudden? No.”

Some companies he’s invested in have made adjustments. While in Ireland recently, he met with executives from Liberty Global Plc, the London-based pay-TV company where he holds a 28 percent voting stake, to review their technology plans.

“That kind of accommodation is working for me at this stage of my life, so I’m happy to stay on those boards and I’m proud to stay on those boards,” Malone said. “These are great businesses that I helped build and I’m obviously deeply invested in them.”

Malone has long been a reluctant mogul. He relished being a chief executive officer, but never liked the jet-setting that took him away from his high-school sweetheart Leslie -- “my life’s companion.” He has been promising he’d be home more since he took over as CEO of Tele-Communications Inc. in 1972 and helped build it into the world’s largest cable company, according to Mark Robichaux’s 2002 book “Cable Cowboy.”

He quit being a CEO for good 14 years ago after his wife developed a serious heart condition. Instead, he became an investor, a board member and cheerleader for his companies, as well as a tireless dealmaker. He’s worth $9.1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.

John Malone, the Cable Cowboy, Isn't Ready to Hang Up His Spurs

Liberty Media, which Malone spun off from ­TCI in the early 1990s, has expanded over the years through investments in a range of companies where he has varying degrees of control, including satellite radio company Sirius XM Holdings Inc., Charter and Formula One, the racing circuit. He’s a major shareholder in cable channel owner Discovery Inc. and chairman of Liberty Global. He sold TCI to AT&T in 1998 for $48 billion.

In the 1994, the New Yorker called him “the most influential man in television.” Al Gore once nicknamed him “Darth Vader” for his aggressive business tactics.

“He understands how to buy businesses, he understands how to sell them,” said Mario Gabelli, the billionaire money manager who’s known Malone since the 1970s and runs a fund based on his holdings. “He has no problem loving them and leaving them.”

Malone has plenty to keep him busy. He’s the largest landowner in the U.S. and enjoys tending to his ranches. He owns a major forestry business in the Northeast and is active in thoroughbred racing and breeding. He runs or chairs three foundations and controls nine hotels in Ireland. He likes sailing, fishing and spending time with his grandchildren.

He’s the de facto CEO of those private interests and spends his fortune how he pleases.

John Malone, the Cable Cowboy, Isn't Ready to Hang Up His Spurs

“It’s much more fun because it’s your money and you don’t have to apologize to the public, the shareholders, the media or anybody,” Malone said. “If I decide to take a flier on a horse and the horse turns out to be a lemon, that’s my risk.”

That’s not to say Malone has become a bystander. His public companies are still doing deals and he’s willing to opine on his competitors, including Walt Disney Co.’s recent blockbuster deal to buy much of Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox Inc. empire in a $71 billion in cash and stock. To some, Murdoch’s decision to sell looked like surrender -- recognition that the company couldn’t keep up with new titans like Netflix Inc. Malone sees it differently.

“If you look five years forward, you’ll see Rupert was the grand champion here,” Malone said. “He and his family end up major shareholders of a great combined company and he’s paid a big premium because of the competition for the assets he built.”

In a statement, Murdoch called Malone “one of the world’s greatest dealmakers. Very different but almost equal to Warren Buffett. Sometimes a frenemy, but always a friend. John was a huge help in starting Fox News.”

Malone sees the media and telecom industry today as a Rubik’s Cube, his engineer’s mind constantly weighing potential combinations. Cable companies and wireless companies should merge because they have “huge synergies,” he says. To wit, Malone’s Liberty Global is selling its European cable assets to wireless provider Vodafone for $22 billion.

“John is a four-dimensional chess player and knows where the pieces are going,” Gabelli said. “His legacy will be that he was one of leading architects in the entire world of content and connectivity.”

Malone has some regrets. His biggest: selling At Home, an early version of high-speed internet, to AT&T. The phone giant didn’t invest in At Home -- a missed opportunity, he says.

Lamenting Netflix

He also laments how Netflix Inc., Facebook Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. created massive businesses over the broadband networks that cable companies built, saying his industry should have exploited the technology more for its own benefit. The success of those Silicon Valley giants “is going to reshape the whole media industry.”

Netflix “has become the guy that everyone wants to be now and few will,” he said. “We’re just beginning to see that. The Fox-Disney deal is just an indicator of what the target is.”

Malone has begun to think about his legacy. He may have been dubbed a “cable cowboy” but he likens himself to Otto von Bismarck, saying he helped unify the fragmented cable industry just as Germany’s first chancellor brought together a bunch of fighting principalities in the 19th century.

He also invokes the Roman Empire when discussing the landscape today. The convergence of telecom, entertainment and technology has brought these businesses to a crossroads -- with technology companies looking like new dynasties built on top of the ruins of telecom and entertainment. But the cable industry isn’t finished yet.

“That’s just how capitalism works,” he said. “But we’re still in the game. We’ll see how this evolves.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.