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?
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.
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. "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, 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."
Quiet CEO, tireless dealmaker
Malone has long been a reluctant mogul. He relished being a chief executive, 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 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 heart condition. Instead, he became an investor, a board member and tireless dealmaker. He's worth $9.1 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Liberty Media, which Malone spun off from TCI in the early 1990s, has expanded through investments in a range of companies where he has varying degrees of control, including satellite radio company Sirius XM Holdings, Charter and Formula One, the racing circuit. He's a major shareholder in cable channel owner Discovery 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 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. "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," he 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's recent blockbuster deal to buy much of Rupert Murdoch's 21st Century Fox 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. Malone sees it differently.
'One of the world's greatest'
"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."
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 said he sees the media and telecom industry as a Rubik's Cube, his engineer's mind weighing potential combinations. Cable companies and wireless companies should merge because they have "huge synergies," he said. 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 said.
He also laments how Netflix, Facebook and Amazon.com created massive businesses over the broadband networks that cable companies built, saying his industry should have used the technology more for its own benefit. The success of those Silicon Valley giants "is going to reshape the whole media industry."
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 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 current landscape. 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."