Irish-American billionaire has Lion’s share of film success
John Malone, figure behind Lionsgate production company, is worth estimated $7.5bn
John Malone knows a little about his Irish heritage, but only a little. His ancestors came from Cork. “I just know that two brothers emigrated to the US at the time of the Famine. One of them sought his fortunes in the west and disappeared.” Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
The romantic comedy La La Land is expected to scoop up Oscars at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles on February 26th when Hollywood stars and powerful figures in the film industry gather in the Dolby Theatre.
However, John Malone, the most important and influential figure behind Lionsgate, the film’s production company, will be at home in Colorado with Leslie, his wife of half a century, watching the gathering on television.
There are few more powerful business people in the US than Malone. An Irish-American worth an estimated $7.5 billion (€7.03 billion), Malone’s success in business has been stellar. He remains a formidable player, at the age of 75.
“We are back on the ranch and wanting to stay low profile. Obviously I will watch the Oscars to see how La La Land does, [even] if it is just for cocktail conversation,” he tells The Irish Times.
“Personally I am an engineer. I think of myself as a problem solver. The celebrity thing, I not interested in and try to keep a low profile business-wise and, certainly, politically,” he declares quietly.
That is the thing about Malone. What makes him unique among many of his billionaire peers is that his public profile is in inverse proportion to his success. In 1974, Malone took over a small cable TV company in Denver, Colorado. Soon, the company, TCI, began to acquire other cable companies at a dizzying pace, benefiting from a rapidly growing industry and the emergence of pay-per-view television. By the 1980s, TCI was the largest pay-TV operator in the US, bringing cable TV to millions of homes. In 1998, it was sold to telecoms giant, AT&T for about $50 billion in an all-shares deal. Then he turned his mind to his role as chairman of Liberty, building Liberty Media, Liberty Global and Liberty Interactive.
Today, Liberty Global is the world’s largest international TV and broadband company, with interests ranging from the Atlanta Braves football team, Discovery Channel, Cable & Wireless and Formula 1 motorsport, which he bought last year for $8 billion.
Influence and power
If less well-known, Malone is right up there in influence and power with Rupert Murdoch. He is also famous for hating paying what he considers onerous taxes and has gone to significant lengths to reduce the liability of his companies.
Malone is also American’s biggest landowner, owning 2.2 million acres including a 500,000 acre ranch in New Mexico. In all, he is estimated to own 6 per cent of the land mass of the state of Maine. He owns just a little more land than CNN’s Ted Turner, who is a good friend of his.
Over the past few years, he has begun to tap into his Irish heritage, and his interests here have grown. So far, he has spent nearly €500 million on land and hotels around the country, along with two local partners, John Lally and Paul Higgins. They include the InterContinental (formerly the Four Seasons) in Ballsbridge; the Morgan, Spencer, Westin, the Trinity Capital, Beacon and the Hilton Charlemont, all of them in Dublin. On his own, he has bought three landmark properties and more than 2,000 acres: he started off by buying Humewood House in Co Wicklow from the National Asset Management Agency. Lally had been the previous owner.
Later, he bought Tony O’Reilly’s former mansion, Castlemartin in Co Kildare, (for €28 million) and the 840-acre Ballylinch Stud in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, formerly part of Mount Juliet Estate.
Together with his wife, Malone now oversees a substantial, and growing, bloodstock business out of Ballylinch and Castlemartin, which they are running in tandem with the famous Bridlewood Farm stud in Florida.
In addition, Liberty Global, the company he chairs, controls the cable company Virgin Media, which in turn is the owner of TV3 and what was UTV Ireland, but which has now transmogrified into the Be3 channel.
Yet, outside the business pages, few people in Ireland are aware of his name, or of his existence. That kind of Trappist profile suits him. Most images of him show a silver-haired and bespectacled man, with a ruddy outdoor face, wearing a fleece jacket or a checked shirt.
No Trumpian gold
He spends a lot of time riding out on his ranches or tending to his bloodstock. There is no Trumpian gold. Until 20 years ago, he and his wife used to travel on vacation and to their properties across the US by “RV” (a fancy camper van) because they did not fancy flying.
Indeed, when you talk to him, he is measured and ruminative. His down-home style and his insights reminds one a little of the image portrayed in the rare interviews of Warren Buffet, legendary investor known as the Sage of Omaha.
Malone knows a little about his Irish heritage, but only a little. His ancestors came from Cork. “I just know that two brothers emigrated to the US at the time of the Famine. One of them sought his fortunes in the west and disappeared.
“The other settled in eastern Pennsylvania and fought in the Civil War. I have pretty good information on what happened (to him) after that,” he says. Eventually the Malones settled in Connecticut.
In school, Malone was a bright student. Later, he graduated from Yale, where he was a member of the Phi Beta Kappa society. In 1967, he gained a doctorate in engineering from John Hopkins University. His thesis was on “operations research”.
By then, he was already working for Bell Laboratories. Later, he joined the consulting firm, McKinsey before taking over the small Denver-based cable company, Telecommunications Inc. So dominant did he become in the industry he was known as the “Cable Cowboy”.
When he spread his interests to content, he was also adept, teak-tough but never emotional - former US vice-president, Al Gore once portrayed him as “Darth Vader” for the “invasive” manner he moved into the satellite industry.
“I have been pretty nose to the grindstone for many years. It is really only in the last ten or twelve years that I backed away from day to day corporate involvement and had the time and resources to do personal investment as well as asset ownership and the other things,” he declares.
Many of the investments in Ireland are personal. The bottom line is important, but not everything. Both he and his wife have a huge interest in bloodstock (Leslie is a good judge of horses, he of livestock). Ballylinch and Castlemartin are interests sparked by passion.
“I would regard the horse, the thoroughbred business, as a business. It is wholly owned by my wife and me. It is not necessary to make money. You see what I am saying,” he says wryly.
“To me it’s all about having great partners and having great management. If John and Paul came to me and there was an opportunity to expand the hotel (portfolio), I would certainly look at it,” he says.
“It is the same with our thoroughbreds business. I would be very happy to do it this more if opportunities present.”
Malone has joked that buying up so much Irish land is a way of getting back at the British. But he says he loves land, especially beautiful landscapes, and describes himself as a steward minding the land for future generations.
The Malones have spent two years renovating the properties, with architectural changes and adaptations for bloodstock. “Humewood is probably done at this stage,” he says. “Castlemartin is nearly 80 per cent there.
“The main structure is complete,” he says, adding that the outbuildings need to be changed to accommodate more livestock. He famously bought O’Reilly’s treasured home, Castlemartin off the brochure sight unseen.
In 2015 he described O’Reilly as a good guy and his plight as a “terrible shame”. O’Reilly had been caught out because he was over-leveraged. In so doing, he gives an insight into his own modus operandi: “I don’t use debt. I don’t invest anything I can’t afford to lose.”
The Malones became regular visitors to Ireland after Liberty Global acquired UPC, when Malone had to come for board meetings. He is full of praise for how Ireland dealt with the recession, following the 2008 economic crash.
“I believe it handled it very well and came out of it and is still coming out of it. For a while there the credit rating was better than the US credit rating.”
On the Apple tax judgment, he says he thinks the EU is “over-reaching”. “It’s up to Ireland to decide what they do with Irish taxes.”
However, he believes change is in the wind: “This whole business of moving corporations around in order to take advantage of artificial tax arrangements, it’s going to get a lot of scrutiny. It does not mean that Ireland will lose its advantage of being an English-speaking gateway to the EU,” he says.
That change will be propelled by US president Donald Trump, now in charge in the White House. Malone’s take on a Trump presidency is fascinating: “He was not my first choice. He was not my second choice. He was not my third choice,” he says.
“[But] he is going to be our president and a lot of the things he is doing I agree with. Our political system has been unable to solve the problem of immigration for many years.”
Trump is not a politician and “tells it like he sees it”, often courting controversy and trouble, but Malone adds: “Everything he says he wants to do he will try to do. Make no mistake he is a serious person even though the press is portraying him as a bit of a con.”
Malone has met Trump and did one business deal with him many years ago. “He is very bright. The only thing bigger than his brain is his ego. His ego will drive him to try and be the best president the country has ever had and to win.
“For him, every negotiation is a chance to win. It’s all about winning. He’s trying to assemble a team that wants to win.”
He does not accept that Trump’s habit of insulting people will undo him now: “If that was going to disable him he would have gone in the nomination race where his behaviour and his the ability to shoot himself in the foot was evident. In reality he got excused because he is not a politician.”
‘Lack of direction’
Condemning the United States’ “lack of direction” in recent years, Malone offers a damning verdict on Barack Obama: “The American media has drifted pretty far to the left and Trump is trying to reverse that.
“It was similar with what Ronald Reagan had to face when he took over from Jimmy Carter . . . For me Carter was a nice guy but a disaster as a president. I can’t help but feeling the same way about Obama.
“Personally he’s admirable, but his policies aren’t. As somebody once said denial is not just a river in Egypt. He is saying race relations are better, but look at the polls,” he says, adding that most people race relations “are terrible now”.
Before the interview, Malone had been watching the congressional confirmation hearings live on TV from Washington. He said he is impressed by the calibre of the new cabinet. “[Trump] has put very serious people in his cabinet.
“And of course Republicans control the congress. If the Trump administration maintains decent relations with congress you will see a lot of changes in the US, tax code changes, corporate tax changes, massive amounts of deregulation.”
Trump will try to change the United States’ trade policies. The US’s $800 billion trade deficit is not sustainable. Most of it is with Asian countries. “I am not sure what technique they will use in that regard.
“He lets you see already what he’s thinking about in relation to border tax and tariffs. Unsurprisingly, Malone does not like what he sees as over-regulation that makes business difficult: “I am a free market guy. I believe in lot of competition.
“The government should only intervene when somebody will damage the public (by their actions),” he declares, citing as an example the exorbitant prices charged for life-saving drugs when regulators are given a role.
“Broadly speaking I’m looking for Trump to bring in a Reagan-type attitude to regulation. Look at Obamacare. In some of my personal business I have hourly employees in and around horses. The cost to me of their mandatory health care insurance exceeds their wages.
“You can see what a depressing effect that has on hiring. Obamacare was just a big increase in welfare. It has really screwed up the marketplace where what you call normal people buy their normal insurance.”
Questioned about Trump’s courting of Vladimir Putin and Russia, Malone becomes animated: “I don’t believe Trump is naive. We all know that Putin is a dictator. He is using whatever technique dictators over the years to suppress dissent.
“The question is what are you going to do about him? He went into Crimea and nobody did a thing. Nothing. Nothing! . . . Then he put an army into eastern Ukraine and nobody did anything.
“How can you accuse the new guy of having too chummy a relationship with Russia when the Western world has been sitting on its thumbs and did nothing? To say Trump is too friendly, how much worse can it get, now come on!”
Given his interests in Virgin Media and TV3, Malone is a significant media player in Ireland, which raises questions over his ability, or willingness, to influence editorial content: “The first thing is that I have zero skills when it comes to creating content.
“I take no editorial role in any of this. My personal philosophy is as someone who delivers content we should make it as accessible as possible. I have supported CNN when it went leftist, supported Rupert Murdoch heavily with Fox News when he came in and wanted it to move to the right.
“We take the view if we think it will succeed and make money we will put money into it. We try not to have any editorial control,” he goes on. Replying to follow-up questions sent later about whether Denis O’Brien does exert influence, Malone is brief, “No comment”.
If Malone is acquisitive for land, he has deliberately not measured his success by the glitz of Hollywood, or by the golden fittings of New York real estate. He was awarded an Emmy once, but he did not go to receive it.
However, he has picked up awards, but the ones he has accepted tell much about the man. His last one was in September when he was made an honorary “Citizen of the West” in Colorado. He is the 32nd recipient.
Many of the rest of the names on the list of past recipients are obscure, bar George W. Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney. That kind of localism and anonymity is typical of Malone, even if paradoxically his reach is truly global.