How The Largest Land Owner Became a Billionaire

In the echelons of US corporate leadership names like Warren Buffett, Tim Cook, and Steve Jobs are virtually household names now, but another billionaire, John Malone, flies largely under the radar.

Yet Malone has a net worth approaching $9.8 billion according to Forbes and has earned the title of the largest land owner in the United States.

How did John Malone become so extraordinarily successful? 

John Malone Leadership Style

Early in his career, Malone earned Ph.D. in Operations Research before working at Bell Telephone Laboratories as well as McKinsey. 

When he ascended to the role of CEO and President of TCI in 1973 he ignited a rapid and aggressive expansion strategy by snapping up a number of cable television and communications firms.

Malone possessed a rare combination of skills, capable of seeing where the world was headed thanks to his vision and building strategies to capitalize on them to grow top and bottom lines.

He was highly astute financially and leveraged nuanced financial instruments to his advantage. It’s been widely reported that leverage was a key component of many of his deals that were structured for tax efficiency and ultimately to enhance shareholder value.

Famously, he was a shrewd negotiator, too, and was known for his deal-making skills, engineering spin-offs, equity swaps and other in-depth financial transactions.

As a leader, he was skilled at facilitating collaborative negotiations that were both tough and fair in order to create win-win deals. By forging strong partnerships that benefited all parties, he managed to build long-lasting relationships with many who initially sat on the other side of the table to him.

While he was nicknamed the Cable Cowboy early on in his career in the telecommunications industry, where he made the vast majority of his fortune, his leadership style encompasses a mix of hands-off management and financial wizardry in structuring deals.

Even in his early eighties now, Malone is clearly a highly intellectually curious leader, who has a keen sense of where legacy media and big tech are bumping heads. For example, he’s well aware of the threats of big tech on streaming services run by old media, such as Disney, versus new media such as Netflix.

How Did John Malone Get So Rich?

On a recent CNBC interview, Malone explained some of the deals he struck that led to his success. So how did John Malone get so rich? Malone says he typically partners with operators and provides them 40% of the upside while taking 60% and a 5% preferred shareholding.

Sometimes he asks for a lot more, such as he did with two operators who run his hotel business in Ireland. There, he financed the operations and took 80% while offering 20% to the operators. Now the business is worth around a billion dollars, he claims. He readily admits he could not have taken the hotel to that level of success but equally the operators could never have built wealth in the hundreds of millions without him.

These kinds of deals he has struck galore in his life. On the corporate side, especially, he favored debt to finance acquisitions. When TCI was expanding operations, he tapped into complex financial structures to maintain control over assets, too.

His approach enabled him to consolidate a fragmented cable industry during an era of significant deregulation, allowing him to ultimately build a personal empire that today is encapsulated by his position as Chairman of Liberty Media, a firm that pioneered satellite TV and radio, such as Sirius.

Perhaps the capstone of his career was his sale of TCI to AT&T in 1999 for $48 billion, a lucrative exit that cemented his fortune. Since then, Malone has not slowed down but instead has engaged, via Liberty Media, to expand and build stakes in TripAdvisor, and other online platforms as well as a wide range of other media and entertainment firms globally.

His wealth has allowed him to amass billions and ultimately deploy his massive wealth to philanthropic efforts, such as land preservation. He owns vast tracts of land is now considered the largest land owner in the United States.

What Does John Malone Do Now?

From relatively humble beginnings, John Malone has managed to built a portfolio of businesses and stakes in companies that span sectors from cable TV to film production and from sports to hotels. 

Throughout his career, he’s managed to keep a relatively low public profile despite earning a reputation in corporate circles as the Cable Cowboy who is a tough negotiator and shrewd deal-maker. 

To this day, he continues to wield enormous influence and has discussed regularly meeting with Tim Cook about content deals, buying ESPN, and other ventures.

Malone says he spends a lot of time these days planning his estate and has expressed some disappointment that his son hasn’t followed as closely in his footsteps as he might have wished, though he runs his own business.

At 82, he remains closely involved with Liberty Media as its Chairman. In the future he sees the biggest threat to legacy media as coming from the likes of Alphabet and Apple, who he says have only been throttled from some of their ambitions because of regulatory concerns. For example, if big tech bought sports channels, such as ESPN, they might be threatened with break-up, but as a result, the temptation is high for them to create their own sports content to compete with established media.

The bottom line is Malone spends a good portion of his time on his business interest and the balance on his philanthropic endeavors.

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