John Malone: America's biggest land baron

John Malone denies competing with fellow media mogul Ted Turner for bragging rights. So what drove Malone to become the biggest landowner in America?

If, as the German philosopher Hegel once posited, "property is the first embodiment of freedom", John Malone is "one liberated individual", says Fortune. According to the latest Land Report Survey, the media billionaire is now the biggest private landowner in America, having overtaken his old pal and sparring partner, Ted Turner. What pushed him ahead was his purchase last year of a huge tract of woodland in Maine, taking his total land holding to 2.2 million acres.

Malone, 71, denies staging a "mano a mano" contest with Turner over land bragging rights. "We are not having a race," he says. "We share very common goals" (see below). But given his reputation for competitiveness, it would be surprising if the Liberty Media founder and chairman wasn't bent on maintaining his lead.

The man whom Al Gore once unflatteringly described as "the Darth Vader of the cable industry" is little known outside his sector. But within it, he's considered a godfather, says Vanity Fair. At his peak, he "achieved as much control in the media industry as anyone ever had": other moguls were as much impressed by Malone's "thuggishness" as they were by his legendary deal-making.

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Malone's "feudal style of business" was to manoeuvre other big men Ted Turner and Rupert Murdoch among them into dependent relationships with him.

With his "square-jawed good looks", Malone looks like "a Denver cowboy made good", says The Independent. In fact, he's a product of the "waspy Northeast". Born in Connecticut, he was educated at the "posh" Hopkins Grammar School and Yale. He started work at McKinsey, but soon moved to a subsidiary of General Instruments that made television cable boxes. It was there he met a former cattle rancher named Bob Magness, who had founded a fledgling, nearly bankrupt, cable-TV distribution firm called TCI, operating out of Denver.

Malone was so taken by Magness he was "really as much a father and a mentor as a partner", he told Fortune that in 1973 he moved to Denver to join him. Within ten years he had built TCI into the second-largest cable-TV firm in the country after Time Warner. Malone's forte was engineering complex financial deals, says Vanity Fair. "He could solve in seconds the legal, regulatory and finance problems that would have bedevilled lawyers and bankers for months."

Malone's greatest coup was selling TCI to AT&T for $48bn in 1999. Perhaps his second was getting into the "content business" with Liberty Media long before most others, says Fortune. The group's widespread holdings include stakes in the Discovery Channel and shopping channel QVC.

Land is clearly his current passion. As ever, "entering a business deal with Malone is like playing chess with a grandmaster not only are you going to lose, but it's going to take years for you to figure out just how early and thoroughly you were out-manoeuvred".

A surprisingly mellow swamp alligator

The media commentator David Elstein once compared the very different predatory styles of John Malone and Rupert Murdoch, says The Independent. Murdoch is "a shark, always dangerous, always on the move. By contrast Malone is a swamp alligator, content to lie secreted in the mud, to let the prey come to him".

It is often said that, having "conquered sentiment", he has few friends. But his private life suggests "a more mellow personality". He has always relished spending time with his family at his ranch outside Denver, and religiously makes a twice-yearly trip to his second home in Maine. Eschewing private jets, he drives "a specially equipped motorhome" the better to accommodate his eight prize pugs.

The pattern of Malone's life hasn't changed lately but his acreage has, says Jeff Hull in Fortune. It was his TCI business partner, Bob Magness, who first introduced him "to the possibility of owning landscape-size pieces of land". But it wasn't until he toured some of Ted Turner's landholdings that he "began to see an even bigger picture".

Malone was particularly struck by Turner's concept of land stewardship. "You defend it on the basis that you're doing this on behalf of your fellow man," he says. But he wouldn't be John Malone if he didn't perceive some financial gain too. "Productive land is one of the very few permanent values throughout history," he says.

As a political libertarian, he is far from enamoured with the federal government's handling of debt and he worries about inflation. But he's got no truck with gold. "I have a really hard time owning assets that aren't productive."

What will Malone do with his vast acres of virgin Maine forest? Local environmentalists are "cautiously optimistic" that he won't develop the land, says The New York Times. But he has promised to maintain "a working forest", supplying timber locally. Meanwhile, there's every chance he'll continue adding to his holdings. This "land baron" has barely got started.