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The Shy Billionaire In Space



Richard Branson Virgin

Space is virgin territory, yet, for Sir Richard Branson.

But even that, he appears set to conquer commercially with his company Virgin Galactic this year.

One of the greatest business minds on earth, Branson is in the space race.

In a CNN interview mid-February, commenting on South African billionaire Elon Musk’s recent SpaceX test-launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket, Branson said: “I was a little bit jealous,” and called Musk’s feat “extraordinary”.

The British tycoon, known for his profound love for adventure and sport, admitted in the interview that Virgin Galactic is hoping to put people in space in the coming months.

He also hints about it on his blog: “The team are working tirelessly, and each flight brings us one step closer to commercial service in New Mexico’s Spaceport America.”

“One of our biggest investments has been the space companies, which we have already invested $1 billion to set up,” he says in FORBES’ 100th anniversary issue in 2017.

And should Branson – worth $5 billion according to FORBES – be one of the first space tourists to look down on earth, he would no doubt marvel at the continent he often visits – Africa.

In his new autobiography, Finding My Virginity, launched last year, you find multiple mentions of Africa, and memories and images of the people and places he keeps returning to on the continent.

Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Graça Machel… are revered in these pages.

Branson tells FORBES AFRICA, in an exclusive interview in November last year when in Johannesburg for Virgin Atlantic’s ‘Business is an Adventure’ event, that “almost since the day Nelson Mandela left prison, I got very involved in Africa”.

READ MORE: Lessons And Ideas By The 100 Greatest Living Business Minds

Almost three decades on, he continues to be.

On the continent, Virgin’s biggest presence is in South Africa.

Worldwide, Branson owes his fortune to diverse businesses bearing the Virgin name. The son of a barrister and flight attendant, he started almost 50 years ago with a mail-order record business. He was a school drop-out, but never looked back.

He founded the Virgin Group, which now has interests in mobile telephony, financial services, travel, hospitality, holidays and health, among others.

He created his music label Virgin Records in 1972, signing on artistes such as Mike Oldfield, Janet Jackson, The Rolling Stones and the Spice Girls.

A disruptor in the aviation industry, Branson started Virgin Atlantic in 1984, and the airline has been flying between London Heathrow and South Africa for the last 21 years, and Nigeria for over 16 years.

Richard Branson (Photo by Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images)

In his new book, he says he is often asked the question: “How do you go about becoming a millionaire?” And his answer has been the same: “Start as a billionaire and launch a new airline.” He recounts the first 15 years of Virgin Atlantic as “a topsy-turvy tale of excitement, innovation and survival”.

Branson famously lives on Necker Island, a British Virgin Islands retreat, which, according to FORBES, he bought for $180,000 in 1978. Tutu has been a visitor: there is an endearing 2006 image of Branson planting a kiss on him with the azure sea in the background.

Far from Necker, at the ‘Business is an Adventure’ event in South Africa in November, Branson, the man who never wears ties, is in a pale blue shirt and khaki chinos. He enters, waving his hands in the air simulating the wings of an aeroplane. And on stage, much to the audience’s delight, rips off fellow panelist and Discovery Group CEO Adrian Gore’s tie, saying: “I believe the workplace should be comfortable, it should be relaxing.”

He recounts his entrepreneurial experiences, and pulls out a little black book to note down everything he learns from the people he meets.

“A notebook you can refer back to, especially if people share pearls of wisdom,” he quips.

And he has found enough wisdom in Africa.

Along with British pop musician Peter Gabriel, Branson was instrumental in starting The Elders, formally launched by Mandela in Johannesburg in 2007. An independent group of global leaders working together for peace and human rights, it also includes stalwarts Tutu, Kofi Annan and Ban Ki-moon.

In 2005, the billionaire also started the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in South Africa to “address a critical need for entrepreneurs, at a time when there were few organizations offering free, practical business training and mentoring to start-up businesses”.

The physical center in Johannesburg is now closed as they “review their entrepreneur support strategy”, but has over 12 years supported more than 4,300 entrepreneurs.

READ MORE: The Man Pouring Millions Into A Rich Slice Of Africa

Tracey Webster, who headed the Branson Centre of Entrepreneurship in Johannesburg for almost three years from 2011, vividly recalls her interactions with Branson.

“He is shy and unbelievably humble,” she says. “He is smart about getting everyone else to do the talking – he’s so charming and gracious about giving others the platform; he just has a way in which he promotes people on the ground.”

Webster, who is currently CEO of Enterpriseroom in South Africa, says the most important leadership lesson she received from Branson was “to respect absolutely every single human you came in contact with”.

“He taught me to be a listener rather than a talker,” says Webster, of the shy, introverted man millions look up to.

Richard Branson Archbishop Desmond Tutu The Elders

Richard Branson with Archbishop Desmond Tutu (Picture courtesy of The Elders)

‘Africans Are Natural Entrepreneurs’

In our interview with Sir Richard Branson, we let him do the talking, about his new ventures in Africa, his work for the communities around his businesses, his take on wildlife, and that moment he almost fell off the stage in South Africa.

You have a special affinity for Africa. Why, and what is on the cards for you on the continent?

Almost since the day Nelson Mandela left prison, I got very involved in Africa and one of the first things we did was put up a statue to [South Africa’s anti-apartheid activist] Steve Biko in East London [in South Africa’s Eastern Cape]. That was an incredible event with Nelson Mandela presiding over it. I have told quite a few of these stories in my latest book.

I have done quite a few things with Mandela, and Desmond Tutu, and Graça Michael and Kofi Annan, for things like The Elders and so on.

We are building a mobile phone company or financial services company, [then there’s] Virgin Active, Virgin Insurance…

But I suppose the thing I love the most is the bush. I spend a few days in Ulusaba [the reserve Branson owns], which was voted the best game lodge in Africa last year. And we love working on protecting species and wildlife. We also draw circles around any of our properties and try to help the communities within those circles, so quite a lot of our time and energy is spent on [work], for example, near Ulusaba, we set up quite a big clinic to make sure the people got anti-retroviral drugs, malaria tablets and TB tablets and were helped in other ways. We set up orphanages and small schools and so on.

Around our Virgin Active health clubs, we are doing similar things. Not for companies to draw circles around themselves, but to help the communities within those circles. Hopefully, one day all the circles will join up and most of the problems will be solved.

Richard Branson Nelson Mandela The Elders

Richard Branson with Nelson Mandela on the creation of The Elders (Picture courtesy of The Elders)

Your most abiding memory of Mandela?

I was at his funeral and invited by the family to join them by the graveyard. The coffin had been put in. And then I saw one of his grandsons falling into the hole and I thought ‘why is everybody not reacting, everybody just looks very calm about it’ and I saw another grandson jump down in and I assumed he was going to rescue the first one and then another grandson jumped in and I had to turn to somebody on my left and ask, ‘are they okay’ and he said ‘oh, they are just putting personalized gifts on the coffin to send Madiba on his way’. Anyway, I felt pretty foolish after that.

When we did the original Steve Biko statue in East London, there was just myself and Peter Gabriel there who weren’t local. There must have been a 100,000 people in the crowd and Madiba was standing on a small stage with the other main African leaders. He was president at the time, and he made this incredible and impassionate speech trying to unite the country and all the people on stage. The politician in him was coming out as well as the philanthropist he had become and when he finished, I went up on stage and whispered to him and he then gestured Peter forward who then took the microphone from Mandela and sang the song Biko with all the 100,000 in the audience singing along with him. It was the most wonderful moment. And then the crowd rushed to the stage and the whole stage started collapsing and we only just got Mandela and everybody off just in time before the whole thing collapsed.

After all your visits here, what are your lessons for Africa’s youth?

Because of the Branson School of Entrepreneurship, I got to know lots of wonderful young people over the years, and I think Africans are natural entrepreneurs and need help and need encouragement. This morning [November 10], I was at this wonderful center, the GEN 22 On Sloane [a start-up campus in Johannesburg], where they are going to have a few hundred entrepreneurs working there and in fact, [we] may end up doing something there as well.

We spend a lot of time encouraging entrepreneurship in the UK as well and managed to encourage the government to start something – start-up loans – which is loans to help budding businesspeople. Britain is the only country doing it. And what we are trying to do is to encourage Africa to do the same thing… The other thing the government could do is to get out of business completely themselves, as best they can, and break up any businesses the government is doing into small units and get entrepreneurs to run them. And I think governments have got to encourage competition… and the most important role governments can play is break up monopolies in order to enable thousands and thousands of new jobs to be created by new businesses being started.

The fourth industrial revolution, AI, robotics… where do you see Africa headed? Do you have any investments in these sectors?

One area of AI that we are working with in Africa is with a wonderful foundation and they are trying to get 50,000 women in African villages to have an iPad each; they are not trained as doctors or fully-trained as nurses, but using that iPad, through the fact that thousands and thousands of women have used this iPad and every time they make an answer, it gets better and better and better, they can actually act almost as good as a doctor or a nurse by just asking questions and getting answers and then prescribing malaria tablets, or TB tablets, and even anti-retroviral drugs and so on. Obviously, with serious cases, they’ll refer them to a surgeon or doctor, but again, the tablet will show that. So that actually will create 50,000 jobs and definitely save a lot of lives.

If it works, it will cost about a dollar a person, for a pretty good health service. And that should be happening, they have already trained up to 7,000 and the idea is to go up to 50,000.

You own a wine estate in Cape Town, is that something you see your future in?

Well, we need to be able to party as well and relax after all the hard work. We found Mont Rochelle and fell in love with it three or four years ago and felt we could turn it into one of the best vineyards in Africa. I think the team have done a great job and of course a lot of people who get to the bush want to come down to the Cape as well, so it’s nice they can stay in the Virgin family.

You started your entrepreneurial journey at the age of 16, any advice for innovators that young?

One of my books is called Screw It, Let’s Do It and I would just say follow that philosophy and give it a go. If you fall flat on your face, beat yourself up and do it again until you succeed.

READ MORE: FORBES’ Profile On Richard Branson

Richard Branson Adrian Gore

Richard Branson on stage with Discovery CEO Adrian Gore at the Business is an Adventure event in Johannesburg in 2017 (Picture supplied)

Branson’s Ventures in sub-Saharan Africa

  • The Virgin Group operates 140 Virgin Active health clubs across southern Africa. More recently, it opened its first club in Botswana and a second in Namibia, a strong indication of the growth potential that exists in Africa for the group.
  • Virgin Active’s presence in South Africa came about following a request by Nelson Mandela to Richard Branson, asking him to help save the country’s Health & Racquet Club chain, which was about to collapse. This resulted in Virgin acquiring the 76 Health & Racquet Clubs in South Africa.
  • In South Africa’s Western Cape province, in the wine town of Franschhoek, Branson owns Mont Rochelle, a luxe hotel and vineyard an hour’s drive from Cape Town.
  • Mahali Mzuri is Branson’s safari lodge in Kenya, positioned within the Maasai Mara ecosystem.
  • The Virgin Limited Edition’s Ulusaba private game reserve in South Africa supports the local communities through a not-for-profit called Pride ’n Purpose, focusing on sustainable development initiatives and improving access to food, water and health services.
  • Elsewhere in Africa, projects include an investment in M-Kopa, focused on solar power in East Africa and primarily Kenya, helping families gain access to energy using solar technology at affordable prices.
  • In the financial services sector,Virgin Money has just launched a peer-to-peer payment service called Virgin Money Spot. The app allows customers to send money to friends in a simple, safe and social way.
  • The Virgin Group has recently invested in South African mobile software firm wiGroup.
  • Virgin has initiatives called Living Goods and Last Mile Health, aiming to have just under 50,000 digitally empowered community health workers across sub-Saharan Africa by the end of 2021, reaching a total of 34.3 million people. This will be through a mixture of digital devices, including iPads.


Zuckerberg And Bezos Fortunes Shed Billions Amid Tech Stock Slide





Mark Zuckerberg Facebook billionaire

After a turbulent few days on the stock market, fueled by rising tension between China and the U.S. over trade agreements as well as hostile attention towards tech companies for its data-use standards, technology shares continued its decline on Tuesday. The tech-focused Nasdaq Composite dropped 2.9%.

The fortunes of two of the world’s biggest tech titans suffered big losses. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg closed Tuesday $3.1 billion poorer while Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the richest man on Earth, ended the day down $4.6 billion, at $124.1 billion.

Since March 17, when news first broke about the scandal involving Cambridge Analytica’s improper use of data gathered via Facebook, Zuckerberg’s fortune has fallen by nearly $13 billion. Forbes pegs his net worth at the close of markets Tuesday at $61.3 billion. He’s ranked seventh richest in the world, down from fifth richest as of mid-February.

READ MORE: After Latest PR Nightmare, Mark Zuckerberg’s Net Worth Drops $5.1 Billion In Hours

Zuckerberg took out full-page ads in several British and American newspapers on Sunday to apologize for the social media giant’s role in Cambridge Analytica data incident. “This was a breach of trust, and I’m sorry we didn’t do more at the time,” the ad reads. “We’re now taking steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again.”

Amazon’s stock, meanwhile, fell alongside other tech stocks on Tuesday. After closing Monday in the green, Amazon stock dropped 3.7% on Tuesday. Bezos, who founded the e-commerce giant from a Seattle garage in 1994, owns 16% of the company’s stock.

READ MORE: Forbes Billionaires 2018: Meet The Richest People On The Planet

Bezos overtook Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates as the richest man on Earth in October 2017. He is also the only centi-billionaire on the Forbes billionaire rankings. – 

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After Latest PR Nightmare, Mark Zuckerberg’s Net Worth Drops $5.1 Billion In Hours





After another public relations debacle for Facebook—in which a Trump-affiliated data firm was accused of improperly gleaning information on more than 50 million users—the company’s stock plummeted nearly 7%, through 1pm Eastern Time on Monday, erasing $37 billion of market value. The decline had the biggest impact on Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s cofounder and CEO, whose net worth fell $5.1 billion.

Zuckerberg, who owns about 16% of Facebook’s shares, is now worth an estimated $69.5 billion, according to Forbes’ real-time rankings of the world’s billionaires. He is currently the seventh-richest person on the planet, down from fifth, after falling behind Zara cofounder Amancio Ortega and Carlos Slim Helu, Mexico’s richest person.

READ MORE: Forbes Billionaires 2018: Meet The Richest People On The Planet

It’s the latest in a string of bad news for Facebook. Last year it was blamed for, among other things, facilitating misinformation, contributing to polarization in Britain, Austria, Italy and elsewhere and enabling foreign political interference. Already, 2018 has been no less turbulent.

On March 17, news broke that data firm Cambridge Analytica—which worked as a consultant for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign—allegedly ”harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission.” The report, published in the New York Times, has exacerbated concerns that the social media giant can be exploited for partisan gain. On Sunday, March 18, lawmakers in both the United States and United Kingdom pressed Facebook for more details on the matter.

In the Times report, Facebook’s deputy general counsel, Paul Grewal, called the incident “a scam — and a fraud.” “We will take whatever steps are required to see that the data in question is deleted once and for all — and take action against all offending parties,” he added. Cambridge Analytica was suspended from the platform soon after.

The data consultancy has been in the headlines since Trump’s victory in November 2016. The firm had targeted voters and helped tailor political messaging for his campaign. Amid the post-election upheaval Cambridge Analytica’s CEO, Alexander Nix, told Forbes in December 2017 that the company would de-emphasize its political work in the U.S. He further stated that the business had “no involvement with Russians,” an assertion that was also disputed in the Times this week.

READ MORE: Facebook Says Fake Accounts Likely Tied To Russia Bought $100,000 In Political Ads

Zuckerberg, 33, founded Facebook in 2004 as a 19-year-old student at Harvard. He dropped out during his sophomore year to focus full-time on the company, which quickly expanded past its initial niche on college campuses. Today Facebook boasts more than 2 billion monthly active users.

The business’ revenue has swelled in turn, to $40.7 billion in 2017. Together with Google, Facebook accounts for over 60% of online advertising dollars, according to Statista. As the firm’s financial and social power continues to intensify, some have called for regulatory intervention. This week’s tumult will do nothing to ease that pressure. – 

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New Billionaire: How A Poor Immigrant Scored A $4.3 Billion Fortune In Cable





Rocco Commisso Mediacom

Rocco Commisso darts around his office, gnawing a stick of nicotine gum and playing show-and-tell. “Look at the rates,” he says, holding up a plaque celebrating a $2.4 billion financing round from 2001, his cable firm’s largest ever. Up next are some personal keepsakes: a picture with fellow billionaire Charles Dolan, a golden telescope to take in views of the Catskill Mountains, a signed photo of Pelé, the Brazilian footballer. Every few minutes Commisso calls out to his assistant as if this tour is taking place against his will. “Jen, this guy wants to see all of my personal stuff!” he yells. Then he scans the room for another prize to trot out.

Forgive him the braggadocio. Commisso, 68, has risen farther than nearly anyone in America. The son of a penniless carpenter, he immigrated from Italy at age 12 unable to speak a word of English. A quirky talent for playing the accordion got him into Catholic school, the first step on a prosperous path that included stops at Columbia University and the Royal Bank of Canada before he founded his cable company, Mediacom, in 1995.

Mediacom focused on buying cable assets in rural areas, where prices were low and competition scant. The firm has increased its top line every year since its founding; revenue neared $1.9 billion in 2017. Commisso owns the company outright, and its value constitutes virtually his entire fortune. Thanks to a white-hot mergers-and-acquisitions market, the business is worth an estimated $4.3 billion—and Commisso, who makes his debut on Forbes ‘ Billionaires list this year, seems ready to cash out.

READ MORE: Forbes Billionaires: Meet The Richest People On The Planet

He founded Mediacom at a time of industry upheaval, when new federal regulations, which both restricted prices and increased competition, were scaring small cable operators into selling. As others jumped ship, he leveraged about $3 million—most of his small fortune—to start buying the cheapest cable lines available, concentrating on secondary markets in states like Iowa and Georgia. Even his offices are far off the beaten path: Mediacom HQ is in Chester, New York, a verdant speck of 12,000 people, 25 minutes from West Point.

Commisso is as much a financier as he is a cable guy—he has an M.B.A. from Columbia and spent nine years as CFO of Cablevision Industries. Mediacom’s rapid growth was enabled by arbitraging differing perceptions of cable assets in the debt and equity markets. Banks, reassured by the sector’s predictable cash flows, were willing to lend at reasonable rates even as investors, spooked by regulation, were willing to sell cheaply. In his first five years in business, Commisso made more than 20 acquisitions. Mediacom at one point accumulated $3 billion in debt, over eight times operating cash flow.

Commisso admits he borrowed to the precipice of insolvency, but he stayed afloat by keeping an eagle eye on costs and by meticulously managing his debt. “You know, we watch the store,” he says.

But now the core business is changing. The broadband generation is increasingly cutting the cord and relying on online services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon Prime Video to entertain themselves. Over the past ten years, the number of subscribers to Mediacom’s television offerings has plummeted 38% to 821,000. This is a faster rate of decline than the 3% the industry as a whole has suffered.

Mediacom’s woes in television are fueled, in part, by its success in broadband. Commisso has aggressively invested in tech upgrades; customers in places like Cecil, Georgia, enjoy Internet speeds on par with those in Seattle and San Francisco. Mediacom’s broadband subscriber base has increased 84% over the last decade, far outpacing the industry average of 54%—and many customers are using their lightning-fast connections to watch TV and movies online.

Hence the temptation for Commisso to cash out soon. In his mind, there is little left to prove. “In the history of Italian immigration, in the business world, I don’t think there’s another one like me in the last 100 years,” he says.

ROCCO COMMISSO GREW UP in Calabria, Italy, as the country reeled from its defeat in World War II. “We were losers,” he says. “Just like the Americans coming back from Vietnam, we came back as losers.” Commisso’s father, Giuseppe, served in North Africa during the war and was captured in 1942 by the British. He spent the remainder of the war in a POW camp in Kenya. When he returned home, work was scarce.

In 1956, Giuseppe sailed to the United States to start anew. “What a great country, America,” Rocco says. “Prisoners of war got preferential treatment to come here.” Rocco, meanwhile, stayed back in Italy with his mother and two sisters. In 1962, when he was 12, they joined his older brother and father in Baden, Pennsylvania, 10 miles from Joe Namath’s hometown. The family moved to the Bronx the following year.

From the outset, New York City brought good luck. Just after Commisso arrived, he spotted an ad for a talent competition. He entered as a solo accordion act and won, which led to a gig playing intermission music at the Wakefield Theatre on East 233rd Street in the Bronx. More important, it drew the attention of the Wakefield’s manager, who wrote a letter to a local Catholic school, Mount Saint Michael Academy, and got Commisso admitted without an entrance exam, which he had arrived too late to take. “I ended up being the only kid that ever got in without taking the test,” he says.

Commisso is now one of the largest benefactors of Mount Saint Michael. But back then he could barely afford to pay his own way. As a teenager he worked long hours at his brother’s diner to come up with the $300 annual tuition.

When college application time rolled around, Commisso again relied on a favor. His gym teacher called the soccer coach at Columbia University and told him about a promising student with good grades. Within a month, Commisso, who hadn’t even played soccer in high school, was accepted to the prestigious college with a full scholarship.

A natural athlete, Commisso had shown a knack for the sport in Italy under starkly different conditions: on cement, with a ball made of rags. That training somehow translated to the Ivy League turf. By his senior year he was co-captain of the varsity squad and was invited to try out for the 1972 Olympic team. The trials went terribly. Commisso arrived out of shape, with the lung strength of a smoker; the other players ran laps around him. Still, his legacy remains strong at Columbia, which named its soccer stadium for him in 2013, in recognition of the millions of dollars he has donated to the university.

After graduating in 1971, Commisso found work at a Pfizer plant in Brooklyn, a job he kept even after beginning an M.B.A. program at Columbia in 1974. Each day he rose at 7 a.m., attended class, then headed to the plant. At midnight, when his shift ended, he spent two hours on the subway getting home to the Bronx.

Commisso graduated with one of Columbia’s top honors, the Business School Service Award, and a plan to go into investment banking. But no offers came in. “There was discrimination,” he says. “I’ll never forget the guy from Kuhn Loeb telling me, ‘Rocco, you know what your problem is? You’re neither Jewish nor Irish. The Italians haven’t arrived on Wall Street.'”

So Commisso took a commercial banking job at Chase Manhattan Bank (now part of JPMorgan Chase). He later moved on to the Royal Bank of Canada, where he led lending to media and communications businesses. “I got attracted in banking to these types of guys and ladies,” he says. “We used to call them ‘the cowboys.’ The cable cowboys. Because they dressed differently than everybody, they talked differently than everybody—and they were entrepreneurs.”

In 1986 Commisso left banking to join one such cowboy—Alan Gerry, the founder of Cablevision—in Liberty, New York, a 50-minute drive from Mediacom’s headquarters. Commisso spent almost a decade as Gerry’s finance chief. “He’s one of the brightest guys I’ve ever known,” says Gerry, now 89 years old.

After the new regulations hit the industry in 1992, Gerry opted out, selling Cablevision to Time Warner for more than $3 billion in 1996. Commisso hated that decision. “This is a phenomenal time to buy as opposed to sell,” he recalls thinking. “And to prove it, I’m going to start my own company.”

Rocco Commisso Mediacom

Commisso poses at Mediacom HQ (Franco Vogt for Forbes)

COMMISSO’S OPTIMISM WAS NOT shared by his peers. That disparity only widened in 1996 when an additional batch of regulations brought new competition from telecom firms, like SBC Communications and Ameritech, that had previously been barred from the cable television space. “The fear was that the phone companies would enter the cable business and, with their stronger balance sheets and brand names, crush the cable companies,” says Craig Moffett, co-founder of the equity research firm MoffettNathanson.

That anxiety made it possible for Commisso to buy cable assets on the cheap, and he went all in. He bought his first network of cable lines, in rural Ridgecrest, California, for $18.8 million in 1996, using a loan from his old friends at Chase Manhattan.

The risk was extreme, and to outsiders Commisso might have seemed a loose cannon. He can be brash and domineering, his Calabrian accent amplifying heated bursts of profanity. But the banks trusted his background in finance.

After Ridgecrest, Commisso went on an acquisition spree, borrowing millions—then hundreds of millions—to buy up cable systems in Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Missouri, North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama. He closed nine purchases in his first three years. “[I] was viewed as just a crazy buyer who’d buy anything that was for sale,” he says.

Commisso then invested heavily in infrastructure. To date he has spent $2.5 billion upgrading his networks, which has deterred other operators from entering his territory. Historically, Mediacom has instead fought for subscribers against satellite-television firms such as DirecTV. Phone companies, despite the early panic, never posed much of a menace.

By the end of the 1990s, gloomy forecasts for the sector had softened. Commisso seized on that and, with perfect timing, took Mediacom public on Nasdaq at a $2.5 billion valuation in February 2000, just weeks before the dot-com collapse. In all, he raised $380 million to pay down debt, and his Class B shares allowed him to retain majority voting control. “Nobody could kick me out,” he says.

The following July, Mediacom made its largest acquisition ever. After AT&T became strapped for cash, it put some of its cable assets on the market. Commisso snatched up properties in Georgia, Iowa and Missouri for $2.2 billion.

READ MORE: Richard Branson – The Shy Billionaire In Space

By late 2002, company debt had exploded to $3 billion. The banks wouldn’t lend another dime, and Commisso was forced to end his buying binge. “What saved us was not doing the next deal,” he says. “It was a great decision to buy when we did. It was an even better decision to stop when we did.”

Through shrewd balance-sheet management and frequent refinancing, Mediacom never missed a loan payment, allowing it to stay afloat until 2009, when it finally began producing enough cash to start paying down the principal debt.

Still, stockholders were not impressed. Mediacom’s share price fell nearly 80% in the decade following its IPO. By 2010, Commisso decided he’d had enough of the public markets. He moved to buy the company outright.

After tense negotiations and a shareholder lawsuit, he acquired the business in March 2011 for roughly $600 million, a 64% premium. Borrowing against the company’s assets, he became its sole owner.

Again, his timing could not have been better.

SINCE COMMISSO TOOK Mediacom private, the company’s value has skyrocketed sevenfold. The question now is when Commisso will lock in his gains and walk away.

The company is an attractive acquisition prospect for larger firms like Altice, which has scooped up several operators in the last several years, driving up valuations across the industry. Mediacom is the dominant broadband provider in much of its territory, and its new gigabit-speed service is on par with the fastest in the country. “For a large portion of their footprint, they’ve got a clear product advantage over their competitors,” says James Ratcliffe, managing director at Evercore ISI.

Commisso is coy about plans to sell but admits he’s taken multiple meetings with investment bankers in the past year. A man who made his fortune on the basis of good timing, he seems to concede that his work is largely finished. “Unless I’m here on earth just to become the biggest, the biggest, the biggest buffoon, I’m very happy with what we have accomplished,” he says. “I’m not Warren Buffett. I’m very content.” – Written by 

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