Business Commercial Property

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Homecoming of two million acre man John C Malone

Irish-American tycoon John Malone is looking fondly towards the ould sod and is interested in buying Mount Juliet.

Published 03/05/2014 | 02:30

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John Malone (inset) is rumoured to be interested in buying Mount Juliet
John Malone (inset) is rumoured to be interested in buying Mount Juliet
Humewood Castle
John Malone

When most people go on a shopping spree, it might involve designer clothes or gadgets. The Irish-American tycoon John C Malone buys land, property and maybe the odd cable TV company.

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Since he started showing an interest in the "auld sod" in the past couple of years, he has bought the Hilton Hotel and the Trinity Capital Hotel in Dublin, and the gargantuan mansion in Wicklow, Humewood Castle. The latter purchase – a splendid, rambling mock Gothic pile on 400 acres – was made after it took his wife's fancy.

This week it was reported that the multi-billionaire cable tycoon has also shown an interest in snapping up Mount Juliet, the 1,500-acre country estate, hotel and golf resort on the banks of the River Nore in Kilkenny.

The billionaire's forays into the distressed Irish property market are a sign of the shifting power base in the land. Many of these mansions, country estates and trophy hotels were originally in the hands of the Anglo-Irish. Some may have been taken over by the church in the 20th century, as schools or other institutions, and later by native property or business tycoons.

Now, John Malone's purchases have confirmed the trend, where prized assets are being taken over by overseas cash buyers. According to Sherry Fitzgerald, nine of the top 10 most valuable purchases of Irish country mansions were by overseas buyers.

As well as Malone, Baltimore moneybags Charles Noell bought a stately home, Ardbraccan, near Navan, Co Meath, recently, while another American, James Thompson, bought Woodhouse near Stradbally. And then there is Donald Trump's purchase of the Doonbeg golf resort in Clare.

If the septuagenarian Malone adds to his Irish collection with Mount Juliet (estimated price €15m), it will be little more than loose change for him. The 1,500-acre estate will seem like a modest plot. Malone is reputed to be the largest landowner in the United States, with 2.1 million acres – equivalent to 10pc of the entire land mass of Ireland.

In 2011, he bought 1 million acres in the state of Maine. It is mostly in forestry. In an interview with Forbes magazine, he said he was attracted to the state because he used to go on holiday there. Elsewhere he has vast ranches and farms stretching for miles across the United States.

Who knows where his Irish spree will end? Will he end up owning an area of land the size of a county, as the Earls of Leitrim once did?

His own home ranch in Colorado amounts to 42,000 acres. Even at his peak as a business tycoon, competing with Rupert Murdoch, he liked to go home there to his wife for lunch.

Malone has said that his personal "land hunger" may have arisen from his Irish ancestry in Co Cork.

"I actually do believe that there may be a genetic element in wanting to own the land you're on," he told CNN Money. "For 400 years the Irish farmed land that was owned by English landlords. The farmer's existence was temporary, transitional. I'm not a believer in mystical things, but I am a believer in evolution, and there could well be some element of generational memory that goes into this kind of stuff."

Mount Juliet, an estate that stretches for two-and-a-half miles from one end to the other, may be small by Malone's standards, but it suits his interests down to the ground.

In one interview he said: "I love to fish and bird-hunt occasionally. I like to shoot sporting clays. My wife rides horse for four hours a day."

All these likes would be well catered for at Mount Juliet. As well as the golf course, there is an equestrian centre, as well as riverbanks and lakes, which are ideal for fly fishing.

Humewood Castle, which was bought by Malone in 2012, is a Victorian folly with turreted towers at either end. It has an impressive 18 bathrooms, a billiards hall, a smoking room, and was described by the historian Turtle Bunbury a "one of the most astounding, fantastical stately homes in Ireland".

Malone said of the purchase: "I didn't buy Humewood as a financial investment. It's an act of love rather than financial acumen."

Nevertheless, like many of his fellow American tycoons, he has picked up his Irish property at bargain prices. Humewood was bought for €8m, almost one-third of what it fetched at the peak of the boom in 2006.

Brought up in Connecticut, Malone is renowned as one of the canniest dealmakers in America. He is familiar with Ireland not only through his ancestry, but also through his company's ownership of UPC, the biggest digital TV provider in Ireland.

A decade ago with his global corporation Liberty Media, he parked his tanks on the lawn of no less a figure than Rupert Murdoch. He built up a stake of 32pc in Murdoch's News Corp, and at one stage there was speculation that he might even take over the company. Murdoch himself has described his onetime rival as "the smartest guy in the media by a factor of five".

Malone's business style was described by media commentator David Elstein as that of the "swamp alligator, content to lie secreted in the mud, to let the prey come to him".

And yet for all his ruthlessness as a canny dealmaker, he is renowned as one of the most generous philanthropists in America. He has donated over €110m to universities, including his alma mater Yale. He is also renowned for his modest holidays, touring the country with his wife in a camper van.

He once said: "I have earned so much money that money doesn't interest me. Now it is only love of the game that drives me."

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