American billionaire John Malone (73) is the largest landowner in the United States with about 2.2 million acres of mostly ranch land and forestry.
Malone is now turning his attention to Ireland. In the past two years he has purchased three Dublin hotels – the five-star Westin, the Hilton on Charlemont Place, and the Trinity Capital Hotel – and, in Limerick city, the Limerick Strand Hotel on the River Shannon.
He is also refurbishing Humewood Castle, in County Wicklow, which he bought in 2012 for $9 million (€8m), as his Irish home. Last year he purchased the 840-acre Ballylinch Stud at Thomastown, County Kilkenny, once part of the Mount Juliet estate. In December he became the owner of the eight-bedroom 1720 mansion Castlemartin, which stands on 750-acres, and was once the property of Anthony O'Reilly, who was declared bankrupt last year.
In three years Malone has spent nearly $225 million (€200m) on property in Ireland.
Nicknamed the “Cable Cowboy,” the chairman of cable television and communications giant Liberty Media, told the Irish Times that he buys land because, referencing the Mark Twain adage, they are not making it anymore. He says he also loves being out on the land on horseback.
The Irish Times asked him in an interview if he is trying to become Ireland’s biggest landowner too.
“I don’t think it fits Ireland,” said the Connecticut-born Malone.
“I think we are at about 2,200 acres and that may be enough.”
Malone, who is worth an estimated $7.5 billion, says he and his wife Leslie fell for Ireland’s countryside and people.
“We thought, well wouldn’t it be fun to have a place there,” he says.
He said his wife has a flair for restoring historic properties so when a real estate agent presented Humewood they jumped at the opportunity.
“It seemed like Ireland at the time was struggling for employment, that there would be lots of available skilled labor if we wanted to take on that project, and so we kind of just jumped into it,” he said.
The 18-bedroom property, which sits on a 500-acre estate, will be fully restored within a year.
With the property, he got to know Galway man John Lally, one of Ireland’s boom-time property developers, and former stockbroker Paul Higgins. “They seemed to be pretty much in love with Humewood, as we were,” says Malone.
“I got to know them and I got to see that they were very well regarded as property managers and developers, but that the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has kind of impinged, let’s say, on their personal activities.”
The two men began informing him about investment opportunities in the depressed hotel and office sectors.
“We were looking for diversification financially anyway, other than media and also internationally,” he said. “It just seemed like it would be an interesting thing to pursue, essentially acquiring these properties from Nama or Nama-control and putting them back into full service.”
Lally and Higgins are now his Irish partners doing the legwork involved in buying and managing the properties and businesses that brings them part-ownership.
“It has been a fun experience,” Malone says of his financial adventures in Ireland.
Malone’s ancestors come from Cork so his investments are something of a “homecoming." He says the Irish obsession with land ownership must have rubbed off on him.
“My wife says that,” he says. “Well it has always been there in my family. My uncle always told me that he didn’t want anything but his farm and the ones that were attached to it.”
“Of course you don’t really ever own the land,” he said. “You are kind of a steward of it so you really want to be a good steward. But it is sure enjoyable while you are on the planet to be able to go walk around or get on a horse or drive a truck around and be out in the open. Ireland just has some of the most beautiful land on planet Earth.”
Malone and his wife also have a passion for horses and the couple have purchased horse-breeding and training farms in Florida and run Bridlewood Farm in Ocala. The farm has produced more than 100 stakes winners and trained the 2004 Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones.
In Ireland, he owns Ballylinch Stud in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, giving him and his wife a bloodstock operation that spans the Atlantic.
He says the horse training and breeding business “combines our mutual likes, and in our retirement years it will give us something to do, whether we are in Florida, in Ireland or in Colorado.”
Malone says he has a positive view of Ireland and its financial recovery and praises the pro-business government of Fine Gael and Labour.
“As small as it is,” Malone says, Ireland is “a place where things work.
“The way that Ireland handled the financial pressure that it was under underscores how solid the country is. It wasn’t easy. But Ireland bellied up to the bar, so to speak, and worked its own way through with its liabilities being spread out but honored. It could have played Iceland, but it didn’t. I just think that is a testament to a good solid country.”
In answer to the question is Ireland a high risk he says: “Personally, I really don’t care. It is a relatively small part of my assets and I am doing it because I love it, both the financial investment side as well as the personal activity side.”
“High risk, in my world, is political or social, not financial,” he said. “If a country is solid, it will work its way through whatever its financial issues are. If a society fragments and the politicians don’t have the support of the broad public in running the country, then you have got real issues. Believe me, I have lost a lot of money in Argentina. ”
“When you look across places outside the US where you feel comfortable investing as a US citizen, Ireland comes top,” he said.