The largest cable-TV company outside the U.S. moved its headquarters to downtown Denver in February with little fanfare. That's just how Liberty Global's CEO Mike Fries rolls. "Liberty is a great story; take me out of it," said Fries, whose corner office on a sharp edge of the Triangle Building overlooks the Rocky Mountains and Union Station. "We are very, very committed to Colorado and Denver even though we don't generate any money here. This is where our heartbeat is."
As one of the highest-paid CEOs in America, Fries downplayed his financial achievements during a recent interview with The Denver Post. He prefers to talk about the company or the many charitable causes he supports. The following evening, in fact, he performed as lead singer of The Moderators cover band to raise money for the University of Colorado Cancer Research Center.
"It's 95 percent attitude. I'm on key; that's the good thing. But I'm no Pavarotti. But if you have attitude and confidence and people think you're enjoying yourself, then it works," Fries said. "You should come see us tomorrow night. It's free."Advertisement
According to those who matter, the heartbeat of Liberty Global really is Fries, who moved to Denver in the early 1990s to join a startup that would take American cable channels to an international audience. He succeeded big time. Liberty posted $18.3 billion in revenues last year, with most of its broadband and cable-TV operations serving European customers. This week, it became even larger, completing its $7.4 billion purchase of one of Latin America's largest cable companies.
But here in the country Liberty calls home, it doesn't operate one lick of pay TV. A few years ago, it even reincorporated in London to lower its U.S. tax burden, because at the time 90 percent of its business was in Europe.
So what is it doing here?
"That's a very good question," said John Malone, the cable magnate who headed Tele-Communications Inc., or TCI, for more than two decades and is now chairman of Liberty Global. "If you're trying to grow in Europe and Latin America, it's not so bad to be in America. But fundamentally, why are we in Denver? Because this is where Mike wants to be. If he came in and said, 'John, I think we should be in London,' I'd say, 'Fine.' Really, to a very large degree, the company is Mike Fries. The drive, the energy, the interrelationships of the management team. It all starts with Mike."
Meet Mike Fries
Fries, 53, grew up in West Los Angeles as the sixth of eight children. He was the only one to graduate from college and move out of the Los Angeles area.
"For me, growing up with eight kids was a huge part of my tabula rasa," said Fries, who said he spends holidays with his family. "When you grow up in a large family, you're like a tribe. So what do you learn? You learn loyalty, compromise. You learn to advocate for yourself. Independence. Confidence. I would say all those things have impacted my management style. I think people would say I'm tough, but I'm the first one to say, 'Let's take a tequila shot and have a blast.' "
He often gets his leadership team — which numbers 400 worldwide — together for business and play. In March, he had Ryan Tedder, lead singer of OneRepublic, go to an Aspen retreat to entertain employees. Another time, he hired Jon Bon Jovi — "and I pay for this. I don't let the company pay for that," Fries said.
"I'm always making sure it's a special event and that people understand the importance of getting together," he said. "My point is that it's important to me that people feel connected to something more than just their desk and computer. That they understand the purpose and have a sense of their role and how they contribute to things."
He's one of those CEOs who crams way more into 24 hours than seems possible. He's on about 10 company boards and serves as chairman for the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and the Biennial of the Americas. Recently, he was honored by the public-charter Denver School of Science and Technology public schools as its "Slice of Pi" recipient. The Fries Foundation also was thanked for its $50,000-plus gift.
"I remember the very first breakfast with Mike," DSST CEO Bill Kurtz said, adding that Fries' generosity has contributed to the school's growth from three campuses to 12. "It was a great opportunity to meet him and share our work with him. He immediately saw our potential. He travels all the time, but he certainly made time to be part of the community."
Fries admits that he still spends too much time working. Recently remarried, his wife, Michelle, often travels with him so they're not too far apart.
"A lot of it is about being proficient. If we have a meeting that is two hours, I make sure it doesn't go to 2:01. I try to delegate, get people involved. I work early mornings and late nights at home to get other things done," Fries said. "But in the end, some portion of your day or week has to be spent outside your core job or you're not really whole. I encourage everyone at our company to volunteer. You have to have passions, and I've got a lot."
Malone recommended Fries get a private jet so he could save time and fly direct. He travels constantly. Even in the air, Fries maximizes his time. He has brought his mountain bike on the plane and set it up on a stationary trainer.
"I was training for the Leadville 100, a 100-mile mountain bike race. And I figured nine to 10 hours in the air, why not? Yeah, I've done that before," Fries said. "It's a big enough plane where you can set up the bike. When you're in the air for nine hours, you can ride for four to five."
And then there's the band, The Moderators, which has played at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. ("You get to play there if you donate a lot of money," said Ed Haselden, Haselden Construction's chairman and the band's guitarist.)
The band came together at a Young Presidents Organization gathering around 2008. Members are CEOs, presidents or founders. Some are sole proprietors, others run national companies, such as Centennial-based Haselden. The goals: having fun, raising money for charity.
"I think everyone sees themselves as an equal," Haselden said. "It speaks to Mike's abilities. He is a very adaptive individual. He can command a company the size of Liberty, but he's also very collaborative. He's just a very cooperative guy."
The recent show at the Ogden Theater for cancer research raised nearly a half-million dollars. In eight years, Haselden estimates the band raised $4.5 million for charity. They don't charge a penny to the charity but instead invite their friends and typically donate money.
"Mike is very, very generous with all the events he is involved in," Haselden said. "The community is very lucky to have this guy."
The Liberty you know
In the Denver area, an assortment of Liberty companies all linked to Malone exist. Most have an Englewood postal address, but they're really based in Douglas County. Liberty Media, which has been described as Malone's investment arm, includes interests or ownership in SiriusXM, the Atlanta Braves baseball team and U.S. cable company Charter Communications, which just acquired Time Warner Cable.
There is also Liberty Interactive, which includes the QVC Group, online retailer Zulily and an interest in HSN, the Home Shopping Network. And Liberty Ventures, which includes subsidiaries Evite and Bodybuilding.com, and interests in Expedia, LendingTree and FTD.
Liberty Global was once part of all of this but broke off into its own cable-focused company in 2005. That's when Fries became CEO.
But the two go way back. At 27, Fries joined United International Holdings in 1990 as the company's fifth employee. The Columbia Business School MBA grad had spent a few years on the East Coast in the venture capital and investment banking division of PaineWebber ( now UBS). There, he got to know the cable industry — and its leaders. He took a 70 percent pay cut to join the Denver cable-TV startup and became an early investor. Its acquisitions were overseas cable companies Malone was getting rid of.
"My first desk was a cardboard box," recalled Fries. "They seemed like good guys with a great idea that I knew I could help build. I knew them; they knew me. We hit the ground running with very little and a good idea. People outside the U.S. probably want to watch CNN and MTV. Gee, maybe we should go and see if that's the case."
In 1992, Malone jumped back in. According to a story that year in the Rocky Mountain News, Malone's TCI gained a minority interest in the venture "to explore cable TV and telephone opportunities in Europe." But it was also an opportunity for TCI to regain the European operations it sold off to UIH, according to the story.
By 1998, UIH's cable and telephone networks spanned 23 countries, served 4.1 million video customers and 11,000 internet customers. A year later, UIH changed its name to UnitedGlobalCom.
But when the tech bubble popped the next year, the impact was horrendous and nearly bankrupted the company. Malone remembers the company going through several voluntary bankruptcy restructurings in Australia and Europe.
"That (early 2000s) period is a period I'm sure Mike would like to forget," Malone said. "They borrowed a lot more money than they should have. They were trying to grow too fast."
Malone's Liberty wound up getting a controlling interest in UnitedGlobalCom and helped clean up the company. In 2005, Malone merged it with Liberty Media's international operations. Fries became CEO.
In its first year, the company acquired at least a half-dozen cable companies, from Switzerland to Australia, according to that year's company financial report.
It has since added brands such as Virgin Media and Lionsgate. It completed its Cable & Wireless acquisition last week, adding 10 million video, broadband and wireless customers in Latin America and the Caribbean. Since 2005, it has made 218 acquisitions and sold off 29 companies. It now has more than 47,000 employees (136 in Denver), 33 million customers and is in more than 30 countries. It is investing in broadband infrastructure to expand its existing customer base.
Ten out of 13 financial analysts who cover the company rate the stock as a "buy" or "outperform."
"I believe that Mike Fries is the best international telco/cable CEO from an operating and a successful M&A perspective," Pivotal Research Group founder and analyst Jeff Wlodarczak said. "His cable businesses have far outperformed his telco peers and have shown growth for years versus his telco peers which, in general, continue to shrink."
Malone, Fries' boss, couldn't be more pleased.
"He's obviously a smart guy with a lot of energy. From Day 2, his execution was on point. When there was a problem and we talked about it, he got it right away,' said Malone, who meets regularly with Fries and hosts board retreats at his island in the Bahamas or his ranch in New Mexico. "Mike is probably the best CEO I know."
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