It wasn’t quite as overt as the time former Cablevision boss James Dolan used a 2015 NCTA trade show panel to plead for someone in the telecom industry to buy his company, but Forbes’ blandishment-rich profile of Mediacom kingpin Rocco Commisso conveys pretty much the same message.
Indeed, the 68-year-old Commisso, a former Cablevision finance chief, never comes out and directly declares that his Chester, N.Y., company is for sale. But writer Noah Kirsch, after breathlessly detailing the first-generation Italian immigrant’s rags-to-riches rise in the American cable business, strongly indicates that’s the plan.
“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,” Kirsch wrote.
In Commisso’s mind, he added, “there is little left to prove.”
Forbes details the seemingly counterintuitive chess moves Commisso used to build Mediacom, steadily acquiring assets in secondary markets from regulation-fearful industry refugees in the 1990s.
“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," Kirsch wrote.
“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,” Kirsch added. “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."
The writer also noted that “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.
Of course, within a month of Dolan’s declaration back in 2015, Europe’s Altice swept in and bought Cablevision.
Mediacom, Kirsch said, “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.”
Of course, with debt-strapped Altice NV trying to spin off its U.S. operation, we’ll have to wait and see what happens.
In the meantime, those who like a good Horatio Alger read will not come away from the Forbes story unsatisfied.
“Commisso, 68, has risen farther than nearly anyone in America,” Kirsch declared. “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."
Responded Commisso: “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.”