In the late 1980s, investment banker Mike Fries was working on a number of major U.S. cable deals when he got to know Gene Schneider. The legendary cable pioneer had just sold off his American systems and was planning to build a new cable empire abroad.
“After six months of working with them to raise capital, I decided they were on to something,” Fries recalls. “I left my job in New York, took a 70% pay cut and dived in,” becoming the fifth employee of Schneider’s United International Holdings in March 1990.
Their offices weren’t exactly lavish—Fries’ first desk was a cardboard box—and the risks were enormous. U.S.-style cable operators were virtually unknown around the world, and most early American investors in cable systems in the U.K. and other parts of Europe failed miserably, with most selling off their investments in the 1990s.
“Mike was one of those pioneers who was willing to dive into uncharted territory,” recalls Bill Roedy, the former head of Viacom’s international operations who spent the 1990s launching MTV networks around the world. “He built an incredible career by taking the unique American cable business model and exporting it around the world in the face of what were often incredible economic headwinds.”
Over time, the results would make Fries one of the most successful executives in pay-TV history. In the last decade alone, as CEO of Liberty Global, he expanded company operations from $5.2 billion in revenue in 2005 to $18.2 billion in 2014. At the end of the second quarter of 2015, Liberty Global had 25.7 million unique customers, making it the largest cable company outside the United States and China.
“Mike is one of the fi nest executives I’ve worked with,” says Liberty Global chairman John Malone, who named Fries CEO of Liberty Global in 2005 on the strength of his operating skills and knowledge of international pay-TV markets. “He comes at the world with a deep financial perspective, but he blends that together with being a great team builder and operator. That is unique because people are usually one or another, but not both.”
Fries got an early taste of the TV industry from his father, who was a successful TV and movie producer with a star on Hollywood Boulevard. After graduating from Wesleyan University (he now serves on the school’s board), Fries went into investment banking with Paine Webber. He then joined UIV just after the Berlin Wall fell and pay-TV markets were beginning to take off outside the United States.
Starting with just $20 million in capital, UIV built up operations in 27 countries across Europe and the Asia Pacific region, which Fries headed between 1996 and 1999. In ’99, Gene Schneider renamed the company United Global Com (UGC) and Fries became president and COO.
Fries helped bring Malone’s Liberty Media into the company with a $500-million investment in 1999. But when the dotcom bubble burst in 2001 the company was forced to restructure its massive $10-billion debt pile. Ultimately, Liberty Media bought out the Schneider family and in 2005 merged various assets together into what is now Liberty Global with Fries as CEO and Malone as chairman.
“That created a really remarkable partnership ,” says Roedy. “Everyone knows John Malone is a financial wizard, but so is Mike. So they talk the same language.”
Between 2005 and 2011 the two consummate dealmakers expanded and refocused the company ’s operations, selling off some $8 billion in assets in markets including Japan, France and Scandinavia while spending another $17 billion to acquire other European systems. Then in 2013, Liberty Global took another big leap in size by acquiring Virgin Media , the U.K.’s largest cable operator, in a stock and cash merger valued at about $24 billion.
“Mike has this incredible vision of rolling up assets in Europe and building scale,” says David Zaslav, president and CEO of Discovery Communications. “I think all of us in the industry have been blown away by what he’s accomplished.”
Malone and others also stress Fries’ knowledge of local markets and the company’s record of innovation as key components of its success. On the tech side, the company was an early adopter of DOSCIS 3.0 and faster Internet speeds. “Our average customer is getting 70Mbps today, but all of our new sales are 100Mbps or higher and we are on our way to a gig,” Fries says.
Another key innovation was Liberty Global’s next-generation Horizon TV service. The offering , launched in 2012, combines over-the-top and traditional pay-TV services into one interface that provides access to content on multiple devices . “We think we’ve nipped Netflix in the bud by essentially duplicating the app and by providing customers with a TV Everywhere experience on all their devices that can’t be beat,” Fries says.
Friends and colleagues also note his energy and devotion to family , friends and his community. Fries is the lead singer in a rock band of Denver-area CEOs that has raised well over $5 million for charities. He serves on the boards of CableLabs, Cable Center, the Denver Museum of Contemporary Art and the Denver Biennial of the Americas.
In his philanthropic work, educational and cultural institutions are a particular focus. In addition to sitting on the board of his child’s high school and supporting educational reform, he chairs the board of trustees at the Denver Museum of Contemporary Arts. “I’m not a huge art collector, but I do collect and I think the museum is an incredible source of energy and civic engagement,” Fries says.
Besides all that, says Zaslav, Fries is an avid skier and sportsman who always finds time for the people closest to him. “When I’m traveling, it is always a good day when I’m meeting up with Mike,” says Zaslav. “He’s just a fun guy to be around.”