‘I love doing battle’: The tough guy who made $750m

By Will Smale
Business reporter, BBC News

  • Published
David McCourtImage source, Claire Wood Photography
Image caption,
David McCourt is proud of his Irish-American heritage

With his thick, working class Boston accent, David McCourt doesn't immediately come across as a successful entrepreneur with a personal fortune of $750m (£589m).

If you ever saw the 58-year-old drinking in an Irish bar in his native "Southie", the blue collar southern part of the US city, you'd be minded not to annoy him.

He looks like a tough guy who doesn't tolerate fools; you'd guess he was an off-duty policeman, fireman, or construction boss.

A proud Irish American, he says this is his heritage.

"When I was growing up, every Irish guy in Boston was a contractor, a policeman, or a fireman.

"My dad was a contractor, my dad's dad was a contractor, my dad's dad's dad was a contractor."

Image source, Getty Images
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Mr Court's business interests expanded out from his home town of Boston

However, Mr McCourt didn't follow his father into the building industry for long. Instead he made his first fortune in the early 1980s as one of the first, and largest, installers of cable TV networks in the US.

A serial entrepreneur, he then went on to expand into telephone systems and making television programmes.

But while Mr McCourt is softly spoken and polite, the "Southie" steel is more than evident.

"I'm definitely not afraid of a fight [in business]," he says. "If I have been wronged, I will spend as long as it takes so that I feel I have been righted."

After school in Boston, Mr McCourt went to Georgetown University in Washington DC, from where he graduated in 1979 with a degree in sociology.

Moving back to Boston he worked in construction for a year or two, until aged 24 he found out that cable TV was coming to the city, and firms were being invited to bid to lay the wires in the ground.

Image source, David McCourt
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Mr McCourt has won numerous awards for his work as a television programme producer

Despite having no real knowledge of the sector, Mr McCourt decided to make a pitch.

Quickly doing some work in the industry so that he could learn the ropes and show he had experience, albeit brief, his bid was accepted.

What gave him the edge over his rivals was that he said he could start the work straight away.

While the other bidders were worried about delays in getting permits to dig up Boston's roads, Mr McCourt says that thanks to his local knowledge he had a cunning plan.

He says he realised the city's then mayor was being criticised in east Boston because he had agreed to the expansion of the city's airport - located in that part of the city.

Image source, Altv
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ALTV has launched online in North Africa

So in order to help placate the local residents, Mr McCourt said he would start his work there, making them the first to get cable. It worked, and he quickly got his permits.

After Boston his business - McCourt Cable Systems - expanded across the US.

When problems arrived, it was invariably always a customer not paying him. Mr McCourt says he always resolved the issue with a tactic a friend taught him in a Boston bar.

"[On one occasion] my biggest customer had all my money, and all of sudden a tough guy starts taking my calls, telling me I had been charging them too much, and they were going to renegotiate my bill," he says.

Image source, David McCourt
Image caption,
Mc McCourt has long mixed with the great and the good

"So I was in a pub... bitching about not getting paid, and the guy I was with grabs me by the tie and says 'do something about it, or shut up'."

Mr McCourt says his friend then told him about a builder who, after not being paid, turned up at a customer's house with a hammer and said he would smash the wall he had built unless he got his money.

"That was my answer," says Mr McCourt. "So I phoned up the company and said I'm going to start digging up all my cables.

"There was then a huge meeting with lawyers, chaos and threats, but by Thursday they had paid me everything, 100%."

Within a few years Mr McCourt had expanded overseas, and was laying cable in Mexico, a business he subsequently sold to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

Image source, David McCourt
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He worked with Meg Ryan on a documentary in his native Ireland

As the US telephone network was opened up to competition, he also set up a phone business called Corporate Communications Network that he merged with another business before selling for $14.3bn.

He also bought a number of TV stations in the Caribbean, and moved into making TV programmes when he realised this was cheaper than buying them in.

His TV career as a producer has seen him win a number of Emmy Awards, and make documentaries with the likes of Michael Douglas and Meg Ryan.

Today Mr McCourt is chief executive of Granahan McCourt Capital (GMC), which has numerous business interests around the world. These range from Irish broadband business Enet to a Saudi Arabian joint partnership to develop satellite technology.

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The more recent ventures of GMC include TV business ALTV.com, which aims to help people in the developing world get paid for recording videos on their mobile phones, be it reporting news or making longer form films.

Mr McCourt also has high hopes for a smart phone app called Findyr, which he hopes will revolutionise information gathering around the world, as it enables members of the public to get paid for sending data to survey firms.

He explains: "So instead of the cost of having to send expensive survey staff somewhere, you pay members of the public to send in a geo-located photograph or piece of data."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Mr McCourt made his fortune installing cable TV across the US

Brian Morgan, professor of entrepreneurship at Cardiff Metropolitan University, says: "David McCourt is one of those entrepreneurs who has learned to successfully create and to navigate public-private partnerships in order to increase investment in mobile and cable connectivity in areas where it has traditionally been deemed as uneconomic.

"In the process he has made himself a very rich entrepreneur, but this is exactly what constructive entrepreneurship is all about - it's about providing a service or product that people want, and/or introducing something new into the market that enhances the social capital of the region."

Mr McCourt admits that he often takes on too many projects, but says he has no intention of slowing up.

"I love business, and I love doing battle, I love competition and I love to win," he says.

"I like to accomplish stuff and I like to build stuff... I like all those better than golf, or drinking, or watching TV."

Follow The Boss series editor Will Smale on Twitter.

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