The man who would be king of UK cable

American financier Bill Huff already has control of NTL. Now he's targeting Telewest
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The Independent Online

If the bulls are back on Wall Street, the vultures funds still see rich pickings on the carcasses of Britain's two biggest cable companies. The cable companies, whose shares stormed ahead when the stock market boomed, are now worth a tiny fraction of their former valuations.

Fast emerging as one of the biggest vultures taking advantage of the bargain basement prices around in this sector is Bill Huff, an American "value investor" who swallowed a large chunk of bonds in NTL, the cable company which completed a phoenix-like restructuring at the beginning of this year.

Mr Huff, who runs a 50-strong fund management business, which bears his own name, is also widely thought to be the largest holder of the debt of Telewest, another British cable company that has hit the rocks and is trying to push through its own restructuring.

Given the pole position Mr Huff now has at both companies, most industry observers say that if the much talked of consolidation in the UK cable sector through the merger of its biggest players takes place, it is certain to be on terms agreeable to the hard-nosed Mr Huff.

Despite his increasing importance in the world of the UK's cable industry, which straddles the world of TV, telephone lines and internet access, Mr Huff has remained an elusive character.

One British businessman who has had dealings with him said: "He seems to have taken on mythic proportions. His footprint is very apparent - you meet his representatives and they are very aggressive - but the man himself remains elusive."

Mr Huff, who founded New-Jersey based WR Huff Asset Management 20 years ago, follows the approach of many in his sector and does not talk to the media, preferring to operate behind the scenes.

He specialises in investing an estimated $5bn (£3.33bn) of funds his company has under management in corporate bonds and private equity, where stakes do not have to be disclosed in the way that shareholdings do, and he guards his privacy both in a personal and a business capacity carefully. Anyone involved with the sector knows that Mr Huff plays his cards close to his chest and does not disclose more about his interest in companies than he has to by law.

Yet this investor - described by friends as "pugnacious" and "clear minded" and by foes as a "bully" - has manoeuvred himself into a position where he played an instrumental role in the recovery of NTL, whose chief executive until last month was its ebullient founder, Barclay Knapp. Now Mr Huff also appears to be calling the tune from across the Atlantic at Telewest.

NTL parted company with Mr Knapp after a rollercoaster ride that saw the company become the UK's biggest cable operator before it collapsed into Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Mr Huff, who built his holding to more than 10 per cent of NTL's debt, got himself elected on to the board. For a brief period earlier this year, he also assumed the role of acting chairman of the company after it failed to lure Lord Hollick, chief executive of United News & Media.

While his tough-talking approach meant he and fellow bondholders got a better deal than they might out of the NTL restructuring, not all of those in his camp favoured his techniques. One insider said: "Bill can be amazingly effective, but he can also blunder about. He could not continue to be chairman because he held more than 10 per cent of the bonds, which goes against Sarbanes Oxley [the Act America introduced to tighten corporate governance after high profile failures such as Enron]."

"Once Bill had taken on board that he could not be chairman, he acted brilliantly. He conducted a very professional search and went through all the proper procedures," the source added. The result was the appointment of James Mooney, former chief operating officer of the US wireless group Nextel.

However, critics argue he had more influence than he ought to have had at NTL and documents revealed earlier this week by The Independent show Mr Huff is lining up a very similar deal at Telewest.

Telewest is yet to get the banks, bondholders and other interested parties to agree on how its debt for equity swap will work, despite working on the project for more than a year.

Mr Huff has in this morass negotiated for himself an attractive package. As well as receiving $1.5m in fees and expenses for his work on the deal, Mr Huff is in line to have the right to appoint two of his own representatives to the Telewest board and also to have a major say in whoever ends up as chairman and chief executive of the company.

Some other bondholders have backed Mr Huff because he has managed to squeeze even more out of Telewest for bondholders. Thanks to Mr Huff's tough tactics, shareholders are likely to walk away with just 1 per cent of Telewest, compared with the 3 per cent they were to receive previously.

But it has not been popular all round. One observer said: "Not all of of the bondholders are pleased. They were on the cusp of doing this deal and then it got spoiled." Another source of alarm is that Mr Huff appears to want to move Telewest to the US as a condition of the rescue deal going through in a move that would echo what happened at NTL.

Mr Huff's motivation for taking an interest in both companies could not be clearer. Like John Malone - another prominent American investor in UK cable companies - Mr Huff has snapped up large holdings at rock bottom prices in companies once loved by the stock market, which over extended themselves by funding massive expansion programmes by taking on more and more debt.

Despite ironically having a reputation for being suspicious of new technology, not liking to use mobile phones and preferring a yahoo! email account to his work one because he does not want his correspondence to be hacked into, Mr Huff saw the likelihood the companies would recover. His timing could not have been better. His debt holdings are in the process of turning into almost as substantial equity holdings in the same companies, just as the stock market picks up and as the telecoms and technology sectors seem to be coming out of the doldrums.

Quite why Mr Huff has been given such a big say in things by the boards and other parties involved is less clear. Some say he only holds about 8 per cent of Telewest, far less than the 20 per cent level that has been rumoured, and not enough to give him a blocking vote in any deal put on the table.

There was also speculation that his negotiating position has not been as strong as it seemed, following suggestions that he stretched his finances too far through his involvement at NTL. Yet Mr Huff seems to have got his feet firmly under the negotiating table at both companies and may now be looking beyond the final tying up of the Telewest saga to the far larger project of trying to bring the two bruised businesses together.