Spend! Spend! Spend!


So, supermodel Jerry Hall, what attracted you to multiple billionaire Paul Allen?" Such was the tone of many newspaper reports when the news emerged that Mick Jagger's former partner had spent some summer relaxation time on one of Mr Allen's yachts in the days before her marriage was finally dissolved.

Paul Allen? Wasn't he the presenter of one of those old black-and-white shows on American TV? Not quite, though when you see pictures of the third- richest man in the world (sometimes second-richest, depending on how Warren Buffett's investments are doing that day) wearing his black horn-rimmed glasses, you might think briefly of Steve Allen, the comic.

Paul Allen, unrelated, is younger, and considerably richer. Aged 46, he owes his worth to having co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates in 1975. He still sits on its board, but his days are mostly spent thinking of ways to buy into the "wired world" he is convinced is heading our way. In the past 16 months he (or his venture capital company Vulcan Ventures and other backers) have bought Internet and cable companies worth more than $25bn (pounds 15.6bn).

A few weeks ago it emerged he is trying to borrow $1bn, using his remaining Microsoft shares as collateral. This is a man on a buying spree. His investments mean he is the US's fifth-largest cable operator, with 6.2 million subscribers, "a very major player", says one cable rival. As for the evenings and days off, he spends them partying, watching basketball and American football, listening to Jimi Hendrix songs and enjoying himself.

With a personal fortune estimated at $18.5bn - of which about $13.5bn comes from his 2.47 per cent stake in Microsoft - you would expect Mr Allen to have a razor-sharp view of what's going on in the world. But expectations can be dashed. In June, he put that vision over to the cable industry in a speech at its biggest annual get-together. The audience was unimpressed. It is, he told them, all about "technology making our life easier".

Observers of that speech thought Mr Allen nervous and uncomfortable with such a public appearance. For years he has been, while not reclusive, certainly not a very public face of anything. Paul Allen does not give interviews. His "press office" frequently declines to comment on what his acquisitions mean. In one of the Bill Gates' biographies, Mr Allen is described as "the nicest billionaire you'll never meet".

If you want to get to know what he's about, fire up your Web browser and head over to his personal page www.paulallen.com and see for yourself. Be warned, it is one of the worst-designed websites you will come across: three-quarters of the screen is identical on every page, and one must squint at the remaining area hoping for useful information.

Don't expect too much in the way of enlightenment. What, one Web questioner asks on the site, is the key to success in business? "You have to have a great team of people to work with, a defined market for your product and the ability to get a good financial return on the money being invested to make the business go ... I also look for products or services (primarily in the technology area) which will have a potential for changing the way people live and work." If you find any of that surprising, hand back your MBA.

More useful information comes from those who have been swept up along his acquisition trail. Mr Allen is reportedly a dedicated "proto-consumer", who tries out the companies before he buys. Rather like Victor Kiam buying Remington after loving the shaver, late last year when Mr Allen was considering investing in a company called High Speed Access (which offers a portal site to the Internet for Americans using superfast cable modems) he tried it himself. He set his home computer up and clicked away for hours, says Ronald Pitcock, president of High Speed. "He is the ultimate consumer," Mr Pitcock told Business Week. "If he likes it, he figures the guy at home is going to as well." Mr Allen spent $20m buying 24 per cent of High Speed in January.

The Allen business empire is widely spread. In 1995, he provided 18 per cent of the start-up funds for Dreamworks, the film studio set up by Steven Spielberg. That was a $500m spend. In December 1998 he paid $2.8bn for Marcus Cable, based in Dallas, then $10m on 5 per cent of an "interactive TV" (cable, again) company, Wink Communications. In January this year he spent $4.5bn on Charter Communications, another cable company, $15m on 10 per cent of TiVO (an American digital TV company), and $20m for 24 per cent of High Speed Access, an Internet provider based on superfast cable modems. In March he plunked down $426m for Go2Net, a Web portal; then in May came $3.6bn on Falcon Communications, followed in June by $3.1bn on Bresnan Communications - cable again. And last month he put a comparatively modest $75m into Allegiance Telecom, a phone and Internet company. He already owns 49 per cent of Metricom, a wireless network. That's one of the more than 100 non-cable companies, with a total value of more than $5bn, in which he has stakes. Often they are Internet content providers, e-commerce or music or portal sites offering a gate towards other sites. He also owns a 150-ft yacht and a Boeing 757, Seattle's American football team, the Seahawks, and the Blazers, the basketball team from Portland, Oregon.

But the reason why lately he has figured as often in the society pages as in the business pages is his approach to enjoying life while he can. His name has been linked (rather tenuously) to the tennis star Monica Seles. Unmarried, he has no children, but owns homes in Holland Park in London, Manhattan, Long Island, Seattle (with his widowed mother Faye) and the south of France. He plays guitar with a rock band called the Threads. "He plays a very good guitar for a billionaire computer genius," say David Geffen, the music mogul who is a friend.

But what Mr Allen is best known for among the really rich set is parties, organised by his sister Jody. A couple of years ago the actor Robin Williams was a touch stunned to be invited, but went along. "I have never met him," Mr Williams said before the party - for which guests (who had to sign a confidentiality agreement) were flown from the film festival in Cannes to a masked ball in Venice. "I guess it's a `Hi, I'm a billionaire, let's have a party' kind of thing." Mr Allen seems to get a kick out of bringing people together to see what happens.

Last year he chartered a cruise liner and took 400 or so of his closest friends on a $10m four-day trip off Alaska. Among the attendees were Ms Hall, the actors Dennis Hopper, Jeff Goldblum, Dan Aykroyd and Robin Williams, the musicians Lou Reed (who played a private gig on the ship) and Dave Stewart (the lead man of Eurythmics), Star Wars director George Lucas. It was, for a while, the only place to be.

If Mr Allen seems like someone intent on mixing hedonism with business, you can hardly blame him. In 1983, aged 29, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a form of leukaemia that is fortunately treatable. He decided to take leave from Microsoft to fight off the disease.

The company then was nothing like the global force it is now. It had won the contract from IBM to provide MS-DOS, the operating system for the first IBM PC, so its future looked solid. But other companies had competing products and Apple was a rival to be reckoned with. A stock market listing was some way off - three years, in fact. Mr Allen was not leaving a sure thing.

It's fair to say Microsoft might have ended up a computing also-ran but for Bill Gates's steely determination to squash rivals. He did that so well that when the company was floated on the New York Stock Exchange in 1986, its opening share price of $21 made Mr Allen (and of course Mr Gates) the world's youngest billionaires.

Pause for a moment. Ever wondered why Mr Allen, an equal co-founder, is not the world's richest, or equal-richest, man? It's an odd tale, indicative of Mr Allen's gentler nature compared to Bill Gates. Together, the two men wrote Microsoft's first product, a form of the Basic computer language for the very rudimentary PCs available in the early 1970s. Mr Allen dropped out of Washington State University, but Mr Gates was still at Harvard (though soon to drop out too to pursue their shared vision). So, for a few months, Mr Allen filled in for a year or so by working as a software designer at a company called MITS, makers of the first "personal computer" - the Altair 8800 - who had licensed Microsoft's programming language Basic.

The two started the company absolutely equally, and both slogged for hours writing its products. Yet subsequently Mr Gates insisted he should get more of the shares because his partner had been getting paid by MITS to work on the Basic product and he was not. If that wasn't a breathtaking enough claim (that year's salary cost Mr Allen about $18bn in shares in today's money), Mr Gates then upped the ante, saying he deserved an even bigger cut because he had dropped out of a more prestigious university. In this way, Mr Allen's share fell from 50 to 40, and then 36 per cent of the shares (though it was readjusted back to 40 per cent before the company floated). So Mr Gates is Mr Rich.

Yet if Mr Allen ever felt shortchanged, he has never shown it. He and Mr Gates remain firm friends, often seen together at football and basketball games. As a consequence of his brush with cancer, Mr Allen looked at life afresh, and decided he liked it. He established four foundations based around community service, medical research, the visual and performing arts and forest preservation. He funded scientists searching for signs of extraterrestrial life, and put $100m into Aids research, and into modernising libraries and theatres. He spent money on Jimi Hendrix memorabilia. He grew a beard.

Then, a few years, ago he shaved off the beard and got his business focus back. In Mr Allen's vision of the wired world, consumers have access to most entertainment and communications services via the Net. Thus his focus on cable and Internet companies. Most buying decisions are made at Vulcan Ventures, where William Savoy, the 34-year-old former investment banker who is its president, consults with Mr Allen about the next best thing to buy into. Mr Savoy and his team then hunt candidate companies and do the number-crunching. Mr Allen gets briefing papers from which he makes the decision - to buy or not to buy.

From that follows the natural question: how good is Mr Allen at making money? After all, any fool can add millions to billions. Microsoft's stock alone offers, year after year, an upward ride to riches.

There are two reasons for querying the Allen strategy. First, he has occasionally sold out from companies which have gone on to pay off many times over; secondly, and more importantly, it is arguable that his strategy is flawed at its heart. For an example of the first issue, look no further than America Online, now known as AOL.

Mr Allen was an early investor in the fledgling online venture, but in 1994 he sold his 25 per cent share after an argument over control with Steve Case, the chief executive. Fair enough, he turned his $30m investment into more than $90m; but today, that quarter-share would be worth $24bn. That was one expensive argument. The second issue strikes more deeply to the heart of Mr Allen's ability. While he is acquiring bits of land-based cable networks at an extraordinary pace, other industry observers think the future will be with wireless technologies and delivery, in which neither the TV set nor the PC is necessarily the focus of delivery.

In Europe, the growth of mobile phones means their numbers are expected to start challenging fixed phones within the next five years. The US has been slower to pick up on the promise of integrated mobile communications, because of disputes about technologies (they have had nothing like the world-shrinking GSM technology, which lets phones work in many different countries work).

Psion, makers of palmtop computers, and the mobile phone giant Nokia are pivotal players in the Symbian group, which aims to make the Internet as wireless as possible. Even Apple's latest "consumer" offering, the iBook, boasts an accessory allowing wireless Internet access - though via a phone line at some point. The point remains that wirelessness is seen by many as the future. Mr Allen thinks we want cable; many others think content is king, and the means of delivery unimportant.

Who is right, and who wrong? To some extent, the answer is that everyone's right - the amount of content transferred by all formats is always going to increase. The number of radio stations has grown, not shrunk, despite the advent of TV. The key question is - which avenue, cable, or wireless, will be dominant.

Only time will tell. But what does Mr Allen really want to be remembered for? "If people remembered me as someone who had fun working with people to develop new technologies, who tried to do positive things for the community, I would be satisfied," he tells his website.

It's a laudable goal. But one suspects that unless the gamble on cable pays off big - which would mean that wireless networks would have to fail by equal measure - then he will mostly be remembered as "the guy who helped Bill Gates set up Microsoft".

And, of course, for throwing some great parties.

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