Do you mind always having to up sticks?” I ask David McCourt, founder, chairman and chief executive of telecoms and media investment firm Granahan McCourt, in regard to his likely move to London later this year. “No,” he replies. “I was only in the house my kids grew up in for 14 days last year; I’m used to it. And I love London.”
You’ve probably not heard of McCourt, but he’s quietly built an empire. He started his first firm, McCourt Cable Systems, in 1982. An Emmy and EY World Entrepreneur winner, and the first person to be recognised for his services to business by the White House, since then, he’s founded or bought 20 companies in nine countries, spanning TV stations, telecoms and internet satellite firms. In 2012, his net worth was estimated to be $750m, and he has contracts running from Mexico to Saudi Arabia. “Everything we do must be replicable around the world. We don’t have any business where it only works in the UK, or Idaho. Everything is global, and everything must be in some kind of partnership with someone else.”
The move to London underlines this. “I find myself in London every month. We’ve got a lot of business in Dublin and the Middle East, and are looking at projects in Spain and Italy.” Last year, McCourt bought Ireland’s Enet and AirSpeed, merging them and creating a single gigabit network for the country. “The proposal for Ireland’s national broadband plan is $1-1.5bn. That’s much bigger than Enet can do by itself, so we’re doing one piece of it. It’s a Granahan McCourt, John Laing, 3i and Berkshire Hathaway partnership.” This has been part of another move for McCourt, who’s second-generation Irish, as he recently bought a historic property in Clare. After we’ve finished talking, he starts snapping some attractive pot plants in boxes – inspiration for his new greenhouse.
McCourt explains that he first learnt how to navigate a successful partnership while working under his now long-time business partner Walter Scott – “now it’s my calling card. There are 4bn people in the world without internet. Where there isn’t any, it’s because some mobile, fibre or cable company deemed it uneconomic to put it there. So the government decides to subsidise that basic necessity to a level that does make it economic for a private company. And that makes it perfect for a public private partnership, which is what we’ve been doing for almost 30 years.”
Recently, McCourt has gone further afield – his satellite firm Skyware is now building what he hopes will be the world’s most sophisticated internet satellite factory in Saudi Arabia, in partnership with the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology. “We intend to dominate the ground terminal business in the satellite industry. The Saudi Vision 2030 is not only one of the most ambitious plans ever to come out of that region, it’s one of the most globally ambitious plans, and I think it will get executed. Saudi is an incredibly interesting country.”
The businessman isn’t, however, feeling as warm towards America right now. After he mentions “that narcissist Donald Trump”, I ask whether he’s worried about the future. “What I’m really worried about is that, out of 350m people, the best we have to offer is Hillary and Donald. You’d think we could do better.
“The truth is that we are all to blame for this situation. Old and young, rich and poor – the blame is spread among us all.” McCourt says he hopes to soon see a tipping point in American politics. “Where are all the young people? It seems we have a lazy group of revolutionaries. And in power, we have presidents of the Democratic and Republican parties; not a President of the United States. The elections are always 48-52 anyway. If you’re elected, you must stand for all American people; we’ve lost that.”
Many moons ago, McCourt worked for the liberal Democrat Tip O’Neill, and a saying of his has stuck: “‘I would rather get 55 per cent of what I want and let someone else get the 45 per cent.’ I don’t see good partnerships in any of these politicians. The reasonable centre has gone, and until it comes back, we have a problem.” For over two decades, McCourt has been a registered independent – and it’s through a third party in the US “where people can properly run as independents” that he sees potential change. “These are people that are not tied to either party, but just want what’s best for America.”
A bigger vision
But this is not where McCourt is focusing his energies. He’s just launched ALTV, a combination of social media and a traditional media site designed to empower people in the Middle East, North Africa, Latin America and Eastern Europe, giving them a platform to promote video content. Headquartered in Dublin, “it’s a startup that’s growing very fast – it’s doubled every 45 days since we launched it.” ALTV is providing the training and tools to help youngsters make professional-quality content that’s locally relevant – and then he’s partnering with them.
“This isn’t how the entertainment industry works. It’s been built up with American-dominated video content. But there is a power shift going on: globalisation and nationalistic feeling are in conflict – look at Trump, look at Brexit. People want the benefits of globalisation while feeling like they have some control over their own lives.” This is McCourt’s way of helping them achieve that.
And he’s going further; ALTV is now working on what McCourt terms “micro-working”. His team is building tools that allow someone to do very small tasks on-demand, via an app – and in a refugee camp. The scheme is currently being trialled in Jordan: “Why can’t ALTV, instead of getting its subtitling done in LA, get it done by someone in a refugee camp? We’re enabling them to download a piece of content and subtitle it for us, do voiceover work, editing, meta-tagging.”
It’s early days, but, as with micro-payments, McCourt thinks this new way of working will leapfrog developed markets in emerging ones. “These are good, educated people in a bad situation. And they just want a chance, like everyone else, to make something of their lives.”