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On Palaces and Castles

There’s a way to enjoy the view from the 55th-floor at Comcast’s under-construction headquarters in downtown Philly without getting vertigo. Check it out here.

The blogger, freelance photographer Albert Yee, got a tour on Aug. 7 of Philadelphia’s newest and biggest skyscraper. The views from the windowless 55th floor are pretty spectacular. Having once joined in an interview with Comcast co-founder Ralph Roberts in his office and admiring the “Billy Penn” statue atop City Hall, I can attest that vista has nothing on what’s coming when the Comcast Center opens next spring. Or I can now that I’ve seen the Dragonballyee Web site.

According to a Wikipedia entry, Philadelphia City Hall is 548 feet tall including the William Penn statue. The Comcast Center will be 975 feet tall when completed at its location at 1701 John F. Kennedy Boulevard.

Vendors, prepare to be even more intimidated when you come calling on the country’s biggest cable operator.

One feature might look familiar to folks who’ve visited Comcast’s current executive offices on the upper floors of 1500 Market St. The photos of the “grand stairway” that leads into the building reminds me of the reception area at Comcast’s current HQ that links the 34th and 35th floors. A carryover motif? Probably not but we’re checking into it with Comcast.

So much for corporate palaces. Now for castles. For that I turn to an interview in Barron’s magazine that landed in a Google News compilation of stories on Cablevision Systems.

In it, Gifford Combs, managing director and portfolio manager of Dalton Investments (of Los Angeles), draws a distinction between what John Malone is up to these days and what Charles and James Dolan are doing. In his words, “two companies in the same industry, where one company is behaving properly and one company is behaving improperly.”

Malone’s Liberty Global, Combs says, is doing right by shareholders by following traditional Malone approaches: minimizing taxes, creating tracking stocks for different business lines and buying back stock as cash flow increases.

Combs adds: “Now contrast Liberty Global with another cable TV company, Cablevision, where the modus operandi of the Dolan family seems to be: how to steal the company at as low a price as possible by maximizing our position and using the asymmetries of information flow available to us versus the public.”

Instead of taking the company private at as low a price as possible, Combs says, the Dolans should put money back into the business, add debt where appropriate, buy back stock when possible and sell some assets over time. In five years, he says, Cablevision’s stock price could be 6 to 7 times what it is today, or $250-$300 a share.

Combs puts Malone in the category of a “benevolent ruler” dwelling in a shining castle on the hill. And he hopes the Dolans will “see the way of truth and righteousness” and be more like Malone.

On the other hand, Chuck Dolan got a big shout-out in USA Today from his old cable buddy John Rigas.

In an interview with USAT’s Leslie Cauley before heading off to the federal pokey, Rigas points out not many of his cable chieftain pals have made the trek to remote Coudersport, Pa., to visit him while he was out on appeal. A notable exception was Dolan pere. "I thought that was really nice," Rigas says.

Benevolent, one might even say.