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Ex-Century COO Still Building — Homes

Once a developer, always a developer — look at Bernard "Bern" Gallagher. After helping to build Century Communications Corp. into a million-subscriber system ripe for sale in 1999 to Adelphia Communications Corp., he's at it again.

This time, his primary target is real estate. With the guidance and expertise of an architect friend, the 56-year-old has spent the last two years developing houses up and down the Jersey Shore.

For Gallagher, the move caps a lifelong dalliance with real-estate investments — an adult fascination with building beach homes and watching their equity grow.

But house-building isn't necessarily what the longtime cable guy would consider a permanent lifestyle change.

"Now that cable prices are coming back down to Earth, maybe I'll get back in the cable business," he quipped. "It's hard to keep a good man down forever."

Painful goodbye

On Oct. 1, 1999, when Adelphia bought Century for nearly $5.2 billion, Gallagher stepped down as president and COO, but stayed on as a consultant, overseeing the transition and guiding former employees through a tumultuous time.

He describes this period as "painful," because it meant ending a day-to-day relationship with some of his favorite people. And Adelphia's management was more centralized than Century's, which created practical difficulties for everyone.

"Within literally days, I knew [Timothy and Michael Rigas] would be as inept at running the company as they proved to be," he said now, looking back. "It's a damn disaster."

When Bern and Mary Gallagher and their three kids (ages 10 to 13) moved from New Canaan, Conn., to Princeton, N.J., in 2001, Gallagher hired an architect friend to help renovate the new house.

Then they started buying beachfront properties on the Jersey Shore. Today, their "Beach House Properties" has sold three houses so far, three are currently for sale, and three others are in the midst of development.

"We buy properties, tear them down, build new homes, and sell them," explained Gallagher, who got his start in cable at Comcast Corp. in 1979. "It's like the cable business, only our bubble hasn't burst."

His first investment of $300,000, in a house on Bergantine Island in South Jersey, nearly has doubled in value, he figures.

When not playing land baron, Gallagher spends free time practicing another hobby: piano. He said he's "always plinked around" on the ivories, but never tried to tackle the instrument all together. Now that his children are taking lessons, Gallagher said he takes them, too – same teacher, same time, same piano. They play duets at holiday times, and have set a goal: a family recital.

Down the road, some of this piano time may be diminishing. Over the last few months, Gallagher says he's seriously contemplated climbing back into the cable industry, an endeavor he acknowledges is "risky" at best, but ultimately "worthwhile."

This time, he'd focus on ancillary businesses, and has investigated founding an independent broadband technology company that would license subscription-based services such as video streaming and direct electronic mail to larger, regional providers.

Return to cable?

Planning for this endeavor is still under wraps, but Gallagher said things could pick up sometime early next year.

But the mere prospect of Gallagher's return to the business has colleagues talking.

"The cable industry misses Bern Gallagher more than it knows," said Leo Hindery, CEO of YES Network, and a long-time friend of Gallagher's. "I honestly believe that some of the travails the industry is experiencing currently are because Bern and few others like him are no longer in our midst."

Will Gallagher continue to explore options? Will he return to the cable industry?

Whatever happens, he won't sit for long.

"I'm too young to retire," he jokes. "If all else fails, look for me at Carnegie Hall."