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Five Questions for Steve Simmons

Veteran cable entrepreneur Steve Simmons reached an agreement last week to sell his 81,000-subscriber Patriot Media & Communications systems to Comcast for $483 million in cash. Simmons, who sold his 350,000-subscribers Simmons Communications cable TV operation in 1994, spent the hiatus between that sale and his 2003 purchase of Patriot in part writing five children’s books — including the popular Alice and Greta series — the No. 1 children’s picture book when it was published in 1997. Simmons spoke with Multichannel News senior finance editor Mike Farrell over the phone about the Patriot sale and his future plans.

MCN: Why sell Patriot now?

Steve Simmons: We are an entrepreneurial company. We’ve been in this for over four years, by the time of closing four and a half years, and my partners — Spectrum Equity Investors and Spire Capital Partners — and I, we felt the best option to get an outstanding return on the investment was to sell at this time. That’s the reason.

As you know, most of these private-equity deals are in this sort of time frame [three to four years].

MCN: You definitely got a good return — you paid $245 million for Patriot in 2003. You’ve almost doubled your money.

SS: More than that, because of the bank debt in there. I feel very proud of all we’ve done for all of the subscribers and customers in central New Jersey.

MCN: Was part of the reason to sell due to frustration about not having that many opportunities to grow through acquisition? You’ve been a participant in several auctions for systems in the past, but haven’t won any.

SS: Not really. I think we looked at this individually, as an individual company. We have indeed made a run at various properties but we felt we weren’t going to settle for second best in bidding for properties. We may still buy something in the future. We’ll have to see.

I’d also like to say in selling to Comcast, I’ve known [vice chairman] Ralph Roberts for 30 years and [chairman and CEO] Brian Roberts almost that long. I think Comcast is a world-class cable and communications company. And I think Ralph and Brian are first class individuals. I feel in selling to them we will be offering our customers and existing subscribers into the hands of a company that will give them wonderful service and wonderful products and continue our tradition of providing great service and improve on it.

MCN: So what is in the future for you?

SS: I’ve had a variety of people ask me about investing with me in the future or lending me money for new deals. I will be looking at business options; I’ll be looking at public-service opportunities. But I’ll essentially keep my options open. I haven’t foreclosed any directions at this point.

I now serve on the board overseeing Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. We need to do a lot around the world to communicate and let people better understand America, its people and its institutions. That takes me to Washington every year. Maybe [I’ll] do more in that context. I’m on the broadcasting Board of Governors in which I serve and maybe do other things as well.

MCN: One of the things you did after selling Simmons Communications in 1994 was write children’s books. Any plans to start that up again?

SS: I don’t think so. My kids are grown up and they were the inspiration to do that.