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Greg Maffei: Liberty’s Smooth Operator

Bill Gates. Larry Ellison. John Malone.

Greg Maffei has worked for all of those executives. In succession.

“All strong personalities,” he said, succinctly.

Of course, when Maffei arrived at Liberty Media at the end of 2005, his job description was pretty succinct as well: Turn Liberty into an operating company.

At that juncture, the company’s purpose was pretty opaque. It was a holding company for bits and pieces of companies thrust together by the endless wheeling and dealing of cable-television pioneer John Malone.

Malone thought enough of Maffei to relinquish the title of chief executive; and hire him away from software samurai Ellison, who has used the code of the warrior to turn Oracle into a dominant supplier of database programs and other business applications.

There, Maffei was co-president, along with two other executives. The software giant employed 50,000 workers.

Once in Denver, he became the sole president and CEO of Liberty — which maintained a staff of about 70 executives and managers to oversee a disparate collection of assets that included shopping channel QVC, movie service Starz Entertainment and oddments such as wireless-phone locator TruePosition and a broadband-wireless service for rural markets called Wild Blue Communications.

He wasted little time starting to simplify the collection — and turn passive investments into companies he and Malone could actually run.

Sold off: stakes in interactive software supplier OpenTV, hotel entertainment company On Command and the justice programmer Court TV. Its stake in CBS was exchanged for a Green Bay television station and $170 million in cash. Liberty picked up a TV-production house from telecommunications services firm IDT, started a movie production house called Overture and, as an extension, turned its premium movie service, Starz Entertainment, into an integrated production and distribution house called simply Starz.

And then, Liberty made its big deal: An agreement to exchange its 16.3% stake in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. for News’s 38.5% stake in DirecTV Group, the nation’s largest direct-broadcast satellite provider. When that transaction is complete, Liberty will also pick up regional sports networks in Denver, Pittsburgh and Seattle — and $550 million in cash.

Maffei early on moved to rationalize the holdings by creating two so-called tracking stocks: one that let investors focus on Liberty’s biggest operating unit, QVC, and another that will let them capitalize on the rest of its holdings, which included stakes in Time Warner Inc., Sprint Nextel and Motorola.

He’s only getting started. By his own summation, it’s hard for him to point to any extraordinary contribution he made to Microsoft’s growth in the seven years he spent there.

The telecom company he headed after that, 360 Networks, went bankrupt.

And he spent less than a year at Oracle, before realizing that he wasn’t going to take over the chief executive mantle from Ellison any time soon, he said.

Which made at least one analyst — quoted in the Denver Post — skeptical about Malone’s selection of Maffei.

“He’s going to have to do a lot to restore his credibility,’ ” Trip Chowdhry, an analyst with FTN Midwest Securities Corp. in Cleveland, told the Post. “He left Microsoft and then drove 360Networks into bankruptcy. Then he became CFO of Oracle. At Oracle, he didn’t prove anything. Instead of sticking with it, building, showing results, he ran away.”

But Maffei may be having the last laugh. The value of Liberty’s stock had declined 34% in the five years before he arrived, to $7.95. In the year-and-almost-a-half since he showed up, the value had shot up by April 24 to $12.03, a gain of 51%.