Meet The Reclusive American Billionaire Who Bought Lonely Planet

Last year, the Wall Street Journal called Brad Kelley “the man with a million acres.” Now the American billionaire and land addict has expanded his kingdom to include the world’s biggest travel-guide publisher. Kelley’s NC2 Media bought Lonely Planet from BBC Worldwide in a deal announced yesterday.

Most of the headlines focused on the huge loss BBC is taking by selling the company for about $78 million. It paid double that to buy the Melbourne-based publisher a few years ago. Some travel insiders are wondering if NC2, a small firm based in Nashville, Tenn. and specializing in digital development, will continue to publish the familiar blue-covered guides while devoting energy to digital expansion. NC2′s chief operating office, Daniel Houghton, made some routinely vague comments about being committed to the brand’s roots in publishing in a Q&A with Skift Travel. NC2 also produces “Outwild TV,” a story-rich Web series on adventure travel:

A fair amount of the chatter surrounding the news questions whether NC2 will have any more luck than the BBC did with the brand, which was portrayed as struggling financially and with digital innovation. But Kelley surely knows what he’s doing. He didn’t become a billionaire by making bad deals. (Actually, he earned his fortune in the cigarette business.)

Kelley, who’s on the Forbes 400 list of the world’s richest people, must know a promising brand when he sees one. Lonely Planet is the world’s largest travel-guide publisher with 40 years under its belt and 120 million books sold. The BBC grew it from the third most-popular guidebook series in the U.S. to the first.

Kelley, though, is the anti-Trump, with about as much flash as the Amish. The Wall Street Journal called him “deeply private” and claimed he doesn’t use Twitter or email (as of last fall). His hobbies, according to the article, include making bourbon and raising exotic animals; he’s also passionate about conservation. Most of his land – which is concentrated in Florida, Texas and New Mexico and in total outsizes Rhode Island – is devoted to ranches, and his holdings make him one of the top three or four land owners in the country, right up there with Ted Turner.

According to the WSJ, Kelley grew up as the son of a tobacco farmer in Kentucky and bought his first piece of land at 17. He maintains his primary residence in Franklin, Tenn., a town with about 65,000 residents.

That description might seem to cut against the image of an innovative digital firm and the exotic locations on which Lonely Planet is an authority, but in the WSJ Kelley talked about his land habit in financial terms, not romantic ones: “It’s a nonperishable commodity and it’s as good a place as any to put my money,” Mr. Kelley says. “It’s better than derivatives.” The article reported that “the national average value of U.S. ranchland rose 12% compared with five years earlier; in Texas, it is up 30% compared with five years ago.”

Lonely Planet is now based in a state that doesn’t warrant a blue-spined guidebook of its own, but it may well be in better hands.

[Photo credit: Joshua Alan Davis via Flickr]