Tribune boss Zell on way out

by David Roeder, Chicago Sun Times

Sam Zell's days as a media titan in Chicago are nearly over.

The motorcycle-riding billionaire, renowned for his deft touch with real estate and corporate turnarounds, took Tribune Co. private in late 2007 promising to energize the lumbering company. He piled on debt at exactly the wrong time, and a collapse in advertising for traditional media forced him to take the company to Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Eight months after the filing, two sources familiar with the process said creditors are working on a reorganization plan that elbows Zell aside. The creditors, including investment banks owed $8.6 billion from Zell's Tribune takeover, would stage a takeover of their own and sell off the company's newspapers and broadcast stations as they see fit.

"The banks will be in charge," one insider said, adding that they are growing impatient with Zell's stewardship. The bankruptcy court on Monday granted Zell extended time, until Nov. 30, to be the first to file a reorganization plan. Creditors have to wait at least that long before filing their own plan with the court.

William Brandt Jr., a corporate turnaround expert not involved in the case, said enough time has passed so that creditors and the debtor want to cut losses and save face. He said an honorable exit is especially important to Zell, who might need investment banking help for future deals.

"This was a textbook case of a leverage buyout gone bad," said Brandt, president of Development Specialists Inc. "These were imbeciles who had no idea what they were doing."

Brandt said Zell waited too long to sell major assets, accomplishing only a $650 million sale of Newsday, the Long Island-based daily. A sale of the Tribune-owned Chicago Cubs for around $900 million is not final and suffered a months-long detour when Zell tried to sell Wrigley Field separately to an arm of state government.

Still, Tribune financial reports filed with the bankruptcy court show recent improvement. The company's cash on hand rose to $740.5 million as of June 28, up from $702 million in late May. It reported profitable operations in June aside from debt obligations, but for the period from Dec. 8, 2008 to June 28 it said it lost $836.5 million. The numbers don't include units such as the Cubs, which were left out of the bankruptcy filing.

Tribune spokesman Gary Weitman said, "Since going private, we have re-engineered many of our existing products and introduced new ones, expanded our local news programming, dramatically reduced our expenses and positioned the company to succeed in the face of an extremely difficult ad environment and a worsening economy."

He added that Zell and other managers "remain actively engaged and committed to Tribune. The restructuring is still in progress and we continue having positive discussions with our various creditor constituencies. It is premature to speculate about the company's final ownership structure."

While the company has laid off workers, it has hired others to fill new needs. Bankruptcy experts said creditors usually don't object to such new expenses if they believe they help preserve value.

Tribune debt recently traded for about 7 cents on the dollar, meaning investors think a lottery ticket is just as likely to pay off. The company's total debt, counting what Zell assumed in his takeover, is around $13 billion.

Brandt said the Tribune deal has become such a "reputational disaster" for Zell that's he's probably not involved much in management other than creditor negotiations. That could be one reason the company wants bankruptcy court approval to pay bonuses of about $70 million to top managers.

Tribune owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and other major newspapers, as well as WGN-TV and radio and 22 other TV stations.

David Wirt, chairman of the bankruptcy practice at the firm Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell, said Zell may be getting pressure because creditors want to see revenue growth, and not just cost-cutting. Also, the bankruptcy process is expensive and participants tire of paying lawyer fees that can top $800 an hour for senior partners, said Wirt, whose firm is not involved in the case.

In late 2008, debt analyst Mike Simonton of Fitch Ratings estimated Tribune was worth about $4 billion if sold. Since then, the company's balance sheet has worsened. As of June 28, Tribune said its liabilities exceeded assets by $7.1 billion, vs. $5.7 billion at the time of Simonton's estimate.

Even after a drawn-out liquidation, creditors may be lucky to get a third of their investment back.

article originally published at Chicago Sun Times.

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