Monday, December 8, 2008

Workers Pay for Debacle at Tribune


Sam Zell acknowledged from the start that his deal for the Tribune Company was flawed.

“I’m here to tell you that the transaction from hell is done,” Mr. Zell said last December when he sealed his $8.2 billion takeover of the publisher of The Chicago Tribune and The Los Angeles Times.

But just how hellish this deal was, particularly for Tribune employees, became painfully clear on Monday when the 161-year-old company filed for bankruptcy.

There is a lot of blame to go around, and much of it will be directed at Mr. Zell, the real estate baron whose knack for buying when everyone else is selling earned him a fit sobriquet for the news business these days: The Grave Dancer.

Advertising is in a free fall, and every newspaper is suffering. But Mr. Zell literally mortgaged the future of Tribune’s employees to pursue what one analyst, Jack Newman, at the time called “a childhood fantasy.”

Mr. Zell financed much of his deal’s $13 billion of debt by borrowing against part of the future of his employees’ pension plan and taking a huge tax advantage. Tribune employees ended up with equity, and now they will probably be left with very little. (The good news: any pension money put aside before the deal remains for the employees.)

As Mr. Newman, an analyst at CreditSights, explained at the time: “If there is a problem with the company, most of the risk is on the employees, as Zell will not own Tribune shares.” He continued: “The cash will come from the sweat equity of the employees of Tribune.”

And so it is.

Granted, Mr. Zell, 67, put up some money. He invested $315 million in the form of subordinated debt in exchange for a warrant to buy 40 percent of Tribune in the future for $500 million. It is unclear how much he’ll lose, but one thing is clear: when creditors get in line, he gets to stand ahead of the employees.

Mr. Zell isn’t the only one responsible for this debacle. With one of the grand old names of American journalism now confronting an uncertain future, it is worth remembering all the people who mismanaged the company before hand and helped orchestrate this ill-fated deal — and made a lot of money in the process. They include members of the Tribune board, the company’s management and the bankers who walked away with millions of dollars for financing and advising on a transaction that many of them knew, or should have known, could end in ruin.

It was Tribune’s board that sold the company to Mr. Zell — and allowed him to use the employee’s pension plan to do so. Despite early resistance, Dennis J. FitzSimons, then the company’s chief executive, backed the plan. He was paid about $17.7 million in severance and other payments. The sale also bought all the shares he owned — $23.8 million worth. The day he left, he said in a note to employees that “completing this ‘going private’ transaction is a great outcome for our shareholders, employees and customers.”

Well, at least for some of them.

Tribune’s board was advised by a group of bankers from Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, which walked off with $35.8 million and $37 million, respectively. But those banks played both sides of the deal: they also lent Mr. Zell the money to buy the company. For that, they shared an additional $47 million pot of fees with several other banks, according to Thomson Reuters. And then there was Morgan Stanley, which wrote a “fairness opinion” blessing the deal, for which it was paid a $7.5 million fee (plus an additional $2.5 million advisory fee).

On top of that, a firm called the Valuation Research Corporation wrote a “solvency opinion” suggesting that Tribune could meet its debt covenants. Thomson Reuters, which tracks fees, estimates V.R.C. was paid $1 million for that opinion. V.R.C. was so enamored with its role that it put out a press release.

In some corners of the world, you could arguably applaud Tribune’s board for selling the company when they did. The Chandler family, which owned 12 percent of Tribune through its previous sale of Times Mirror, campaigned for a sale and eventually won, though the family accepted a much lower price than they had hoped.

You could even call them prescient, having sold before the financial crisis and economic downturn that has put so many companies in harm’s way. And at $34 a share, Tribune shareholders did well. The share price of the company’s closest rival, the McClatchy Company, has tumbled 84 percent since the Tribune deal closed.

But what about those employees? They had no seat at the table when the company’s own board let Mr. Zell use part of its future pension plan in exchange for $34 a share.

Mr. Newman, the analyst who predicted the trouble, said in an interview on Monday, “The employees were put in a very bad situation.” He added that while boards are typically only responsible to their shareholders, this situation may be different. “There has to be a balance,” he said, “to create sustainability for all the stakeholders.”

Dan Neil, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Los Angeles Times, led a lawsuit with other Tribune employees against Mr. Zell and Tribune this fall. The suit contended “through both the structure of his takeover and his subsequent conduct, Zell and his accessories have diminished the value of the employee-owned company to benefit himself and his fellow board members.”

If the employees win, they will become Tribune creditors — and stand in line with all other creditors in bankruptcy court.

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