Real estate mogul Sam Zell strode into Tribune Co.'s ornate headquarters in his trademark jeans and cowboy boots and declared that things will be different from now on at the 160-year-old newspaper and TV company. Whether that means a turnaround for a struggling, debt-laden company remains to be seen.
The blunt-spoken billionaire insisted after assuming the CEO and chairman titles Thursday that he isn't interested in Rupert Murdoch-like editorial control, widespread cost-slashing or an imminent sell-off of Tribune assets other than the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field.
Instead, he talked of rebuilding the media conglomerate from the bottom up so it will be able to make faster decisions and figure out how to increase revenue in an industry battling steep decline.
"I believe this company has spent a significant amount of time in the last five years cutting costs, and maybe not enough time on increasing revenue," Zell said in a news conference at Tribune Tower after touring the Chicago Tribune newsroom to meet employees. "Our focus, and our bet, is that we can significantly increase the revenue of this company and dramatically increase its profitability going forward."
Calling himself "the new sheriff in town," the new-to-media magnate came in with executive guns blazing _ naming an almost entirely new board of directors and installing two longtime associates as key managers while he studies what to do next and how to best pay down Tribune's new $13 billion debt burden.
That was just his first day on the job after the complex $8.2 billion buyout of Tribune closed, taking the company private under the ownership of an employee stock ownership plan _ and Zell's firm individual control.
He signaled he has no immediate asset sales in mind at the company that owns 23 television stations and nine daily newspapers, the biggest of which is the Los Angeles Times, although he hopes to complete the long-planned sale of the Chicago Cubs and Wrigley Field by the start of the baseball season in late March.
Other future changes aren't yet clear. But Zell sought to put to rest any thought that he is coming in to take an ax to the company or sell it off piece by piece, saying "the name of the game is excellence" _ tied to profitability.
"I'm sick and tired of listening to everyone talk about and commiserate over the end of newspapers," he said. "They ain't ended and they're not going to end. I think they have a great future."
Asked how long he intends to remain chief executive, he said he doesn't know but emphasized that his decision to take on the job was calculated to make a statement.
"As you are undoubtedly aware, I'm the chairman of everything and the CEO of nothing," he said. "But in this particular situation, I thought it was extraordinarily important to make it absolutely ... clear my commitment, my interest, my involvement."
Zell had 8 1/2 months to ponder changes since agreeing to head the debt-heavy buyout, and he wasted no time putting them into effect.
He added Jeffrey Berg, Brian Greenspun, William Pate, Maggie Wilderotter and Frank Wood to the board and named two longtime associates to help run the company. Randy Michaels, who helped him turn around radio company Jacor Communications with the aid of heavy cost cuts, will head the broadcast and Internet operations, and Gerry Spector, who has been chief operating officer at Zell's Equity Residential Properties, will be Tribune's chief administrative officer.
Michaels and Spector are "new blood" who can "help us rearrange this company for the 21st century," Zell said, citing the company's penchant for making slow decisions and being impeded by its bureaucracy.
Zell said Spector will effectively be responsible for everything other than content, handling most typical CEO duties. He reiterated that, personally, he has "absolutely no editorial aspirations" in terms of shaping day-to-day coverage.
Fears that Murdoch's influence would hurt the independence of The Wall Street Journal proved an obstacle to his recent takeover of Journal publisher Dow Jones & Co.
The Tribune closing came after the company received the final cash installment from the four banks financing the deal _ JP Morgan Chase & Co., Merrill Lynch & Co., Citigroup Inc. and Bank of America Corp.
Under terms set when he crafted the buyout deal in April, Zell's investment in Tribune rose to $315 million from $250 million, and he owns warrants to buy about 40 percent of the company.
The deal added $8 billion in debt to Tribune's books for a total of $13 billion, and the company will be under pressure to keep up with its payments before the transaction becomes profitable.
"From my perspective I think it's a very low-risk investment," Zell said. "But this wouldn't be the first time that my opinion diverged from everybody else's."
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