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Moguls, dealmakers rub shoulders at Sun Valley

BROKERING: You may not know the name Herb Allen, but among the most familiar names in business today, he's the man from whom everyone wants an invitation

Saturday, Jul 07, 2001, Page 21

Viacom Inc Chairman Sumner Redstone and BET Holdings Inc founder Robert Johnson, in between white-water rafting, fly fishing and golfing breaks, sat down in Idaho last July and talked business.

Four months later, Viacom, which owns the CBS television network, announced that it would pay US$2.9 billion in stock and assumed debt for the company that controls Black Entertainment Television, the top cable-TV channel aimed at black people.

For years, New York investment firm Allen & Co's summer conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, has proven to be far more than a playground for the very rich and famous -- Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Rupert Murdoch among them. The five-day, invitation-only conference, which begins Monday, is an incubator for big media transactions.

"It's a casual atmosphere with just about every heavy hitter in the industry there, and this is an industry that acts like there's always room for another deal," said James Goss, a media analyst with Barrington Research Associates in Chicago.

It seems a major transaction is hatched at Sun Valley most years.

The biggest was Walt Disney Co's US$19 billion purchase of Capital Cities/ABC, announced shortly after 1995's conference.

Wayne Huizenga, the Florida billionaire who co-founded the Blockbuster Video chain, met Viacom's Redstone at Sun Valley in the early 1990s, a relationship that culminated in Viacom buying Blockbuster in 1994 for US$7.7 billion.

In 1999, Terry Semel, then co-CEO of Warner Bros, met Yahoo! Inc co-founder Jerry Yang at the Allen & Co retreat. Two years later, Semel was hired to run Yahoo.

Allen & Co, controlled by billionaire Herbert Allen, is mum on the details of the gala. In step with the firm's normal routine, spokesmen decline to disclose the guest list, the companies scheduled to make presentations or even the exact dates of the 19th annual conference.

Reporters are kept at arm's length and attendees are instructed by Allen himself not to disclose any details -- or they won't be welcome back.

On Monday, about 400 guests and their families will begin descending on the 60-year-old Sun Valley resort, according to guests who received invitations.

The agenda includes meetings all morning and then a myriad of activities including mountain-bike riding, hiking and panning for gold -- or huddling and mapping out a big transaction.

Last year, while Redstone and Johnson were laying the groundwork for their transaction, Warren Buffett, chairman of Berkshire Hathaway Inc, golfed with Allen & Co Chairman Donald Keough. Barry Diller, head of USA Networks Inc, went for a bike ride, after he drove newspaper magnate Katharine Graham in a golf cart to her condo. Computer company founder Michael Dell went shopping in Ketchum, Idaho.

And money manager Mario Gabelli hopped on a bus taking guests to white-water rafts a couple of hours north on the Salmon River.

Allen & Co picks up all expenses, raising concerns among some of the invited guests that the end may in sight for this pricey gathering.

Among media companies that are on the acquisition prowl are AOL Time Warner Inc and Viacom.

AOL Time Warner Chief Executive Gerald Levin, who attended the conference last year, said in June that he expects to make some acquisitions -- perhaps rival cable-TV operator Cablevision Systems Corp.

"Does that mean there's a transaction happening now? No. Would I like [one] to happen in the future? Yes," Levin said in June.

The mood might be somewhat subdued this year. The NASDAQ Composite Index has tumbled by about 50 percent since the middle of last July, hammering the stocks of most of the Internet entrepreneurs who attend the conference.

And the world's biggest media companies similarly are dug in for a siege. They have announced firings of more than 6,400 people this year and shut unprofitable businesses.

Still, next week will be a busy one at this small town in the shadows of the Sawtooth Mountains. Managers at the airport at Hailey, Idaho, about a dozen miles from Sun Valley, expect as many as 100 private Gulfstream and Falcon jets. Rental-car companies are bringing up extra cars from Salt Lake City to handle the crush.

One media mogul will miss the event, though: Ted Turner, vice chairman of AOL Time Warner.

"I stopped going a couple of years back, and they stopped inviting me," he said.

"I guess I made it known that I found it too boring hanging around all those people."

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