The Future of Forbes Isn't All in the Family

Elevation Partners Likely to Sell Its Stake to Another Buyer Within a Decade

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- However casually Forbes cast last week's major, unprecedented outside investment in the company as a ticket toward quicker, smarter growth, the arrival of Elevation Partners inside the family gates all but certainly means an approaching end to the dynasty.
President-CEO Steve Forbes has made clear that he and the family intend to retain private ownership from now through eternity.
President-CEO Steve Forbes has made clear that he and the family intend to retain private ownership from now through eternity.

Not that Forbes magazine or Forbes.com will go away; more likely, their ownership will increasingly comprise people and companies who have nothing to do with the family.

'First step to a sale'
"It's fairly unlikely that the ownership will ever revert back to 100% private," said Tolman Geffs, managing director at the Jordan Edmiston Group investment bank. "It's possible, but not guaranteed, that this is a first step to flotation or a sale."

Steve Forbes, president-CEO at the newly formed Forbes Media and editor in chief, Forbes magazine, said everyone should cool their jets. "Anyone who's seriously looking at exits right now shouldn't have come through the entrance."

But no equity group, not to mention such a high-profile group, spends money without mapping routes to recouping its investment plus any gains achieved along the way.

In that spirit, Advertising Age has assembled several scenarios for the future of the Forbes family and its stable of properties, including the magazine founded in 1917 by a Scottish immigrant named B.C. Forbes.

The Forbes remains the same
Elevation -- a $1.9 billion private-equity group whose focus is media and entertainment and whose partners include U2's Bono -- bought a significant minority stake for undisclosed terms, but unconfirmed industry estimates suggest Elevation paid $200 million to $300 million for about 40% of the company.

That doesn't mean cashing out in 2008, said Roger McNamee, an Elevation Partner. "We have a really long horizon," he said of its investments -- more like five to seven years -- and in the case of Forbes, maybe 10.

So in 2012, let's say, Elevation will start looking for an out. While Mr. McNamee wouldn't discuss any exit strategies, there are only a few possibilities.

The family could buy back what it sold, but nobody gives that idea much credence. "That's possible but less likely because the whole concept is that the business will grow and become more valuable and more expensive," said Reed Phillips, managing partner, DeSilva & Phillips. "That's probably the least likely scenario -- that the family buys back the ownership stake."

"Unless," Mr. Phillips added, "the business crashes and burns and there's not much value and no one else will buy it, which is not what anyone expects."

Open the gates!
The easiest and most lucrative path may be to take some or all of the company public. Or the company, now called Forbes Media, could try selling itself to another company.

Mr. Forbes has made clear that he and the family intend to retain private ownership from now through eternity. "Scottish blood still runs thick," he said.

Jim Berrien, president-group publisher, Forbes magazine, said he had no inside insight. "But knowing these guys as I do, the family, it's their thing," he said. "I can't imagine that they would ever leave this business. It wouldn't be the same place without them."

Of course, the brothers are getting older. In 2012, the oldest Forbes brother, Steve, will be 66 years old. Not too old to run a company, but also closer to an age where the next move would be to set up the next generation. Two who are already working at the company are Steve's daughter Moira, associate publisher of ForbesLife, and Miguel, son of Robert, who has worked with his father in the international business division.

Investment bankers said the most likely future will see Elevation sell its stake to another buyer. Forbes hasn't said whether it has veto power over potential successors to Elevation. "If they won that provision they might want it publicized," Mr. Phillips said. "That way when people have questions, particularly employees, about who we could wind up with as a partner down the road, the Forbes family could say, 'Oh, don't worry, we're protected."'

Break up the band
"An IPO of Forbes.com would be a natural way for them to realize their gains," a rival publisher offered. "A pure play digital IPO will attract a higher valuation than one that includes a 'legacy' print business -- so what becomes of Forbes the magazine? A few years out, do they even need the magazine?"

Forbes Media and Elevation say each property is key to the other. "One of the things we believe in, that some of our brethren can't emotionally grasp, is that print is the core of this expanding media universe," Mr. Forbes said. "Without print, we don't have a business. Print is a critical platform for reaching this entrepreneurial community."

Even Jim Spanfeller, a good company man but also president-CEO of Forbes.com, said the magazine and the site are stronger together. "People use these two different products for two different things. The web at least for the foreseeable future is not going to be as facile and usable for those longer pieces as the print product."

But Mr. Geffs said the online piece is "absolutely" the driver. "That's what they're investing in. If you broke the company up, I'd bet you a big stack of doughnuts the website would sell for a lot more than the magazine."

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Family ties

  • Steve Forbes, 59, President -CEO, Forbes; editor in chief, Forbes magazine
    Daughter: Moira Forbes, associate publisher, Forbes Life

  • Robert Forbes, 57, VP, Forbes; president, Forbes Life
    Son: Miguel Forbes, VP-business development

  • Christopher "Kip" Forbes, 56, Vice chairman, Forbes

  • Timothy Forbes, 53, Chief operating officer, Forbes
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