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EURO MEDIA LIONS ON THE PROWL IN U.S. CRAVING FOR MAGAZINE MORSELS TO ACQUIRE

By Published on .

After a four-year lull, European media giants are back on the prowl for U.S. publications, giving added pop to the suddenly hot mergers & acquisitions market.

"Their interest in Eastern Europe has run its course, and the American market is reviving faster than the rest of the world," said Mark Edmiston, managing director of the Jordan Edmiston Group, a New York investment adviser specializing in media deals.

Deals being done in the U.S. don't yet rival the staggering investments made during the go-go 1980s, when Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch paid $3 billion for TV Guide and three other titles or Paris-based Hachette bought Diamandis Communications Inc. for $712 million.

"The difference is people today are making more strategic investments rather than buying up everything in sight," Mr. Edmiston said.

Last week, one of Germany's largest consumer magazine publishers, Bertelsmann, finalized a $325 million purchase of McCall's, Family Circle, Child and other properties in The New York Times Women's Magazine Group. The purchase, through Bertelsmann's U.S. publishing subsidiary, Gruner & Jahr, included $275 million in cash and the assumption of $50 million in subscription liabilities.

That followed a big buyout in trade publishing last month when United Dutch Publications, through its VNU USA unit, paid nearly $125 million to buy Bill Communications from equity owner Boston Ventures.

It marked the Netherlands-based publisher's second deal with Boston Ventures. In January, VNU paid $220 million to BPI Communications, whose stable includes Billboard, Hollywood Reporter and Adweek.

And mention the auction for Ziff Communications and the British/Dutch conglomerate Reed Elsevier is a name that comes quickly to the fore.

Cash-rich Reuters Holdings is always on the fringes, and nobody has shaken up TV this year more than Mr. Murdoch's News Corp.

One behind-the-scenes dealmaker, Munroe Pofcher, president of the New York-based Pofcher Co., discounted the relatively weak U.S. dollar as a driving force in the latest deals.

"There is a big movement afoot by 12 or 15 media companies in the Western world to expand," he said. "It is not just an American phenomenon, it is a Western world phenomenon. The United States is certainly a target for them, but so is the rest of Europe."

With the recession fading, buyers can finally pay handsome prices with the expectation that shareholders or bankers won't be disappointed by the returns.

Against that backdrop, sellers are more willing to part with their valuable assets, said Mr. Pofcher, who recently served as an adviser for BPI's sale to VNU.

Many of the overseas media companies are returning to these shores despite past disasters, noted Lee Hall, head of the Chicago-based international consultancy IntPub.

"The landscape is littered with the hulks of burning Europeans," he said.

Indeed, no European invasion has been wholly successful. Gruner & Jahr, despite its recent success with Parents, earlier lost millions on its attempts to make Geo fly.

Hachette made a failed bid to relaunch Look in 1979 before returning in '88 to buy DCI. Even then, there were some wrenching clashes between U.S. and French management before things settled down.

VNU purchased high tech specialist Hayden Publishing for about $47 million in the mid-'80s. The acquisition included Personal Computing, then the nation's biggest computer title. But the deal turned sour as the markets declined. Most of the titles were sold to Penton Publishing for $17 million in June 1989, while Personal Computing suspended publication and sold its circulation list to Ziff-Davis in 1990.

Mr. Hall thinks the possibility for similar disasters remains, however. The Europeans "think they can buy things cheap because of the decline in the dollar, and then they try to run everything out of Hamburg or Paris."

Most European companies "need savvy American help when they come over here" because of the differences between the two markets, he contended.

Mr. Edmiston disagreed: "I think buyers are smarter in the United States and Europe. The big difference from the 1980s is that people are making strategic acquisitions-and divestments-rather than just buying up everything in sight."

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