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By agreeing to sell the bulk of Ziff Communications to Forstmann Little & Co. for $1.4 billion, the Ziff family has put the company's future in the hands of Theodore Forstmann, a flamboyant financier who's an outsider to publishing and a longtime rival of K-III backer Henry Kravis.

And by beating K-III Communications in the bidding for the high tech publishing empire, Mr. Forstmann has reignited an old feud with K-III majority stockholder Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.

The Forstmann purchase signals that media properties may once again be hot investment commodities-even if rival publishers held down their bids for Ziff out of fear the high tech magazine market has peaked.

"We intend to continue to have this property grow," said Mr. Forstmann, whose company earlier this month paid $700 million for Eastman Kodak Co.'s L&F Products.

The closest Forstmann Little has come to a media buy in the past was Whittle Communications three years ago. That time, Mr. Forstmann wisely walked away.

The news of the buy brought comparisons to Kohlberg's 1989 leap into publishing by backing former Macmillan Co. CEO William Reilly.

Though Mr. Reilly and Kohlberg couldn't keep British press baron Robert Maxwell from gaining control of Macmillan, the team went on to form K-III Communications, which now has sales of nearly $1 billion a year.

Forstmann Little indicated last week that it may employ Ziff Chairman-CEO Eric Hippeau in much the same style as Mr. Reilly. As K-III chairman-CEO, Mr. Reilly is the publishing insider with the expertise to grow the company.

The acquired units-including Ziff-Davis Publishing's PC Magazine, PC Week and Computer Shopper-account for an estimated $706 million of Ziff's total $950 million in sales.

Also included is International Media; a smaller consumer magazine group that houses start-ups Computer Life and Family PC; Ziff-Davis Interactive; and a market research group.

Speculation now turns to who will buy the rest of Ziff and what, if any, properties Forstmann Little will spin off to pay down its debt. Reed Elsevier is expected to go after Ziff-Davis Expos & Conferences, while Thomson Corp., Microsoft Corp., The Washington Post Co., Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. as well as America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy are said to be competing for Ziff-Davis Interchange Network, an online service in test.

As for the publishing company, Mr. Forstmann said, "We have no intention of selling things off. We're looking to own this for a long time."

The deal should give the company a higher profile than it enjoyed under the semireclusive Chairman Emeritus William B. Ziff Jr. and his three sons.

Only days before announcing the biggest media deal of the year, Mr. Forstmann, managing partner of the company that has done some $12 billion in deals since its founding in the mid-1970s, was trying to squash media reports linking him romantically to Princess Diana.

Described in "Barbarians at the Gate" as a "Kohlberg Kravis Roberts wanna-be" who lost out to Kohlberg in the $25 billion battle to own RJR Nabisco in 1989, Mr. Forstmann has an impressive record. In 1984, his company bought Dr Pepper, spun off assets and two years later sold the stripped-down company to a management group.

Other current holdings include General Instrument Corp. and Gulfstream Aerospace Corp.

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