As a New Era Comes Together Bruce E. Toll: "Anybody can call me," the new chairman invites.

Posted: June 25, 2006

The Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News will return to local ownership this week for the first time in 36 years, if all goes as planned.

The investors known as Philadelphia Media Holdings L.L.C. are betting they can reinvigorate a company that also includes Philly.com and other publications.

Among the pieces of the puzzle:

Can they attract new readers and advertisers to the newspapers? Can they enhance the growth at Philly.com? How will they and the newspapers handle potential conflicts that come with local ownership?

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In his first meeting with about 75 top employees at the Reedman auto dealership, Bruce E. Toll wanted to know something.

Toll, as new owner, thought he could boost revenue by offering more repair and maintenance services to Reedman's buyers. How many service bays did the dealership have?

There was a pause, then a scattering of numbers shouted from the crowd, followed by a debate over which franchises were being counted. Finally, a response: 102.

Looking peeved, with his eyeglasses low on his nose, Toll gazed at the managers. Next time they'd know that answer, he told them pointedly.

Two years later, the scene still elicits nervous laughs. "He's not going to beat around the bush. . . . He wants what he pays for," said Robert Morris, Reedman's Jaguar sales manager. Morris periodically answers his phone on Saturday evenings and hears: "This is Bruce. How did we do today?"

Toll, cofounder of home-building giant Toll Bros. Inc., has been on a tear in recent years, after selling $187 million in Toll Bros. stock. With no apparent theme, Toll has bought or taken financial stakes in chains of methadone-treatment clinics, assisted-living centers, dialysis centers and bagel restaurants; a biotech company in Malvern; a human-growth-hormone company in Georgia; and a telecommunications company in Conshohocken.

He owns office buildings and retail centers along the East Coast and in Texas and, in 2005, bought a three-acre parcel in Atlantic City to build luxury condos. Friends and business colleagues say the moves have given new prominence to Bruce, who for years has mostly been known as Bob Toll's younger brother.

Next up: media. Bruce Toll has put at least $25 million into a deal with local investors and others to buy The Inquirer, Philadelphia Daily News, Philly.com and community newspapers for $515 million. Toll is one of the biggest investors in Philadelphia Media Holdings L.L.C., the entity making the purchase from The McClatchy Co., and chairman of the new company's board.

Toll said that he liked the newspaper and that it "can do great things." But he said he thought The Inquirer had drifted from its readers and needed overhauling.

"Parts of the paper I love; parts of the paper I don't," Toll said in an interview in his airy third-floor office at Toll Bros. Inc. in Horsham. "I hope to change those parts of the paper I don't, when I get there."

Shaking sheets of paper, he said he had received hundreds of phone calls, e-mails and letters from readers suggesting improvements to the newspaper.

"We're going to add sections and add columns," Toll said. "There's no society section. There's nobody covering charities in Philadelphia. We want to add columns that some people want to read about. They're going to get their picture in the paper, and therefore they are going to want to buy more papers."

Toll, 63, said he had read The Inquirer since he was a child. He has it sent to him overnight when he is away. Traveling among homes in Abington's Rydal neighborhood, Nantucket, New York City and Palm Beach, he notes sections in out-of-town newspapers, like the New York Times' Styles section and the Miami Herald's real estate sections, that he believes would work in Philadelphia.

The newspaper needs to rebuild its advertising base and focus on repeat business, Toll said. "I hope to get people to find a location and stake it out and buy it. It's like real estate - location, location, location."

Brian P. Tierney, new chief executive officer of Philadelphia Media Holdings, organized the purchase, which is expected to close Thursday. Tierney will run the company day-to-day, but Toll said "anybody can call me."

"I didn't buy the newspaper to shape the news, to say there shall be only nice coverage of Toll Bros. That's ridiculous," Toll said. He will not get "a preview of the newspaper," and "I am not going to be editing columns."

Toll was raised in Elkins Park, Montgomery County, with his older brother, Bob. Bob Toll is chairman and chief executive of Toll Bros., which had $5.8 billion in revenue last year.

Father Albert, a Jewish immigrant from Ukraine, built and owned apartment buildings in the Philadelphia area. Toll Bros. built its first homes in Caln Township, Chester County, on land bought by Albert Toll.

Bob Toll had been a Center City lawyer and handled land deals and closings. Bruce Toll, who studied accounting in college and took an architecture course at Temple University, arrived at the home sites at 7 in the morning to manage the work crews.

Bruce Toll's eldest daughter, Michelle, remembers driving around Bucks County in the 1970s with her father, mother, Robbi, and sisters Elizabeth and Wendy looking for available land and visiting farms. The Tolls' youngest daughter is Jennifer.

In the 1980s, Bruce Toll became active in politics. He was appointed an Abington Township commissioner to complete the term of Joseph E. Helweg Jr., a Jenkintown funeral director who died in office.

When it came time to run for election, Toll opposed Barbara Ferrara, a registered nurse and real estate agent. Ferrara canvassed the neighborhood in her sneakers and beat Toll in a bitter contest. "People are impressed when you knock on everyone's door," Ferrara said. "He didn't do it."

Toll remains a big political contributor, giving $545,780 to Pennsylvania candidates and campaign funds since 2000, according to an Inquirer analysis of state records.

Most of the money has gone to Republican candidates, elected officials and committees, such as the Montgomery County Republican Committee Inc. and Friends of John Perzel. An exception: Gov. Rendell. In 2001, Toll contributed $27,500 to his run for governor.

At the national level, since 2000, Toll has contributed $314,800 to candidates or elected officials, nearly all Republicans, according to Dwight Morris & Associates.

Tierney, who also has been active in Republican politics, has said he would suspend political contributions because of his executive role in the media company. Toll said that giving up political contributions was "up to Brian. . . . I haven't thought about it."

In his office, Toll has an aerial photograph of his Atlantic City land, a $25 million parcel on the Boardwalk, for which he outbid Donald Trump.

Behind his desk, a financial-data terminal blinked with home builder stock prices. A Depression-era drawing by George Grosz - titled "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" - hung on the wall. The painting reminds him of the less fortunate, Toll said.

Toll relinquished his day-to-day activities at Toll Bros. in the late 1990s, but he remains vice chairman and sits on the board. He owns 10.9 million shares of Toll Bros. stock, worth about $290 million. The stock, hurt by the weakening housing market, has declined 54 percent in the last year.

Formal at his desk, Toll relaxed as he walked around his office. He has had business failures, but he does not expect the newspapers to be among them.

Data provided to potential investors show that Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., owner of the newspapers, has faced declining revenue and profit. In 2005, the company's operating profit fell to $56.4 million, or about 11 percent of 2005's revenue of $493.6 million. In 2004, PNI had an operating profit margin of nearly 16 percent, or $81.4 million, on revenue of $512.2 million.

"I wouldn't have invested in it if I did not think it could be turned around," Toll said. "I try not to invest in businesses that are going out of business."

Rundown and seedy in 2004, Reedman's auto dealership seemed to have a bleak future. Like The Inquirer, it was a fading icon of declining resources.

The showroom interiors had not been updated in decades; out-of-style chandeliers lighted the floors. The roof leaked. Customers entered through a tacky welcoming center and down frayed, red, outdoor carpeting. But Toll saw opportunity.

The 123-acre dealership, which sells up to 12,000 vehicles a year and is now called Reedman-Toll Auto World, is much different today. The roof has been replaced, and new windows on Old Lincoln Highway drench the showrooms with sunlight. New showrooms are being built; others are being renovated. Toll is spending $12 million to $15 million on improvements.

Bill O'Flanagan, Toll's son-in-law, is vice president of the dealership. Toll checks inventory levels and sales data daily, O'Flanagan said, and regularly inspects the construction.

"We don't have one 40-minute conversation in a day; we'll have 10 really short ones. He's disconcerting at first," O'Flanagan said.

Toll earned good will among the Reedman-Toll employees when he reclassified about 20 employees in the finance and insurance department, whom the former management had denied benefits. Toll gave them full-time positions and health care, said O'Flanagan and Elizabeth Stanton, administrative director.

Morris, 81, hired in 1960, has been Jaguar sales manager since 1963. "Not in my wildest dreams," he said, did he believe the dealership would get new showrooms.

Said Toll of the dealership: "I've tried to bring it into the 21st century."

Contact staff writer Bob Fernandez at 215-854-5897 or bob.fernandez@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.

On a Personal Note

Bruce E. Toll says his passion is collecting art.

A favorite: Gustave Caillebotte, a French painter and contemporary of Degas, Monet and Renoir. Toll owns six Caillebotte works.

Toll said he wanted to purchase Caillebotte paintings after seeing Floor Scrapers in a museum.

A second favorite: French Cubist Fernand Leger.

Toll owns three.

Toll, his wife, Robbi, and other family members travel to Europe for two or three weeks each summer, visiting museums and small towns.

This year, a destination is the Cezanne exhibit in Aix en Provence, where the artist had a workshop and painted.

They will fly to Paris and travel throughout France. About 1,000 miles later, they will return home from Milan, Italy. "It's like a bicycle trip," said Toll, "but in a car."

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