We're in Gerry's hands

Posted: June 13, 2014

L AST FALL, when the fate of Inquirer editor Bill Marimow and ultimately the company that employed him were being adjudicated, dueling owners would huddle with their legal teams during breaks in court action.

Not H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest.

The 84-year-old billionaire philanthropist, who at the time owned about 16.4 percent of the company, would turn and swap stories with the reporters in the front row.

Lenfest put up $10 million 26 months ago to be part of a local investment group paying $61.1 million for the Daily News, the Inquirer and Philly.com.

Yesterday, he agreed to buy the entire company. Sale price: $88 million.

That closed a transaction set in motion at an auction May 27 at which investors George Norcross III, Bill Hankowsky and Joe Buckelew agreed to sell their majority share of the company to Lenfest and Lewis Katz.

Katz, 72, was killed with six other people in a private-jet crash in Bedford, Mass., four days later.

Lenfest was in Berlin yesterday when the sale closed. Through a spokesman, he declined to comment.

"We have had the opportunity to work with Gerry over the last two years and are confident he will do all he can to make the papers and Philly.com strong, vibrant journalistic outlets," the investors who sold their shares said in a statement yesterday.

That statement said that Katz's son, Drew, will not be an owner of the company.

Lenfest had said after Lewis Katz's death that Drew Katz would replace his father on the new company's board of directors.

But Drew Katz, 42, said Tuesday that he had decided to sell his interest in the company.

"I believe strongly that the organization would be in excellent hands under the ownership of Gerry Lenfest now and in the years to come," Drew Katz said in an email to reporters.

Lewis Katz invested $16 million in the original ownership group for a 26 percent stake in the company. He and Lenfest were to be equal owners after the sale.

Drew Katz did not comment on yesterday's sale, the terms of which still have to be worked out. A spokesman said his "negotiations with Gerry Lenfest are continuing."

Lenfest assembled his fortune by building a cable company and selling it to Comcast in 1999.

Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who helped assemble the group that purchased the Philly papers and website in 2012, said Lenfest would have been surprised then to know he would one day become the company's interim publisher and sole owner.

"Obviously, Lewis and Gerry would have been a great team," Rendell said. "I think Gerry will be a great owner who will not interfere on a day-to-day basis."

Turmoil within the ownership group became public last fall when then-publisher Bob Hall fired Marimow as Inquirer editor.

Katz objected, saying that he and Norcross were a management team that had to agree on major business moves like firing an editor. A Philadelphia judge eventually reinstated Marimow.

That dispute set the stage for the ownership breakup.

On Twitter: @ChrisBrennanDN

Blog: ph.ly/PhillyClout.com

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