The Reclaiming Of BET

Bob Johnson comes full circle as he takes media company private once again

Success buys freedom. It means freedom to do as you please, on your own terms and without having to answer to anyone. And if BET Chairman and CEO Bob Johnson and longtime partner Liberty Media Corp. are successful in their second bid to buy back 6 million shares of BET Holdings Inc., that’s exactly what they’ll have.

Last September, Johnson and Liberty, a subsidiary of TeleCommunications Inc., offered stockholders $48 per share, a 17% premium over the stock’s trading price at the time. Minority stockholders not only declined the offer, but filed a class action suit against Johnson, TCI head John Malone and other BET board members.

But how things have changed. Johnson came back and sweetened the deal to $63 per share, a 31% increase over the original offer. This last bid apparently did the trick. “I think the large shareholders I talked to are very pleased with the price,” says Johnson. An independent committee that consisted of just one member, National Public Radio President Delano Lewis, has also endorsed the latest offer, as well as the investment banking firm Goldman Sachs. “The proposal now goes before the minority shareholders. If a majority of those shareholders approve the $63 buyout proposal, the company will once again be a privately held corporation, held 65% by me and approximately 35% by Liberty Media,” says Johnson.

By press time, the stock was trading at $61.13, almost double what it was before the first failed bid. “It’s a very substantial rate on our investment,” notes Nate Chapman, who recently took his own Baltimore-based firm, the Chapman Co., public. “Johnson saw his company was undervalued, based on where it was trading in the market, and took steps to realize the value and maximize shareholder return.”

Johnson did take BET public in 1991 for much the same reason. “We wanted to put a value on the company,” he recalls. “When you have an African Americanowned company, sometimes there’s a discount of true value. By going public, we were able to establish a value in the minds of the marketplace, investors, bankers and everyone else.” It also enabled him to raise capital, grow the company and expand the cable business. “Fast forward to 1998, and we’ve got a good sense of the value of the company,” observes Johnson. “It’s well established as a business, well respected on Wall Street and by the banking community and lending institutions.”

What’s not to respect? Today, BET Holdings Inc. includes three additional cable channels, the BET SoundStage restaurant, BET Weekend, Emerge and its most recent acquisition, Heart & Soul magazine. The BET Jazz channel is now seen in Japan and became available in Poland and Spain in April. Slated to open in June are a music-themed BET on Jazz restaurant in downtown Washington, D.C., and a dance/entertainment club–BET SoundStage Club–on Disney’s Pleasure Island.

Now Johnson’s ready to shed the limitations public companies must cope with when they have to worry about those pesky quarterly earnings. He says now he can focus on long-term value growth

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