Taking Stock / The Fairy Godfather

He began from scratch 30 years ago, as an agent, producing shows.

In the 1970s he abandoned Israel to try his luck in America.

Today he's one of the richest people in the world.

He made his fortune from cartoons for kiddies.

He has a billion dollars in cash.

He has started to use his fortune to buy media companies in Israel, so far with great success.

He is a close personal friend of Bill Clinton. Not a few Israeli politicians periodically make pilgrimages to his door.

He has been considering investments in Israel for the last couple of years, but always winds up rejecting them.

He likes media companies, and looked into buying Yedioth Ahronoth, Maariv and Haaretz, too.

Yes, we know plenty about Haim Saban, the Israeli who made the American dream come true, big big time, when he sold his shares in Fox Family for $1.5 billion two years ago.

But the full story about the deal that made Saban one of the richest Israelis in the world has never been told.


And how small the world is. The man who began to expose the really fascinating details about Haim Saban's deal is a Jewish-American lawyer, who, until Saban showed up, had always been mentioned in the context of major deals in Israel.

When Saban and Rupert Murdoch closed the deal selling Fox Family to Disney two and a half years ago, at a company value of $5.3 billion, the press gushed about the staggering success of the company that invented the Power Rangers, and a whole new genre of cartoons for kids.

The less romantic among us noticed that the company valued at $5.3 billion boasted revenues of less than a billion dollars, and relatively pathetic profitability in view of its impressive price tag.

Even stranger, the deal closed in late 2001, when the media bubble had already burst, Wall Street was heading for a crash, and nobody believed any more that the Internet revolution would create value for media companies.

But one man has an explanation for the astonishing deal. He sat on Disney's management board, he spent two years battling Disney's legendary chief executive Michael Eisner, he lost the battle, was ousted from the board - but he wasn't giving up.

Gold spills the brass tacks

That man is Stanley Gold, the chairman of Shamrock Holdings, which is Roy Disney's investment arm. Gold made his name in Israel mainly by buying Koor Industries back in 1995.

Recently the American press has started running exposes of that Saban-Murdoch-Disney deal over Fox. One might guess that Gold is one of the people behind the stories, who with his patron, Roy Disney, is determined to prove that Eisner is out of steam, that he's nothing but a burden on Disney, and that he should go.

The other day the Los Angeles Times published the latest version of Eisner's opponents about the Saban-Murdoch-Disney deal. And the story was an eye-popper.

It appears that in 2001, Fox Family's business was starting to deteriorate. The rival Nickelodeon network was starting to seriously cause pain, and Saban and Murdoch were feeling the pressure. They felt they had to sell the company as fast as possible, and let it be known they were open to offers.

At the time Michael Eisner, then Disney's chairman too, was taking fire on Wall Street and throughout the media world for Disney's stagnation, its failure to innovate, and its absence of new growth engines. His rivals were glorying in dazzling acquisitions while he was snoozing at the helm.

Eisner took advantage of investment banker Herb Allen's annual Sun Valley, Idaho superstar meet, a power venue for the media barons. Even before the first private jet had dipped its nose down into the resort town, Eisner was determined to leave there with a deal in hand.

When he ran into Saban and Murdoch there, he took them completely by surprise. Instead of starting the bidding low, he asked them to set a price that would leave everybody else out of the race.

Give me your worst price

Murdoch and Saban immediately grasped that they had the dream buyer - a desperate man - and it was time to play poker. So they named the insane sum of $5.5 billion, which was $2.5 billion more than their own bankers had thought Fox Family to be worth. They wouldn't be prepared to negotiate over the price, either, they loftily announced.

Eisner took fright at that price, but Saban and Murdoch stood firm: Take it or leave it.

After an hour, Eisner broke and bit. They agreed on a company value of $5.3 billion. Minus debts of $2.3 billion, which left Murdoch and Saban with $3 billion in hand, half each.

When Eisner presented the deal to Disney's board, some of the directors wondered if the price hadn't been a tad inflated. But Eisner was determined to present himself as a dealmaker, as a man breathing life into a moribund company and presented rosy estimates of Fox Family's future growth to the board. Estimates that proved wrong, of course. Today Disney appraises Fox Family to be worth $2 billion less than it paid.

For Disney, a $50 billion publicly traded company, Fox Family is just another expensive acquisition, another managerial mishap. For Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, a $100 billion empire, it was just another good deal.

For Haim Saban, it was the one and only deal, a deal that transformed him overnight into one of the richest, and most liquid, men in the world.

We think it no coincidence. A lot of the biggest businessmen in Israel and elsewhere were created through a single, amazing deal, a one-stop pop boasting fantastic timing, inked between a desperate seller who knows how to play poker and an ever more desperate buyer, who also knows the rules of the game. But what does he care about them. He's playing with other people's money.