Near the end of this morning’s New York Times article about the escalating “boardroom feud” at Tribune Co. we spied a familiar quote from one Charles K. Bobrinskoy, vice chairman of Ariel Capital Management, a Chicago-based firm which owns 5.2 percent of Tribune’s shares.
“We believe that the stock repurchase program is a good first step but only the first step in a process of creating shareholder value,” Bobrinskoy said, referring to the buyback plan Tribune launched a few weeks back — the fallout from which has now led to the open revolt of the Chandler family, Tribune’s second-largest shareholder.
Hmmm. Where had we heard that before? Let us count the ways. In no particular order:
1 — In today’s Chicago Sun-Times, Bobrinskoy called Tribune’s board of directors “very strong,” saying “We continue to have confidence in Dennis FitzSimons and his management team.”
Bobrinskoy added, said the Sun-Times, “that the stock repurchase is a ‘good first step, but only a first step, in the process of creating shareholder value.’”
2 — In a Reuters story June 7 reporting the Chandlers’ dissent from the buyback plan, Bobrinskoy said this: “We hope the buyback is the first, not the last step that management will take to create shareholder value.”
3 — Also that afternoon, the Associated Press reported that Bobrinskoy “said Ariel continues to support the management and board of Tribune and believes the buyback is good for both the company and shareholders. However, he also added: ‘We believe the program is only the first step in a process of increasing shareholder value.’”
4 — “We believe the announced stock repurchase program is in the best interest of the company and its shareholders,” Bobrinskoy told the Los Angeles Times for its editions the next morning, June 8. The paper hastened to add his opinion that the buyback “is only the first step in a process of building shareholder value.”
5 — Meantime, the New York Times quoted Bobrinskoy saying (again with an uncanny slight variation on his theme), ”We believe the stock repurchase program is in the best interest of Tribune and its shareholders, and we believe the stock repurchase program is only the first step in a process of creating value.”
6 — That afternoon, reporting a Tribune statement that the company would proceed with its buyback plan despite the opposition of the three Chandler board members, the AP reported that Ariel “reaffirmed its support of Tribune’s board and management Thursday, but also indicated that it is looking for other steps from the company to boost its share price over time”:
“‘We stand by management and the board, and we believe the stock repurchase program is good for all shareholders,’ said Ariel’s vice chairman Charlie Bobrinskoy. But he also added: ‘We believe this is the first, not the last step in creating shareholder value.’”
7 — The next day — Friday, June 9 — the Chicago Tribune reported in a story entitled “Dispute may put Tribune in play” that Bobrinskoy “thinks a buyback will happen. But he also thinks it won’t be the end of the restructuring.”
Think you can guess what he said after that?
“We believe the stock repurchase plan is the first step, not the last step, in a process of creating shareholder value.”
Alas, those “other steps” of a broader Tribune vision have not yet arrived, as CEO FitzSimons digs in his heels and repeats “his intent to follow through with a restructuring strategy announced with the buyback plan,” including $200 million in cost cuts and the sale of $500 million in non-core assets. Meantime, the Chandler family launched an “all-out war” yesterday, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, as they “ratcheted up pressure on Tribune Co. by publicly slamming its management and pushing for a breakup or sale of the company.”
But that didn’t stop Bobrinskoy from reiterating his unwavering support for Tribune management to Crain’s Chicago Business yesterday.