Icahn proposes new Time Warner chief

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Carl Icahn, the activist investor battling for control of Time Warner, on Monday named Frank Biondi, a former chief executive of Viacom, as an alternative chief executive candidate for the media giant.

Mr Biondi – who was pushed out of Viacom in 1996 by Sumner Redstone, the group’s chief and controlling shareholder – will lead Mr Icahn’s efforts to win investor backing for a proposal to restructure Time Warner to boost its share price.

Mr Biondi, who has also headed Universal studios and Time Warner’s HBO group, will seek investor backing to replace the well-regarded Dick Parsons as Time Warner chairman and chief executive at a shareholder meeting in May.

Although Mr Icahn’s recruitment of Mr Biondi is expected to lend some credibility to his case – Mr Icahn has also brought in Bruce Wasserstein, the veteran Wall Street dealmaker who now heads Lazard – analysts said Mr Biondi had no recent hands-on experience running a media group since Universal in 1998.

Mr Icahn and a group of hedge funds control around 3 per cent of Time Warner’s shares and need to persuade investors to back them.

The focus now is on the blueprint for Time Warner, which will be unveiled by Mr Biondi, Mr Icahn and Mr Wasserstein in New York next Tuesday. The plan will include a “separation of Time Warner’s component businesses and a large share repurchase programme,” Mr Icahn said in a statement on Monday. Time Warner includes the AOL internet business, Time Warner Cable, the Time Inc publishing business, Warner Brothers studios and cable channels including CNN and HBO.

“For investors, what matters is not so much Frank Biondi, who has been out of the media business for some time, but what’s in the plan,” said Richard Greenfield, analyst at Pali Capital. “If there is an interesting plan, then Frank Biondi becomes an interesting candidate to lead it, but not the other way around.”

Mr Biondi, whose brother Michael is a senior executive at Lazard and works closely with Mr Wasserstein, is a senior managing director at WaterView Advisors, a private equity group. He will be paid $6m even if the proxy fight is unsuccesful, and will be paid at least $10m if he and the other directors who will be standing against Time Warner’s board are elected.

Mr Biondi said he was not targeting Mr Parsons personally but regards the proxy fight as “a referendum on Time Warner’s business strategy”.

He said he intended to make Time Warner “a far more nimble, market-driven organization” by reducing costs and “freeing the individual companies within Time Warner to successfully pursue their creative and strategic interests”.

Time Warner shares closed up 27 cents, or 1.56 per cent, at $17.56 in New York on Mon.

Mr Parsons, who took over in 2002 after Time Warner’s ill-fated merger with AOL, has defended its conglomerate structure. He plans to spin off 16 per cent of Time Warner Cable when its acquisition of Adelphia is completed this year. Mr Icahn wants to see the entire cable business spun off and the company to buy back $20bn of shares. Next week, more radical measures could be proposed.

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