Monday, January 4, 2010

Christopher Browne, R.I.P.: Wearing black for the man who wore down Conrad Black; plus Roe Conn, Cisco Cotto and more

Christopher Browne wasn't a reporter, editor, photographer or publisher, but he played a huge role in Chicago newspaper history.

It was shareholder Browne's persistent demands for accountability from the publicly held company that owned the Chicago Sun-Times that toppled global press lord Conrad Black, ending what the company's own investigation would brand a "corporate kleptocracy."

Normally considered a low-key Wall Street money manager, Browne loomed large as he rallied his fellow shareholders in questioning how Hollinger International -- a precursor to today's Sun-Times Media -- being milked to subsidize a lavish lifestyle for Black and his wife.

"If this was a cow, there wouldn't be an udder that wasn't sore," Browne, who died Sunday of an apparent heart attack, once told the Chicago Tribune.

Browne, who reportedly was 63, had been a longtime managing partner of Tweedy Browne Co., having followed his father into the firm 40 years ago. But, citing health reasons, he stepped down from day-to-day responsibilities in July and took on the role of senior advisor.

His father, Howard, traded stocks for the likes of Ben Graham and Graham's protege, Warren Buffett. The younger Browne, who would go on to write 2006's "The Little Book of Value Investing," earned his own reputation for being able to find undervalued companies.

Black's Hollinger International initially seemed like such a discovery in the late 1990s, and Tweedy Browne would become the company's largest outside shareholder. But when Hollinger's performance disappointed, Browne and his company poked and prodded for explanations of sizable fees paid to Black and others.

Browne and Black clashed like, well, brown and black.

As Canada's Globe and Mail noted in its report Tuesday on Browne's death: "Friends of Lord Black said that his greatest miscalculation was underestimating the soft-spoken and taciturn Mr. Browne. When the fund manager sent letters requesting meetings to inquire about executive compensation, the newspaper baron privately dismissed the pressure as an 'epidemic of shareholder idiocy' and refused to reduce personal payments."

A special committee of the board formed to investigate. The revelations drove Black from power and he subsequently was sentenced in federal court to six and a half years in prison.

The tipping point came in 2003, when Black resigned as chief executive after Hollinger's directors reported to the Securities and Exchange Commission that $32.1 million in payments to Black and his lieutenants had not been approved by the board.

"Before this latest discovery, (the special committee) was not ready to have its showdown with Conrad," Browne told the Tribune at the time. "This one rose to a level that they had to do disclosure. ... It enabled them to force a resolution.

"The difference here is that this was $32 million in payments," he said. "Half of it had been previously disclosed; the other half wasn't disclosed or approved. That's usually labeled as having the hand in the cookie jar."

But Browne wasn't just upset with Black, former Sun-Times Publisher F. David Radler or the others in Black's cadre. He also was angry that Hollinger's audit committee, led by former Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson, failed to stop them, approving millions of dollars in management fees paid annually to Black's Ravelston Corp.

"This board didn't know how to say no," Browne told the Tribune in 2004. "There's no excuse for it. Jim Thompson is not an Isuzu salesman from Peoria."

Ultimately, Black, Radler and the rest brought themselves down. But, even as the value of his investment declined, who knows how long it would have taken had Browne not stood up to them, demanded answers and pushed for reform?
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Also, proving that you can try to to take time off, but time simply doesn't stop ...

Not only is Citadel Broadcasting's WLS-AM 890 poised to re-sign afternoon star Roe Conn, but it looks to team Conn with Cisco Cotto, assuming Salem Communications' WIND-AM 560 doesn't match its offer.

This news, which comes as Citadel is said to be preparing to file a prearranged bankruptcy, was broken Friday by Chicago Public Radio blogger Robert Feder.

Conn has suffered in the ratings since WLS removed Bill Leff and Christina Filiagi from his show in favor of Amy Jacobson in the spring. The effect of a Conn-Cotto pairing on Jacobson was not immediately clear.

* * *

This columnist is scheduled to be a guest on Sunday's edition of CNN's "Reliable Sources." Look for me -- or avoid me, completely your call -- between 9:30 a.m. and 10 a.m., barring something unexpected. We're supposed to be talking about George Stephanopolous' move to ABC's "Good Morning America" and other changes.

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