What has drawn at least 25 prospective buyers to United Press International is its potential to evolve from a struggling wire service into a profitable, global information service, according to company executives, financial experts and potential bidders.
UPI is widely known now as a provider of news reports and photographs to newspapers, radio and television stations and as a company that has operated under protection of a federal bankruptcy court since April 28.
UPI Chairman Luis G. Nogales says new investors are interested because they see that UPI can take advantage of the current explosion in the demand for information and the revolution in the technology for delivering it.
For instance, UPI could deliver sports news to a baseball fan playing with a personal computer at home. UPI could offer business news via personal paging machines. UPI could provide travel and weather information for cable systems in European airports and hotels. UPI can write books on sports events the day before they happen.
All of these ideas are in various stages of development or discussion on the upper floors of the company's headquarters at 14th and Eye streets NW.
Although many of them are ideas that have floated around UPI for years, the current owners, investors Douglas Ruhe and William Geissler, have been unable to raise the money to support them. UPI now hopes to find a buyer that will provide the capital needed for UPI to transform these plans into products and profits.
The prospective bidders include telecommunications companies, publishers, news agencies and venture capitalists. "They need little prodding to see that the need and use of information is increasing," Nogales said. "I'm convinced the company will be recapitalized and in a position to fill its potential."
Among the identified parties that have submitted prospective bids are big names such as Turner Broadcasting System Inc., the communication company owned by Ted Turner whose holdings include Cable News Network; Gulf and Western Industries, one of the nation's leading book publishers and financial information companies; Tele-Communications Inc., one of the nation's largest cable television companies; and Bell Group Ltd., an Australia-based conglomerate of media, transportation, building supplies and entertainment companies.
At least two bidders are reported to have offered to pay UPI's unsecured creditors every cent of the more than $28 million owed them. They have been identified in UPI news reports as Houston developer Joe E. Russo and the Bell Group.
Just three years ago when UPI was last for sale, E. W. Scripps Co. encountered no solid offers and sold UPI for $1 to a group headed by Ruhe and Geissler, throwing in an extra $5 million for working capital. And the company today is in many ways less valuable than it was in 1982. Scripps turned over a company that was debt free. In contrast, UPI listed debts of about $40 million in April. Since 1982, UPI has tried to raise cash by selling revenue-producing assets such as its international picture service, its tabular stock service, and the long-term marketing rights to its picture archives.
But the bids now being reviewed indicate that, even so, potential investors see something worth buying.
"The reason why anyone would be interested is that UPI is a venerable institution with an established information gathering network," said Alan Patricof, the New York venture capitalist who founded New York Magazine and who has bid for UPI with the Pritzker family, which owns the Hyatt hotel chain. "If one can develop a strategy that would take the best of that base and expand upon it incrementally, by adding services that complements what UPI offers, then it could be a viable business."
UPI has "a base on which to build new businesses," said Brian Freeman, investment adviser to the Wire Service Guild, UPI's employe union, which has submitted a bid. "You can use that information gathering system for any number of other things . . . but it needs a better defined strategy."
The UPI that emerges from bankruptcy will continue to be primarily a general news service, Nogales said. But the key to growth is diversification, using new technologies to package and deliver the information in new ways to new clients, he said.
While UPI's management struggles and labor conflicts have made headlines for more than a year, the company has been working less visibly during the same time to position itself for future growth, said Nogales, who joined UPI in July 1983 as executive vice president.
First, the company has cut costs. After operating for one year, from July 1983 to July 1984 without an accounting department, UPI management realized it had no reliable information on its costs, Nogales said. Knowing that it was losing at least $1 million a month, the company began an "austerity period" designed to lower expenses. The staff was cut by about 300 positions to a current level of 1,500 full-time employes. About 10 domestic bureaus, primarily one-person operations in remote areas, have been closed, leaving 250 bureaus worldwide, including about 90 outside this country. Nogales canceled about 275 of 300 new contracts with broadcast clients after an audit showed that UPI would be selling its services below cost.
Perhaps most important in the short-term, a year ago the employes accepted a 25 percent wage cut, which has been restored in phases, and have made other concessions. The employe union is now a major creditor with claims valued at between $2 million and $10 million. Nogales has argued that more sacrifices are needed to keep the company afloat, but so far the concessions have enabled UPI to show the positive cash flow considered critical to attracting a buyer.
UPI has made an average monthly operating profit of about $253,000 since it filed for bankruptcy court protection in April -- a major accomplishment for a company that had not made a profit in more than two decades. However, the company's monthly expenses increased by $200,000 as of Friday, when the employes' wages were finally restored to their full level. And, even though revenue is exceeding current expenditures, UPI still has large, previously incurred debts, held temporarily in abeyance by the bankruptcy filing.
UPI sources said the cash flow will be tight in the months ahead, the company can't pay some of its bills and management is considering further staff cuts. Nogales denied this, saying that UPI is operating well below its credit limit, that it does not pay all bills immediately and that no staff cuts will be made to reduce costs.
At the same time, UPI has been working to improve its existing product by expanding its graphics department and supplementing its basic news service with more feature stories, analytical pieces, and investigative reports.
UPI's client base, which declined through the late 1970s and early 1980s, has been stable since 1983 at about 7,000 clients in 100 countries.
Now, it is working on new ways of using its existing resources to increase its market:
*Nuestras Noticias (our news), about 18 months old, is the only Spanish language news radio network in the country, providing Spanish news reports to about 45 affiliates. Nogales hopes to expand the service by adding sports, interviews, talk shows and other enhancements.
*Custom Data 250, just now being marketed, is designed to allow news agencies more flexibility in subscribing to UPI. Until now, news agencies were forced to choose among a few "wires," or streams of information, and to take all of the stories on that wire: They could choose from among a state news wire, a national news wire, a sports wire and other very general categories. Advances in computer software have made it possible now for a paper to subscribe to news on more specific topics of interest to their readers, for example, Latin America, agriculture, science and medicine, labor and religion. UPI has started marketing two similar projects, TeleCast, which would offer customized news for television stations, and Weather-Trac, which would customize weather information for radio and television.
*UPI's sports division is entering the rush-to-publish market with a contract for four books to be written in anticipation of an expected event. Its first book, on baseball player Pete Rose's career, was published a week before his historic 4,129th hit, and is now in its third printing.
*UPI has just entered a joint venture with Telecrafter, a Denver cable company, to deliver news directly to homes and offices through personal computers.
*European Videotext, being test marketed in Sweden, provides English language news, in written form on a video screen, via cable to airports and hotels. UPI has a one-year contract there and plans to expand the service to other parts of Europe.
*UPI Paging Services is a possibility being discussed with some prospective bidders. UPI could sell customized news reports to paging companies for inclusion in their paging alert services.
All of the ideas are intended to increase UPI's overall market -- and revenue -- by packaging and delivering the information it has in new ways. "UPI is no longer just a wire service," Nogales said. "UPI is an information company."
"If a company wants to be an active participant in the communications industry, UPI affords a very attractive business opportunity," said Jeffrey V. Peterson, a partner at Bear, Stearns & Co. and one of UPI's investment advisers. "We feel there is both a business opportunity and a financial opportunity" at UPI.