"Yeah, that's what we are, a sports conglomerate," said David A. (Sonny) Werblin, impresario of sports and the president and chief executive officer of the Madison Square Garden Corp.
And a conglomerate it is, with holdings that stretch far beyond the world-famous mid-Manhattan sports arena that gives the company its name, but not much in the way of profits.
It also owns the New York Rangers and Knickerbockers, and recently it announced the purchase of the Washington Diplomats soccer franchise. Meanwhile, it has the International Holiday on Ice, with its four touring shows, which does make money. It owns Roosevelt Raceway for the trotters and Arlington Raceway in Chicago for thoroughbred racing.
And Madison Square Garden Corp. Also contains what the company like to describe as "tremendous holdings of prime real estate."
But as a conglomerate, it is dwarfed by its parent, Gulf and Western Industries, Inc, the house of Charlie Bludhorn and, to many, the archetype of all conglomerates - dispersed and diverse.
With nearly $4 billion in annual revenues, G&W's interest stretch from Central American sugar plantations to Dutch Master cigars to Tennessee zinc mines to Schrafft's candy to the giant Kayser-Roth apparel empire to book publisher Simon and Shuster, and to the annual Miss Universe beauty pageant.
Throw in Paramount Pictures, currently the hottest studio in Hollywood, a billion-dollar heavy manufacturing division, an automotive parts business and $2 billion finance and insurance subsidiary, and you begin to realize just how small a part of G&W the Madison Square Corp. really is.
Nevertheless, since last December when G&W lured Werblin away from the rival New Jersey Sports and Eposition Authority and its Meadowlands complex which he had built up, the company has been willing to give Werblin a kind of broad authority to turn the large but only minimally profitable garden operation into a real money-maker.
The last report since G&W took over the company in 1977 showed that the Garden Corp. for the year ended April 30, 1977, earned only $4.5 million on revenues of $180.6 million. And most of the profit came from the ice shows.
"So far everything he's come in with, he's been backed," said Martin Davis, G and W executive vice president.
That means spending money for new players to build up the rosters and won-lost records of the Knicks and Rangers, finding more attractions to fill the tax and debt-laden Garden itself, thinking about indoor soccer, for example and finding more teams like the Diplomats.
Does that mean a baseball team? And what about the rumors that G and W might buy the Baltimore Oriole franchise and bring back major league baseball to Washington?
"If I say eggs, somebody says baseball," retorted a slightly exasperated Werblin. "Every time I talk to anybody in Washington, it's baseball. No, we're not in negotiations for a baseball team. But we are in the business of acquiring sports enterprises, and I don't think there's any secret about that."
Well, whether or not Werblin wants a baseball team or any other attraction to add to the Garden Corp. portfolio, there's a good chance he'll be able to get it, given G and W's confidence in him.
"When we took over the Madison Square Garden Corp.," recalled Davis, "we said, "What we need is a Sonny Werblin.' What we didn't realize was the Werblin was available."
G and W acts like a kind of "central bank" for the Garden or any of the other company divisions, said Davis. That doesn't mean Werblin has a blank check or doesn't have to clear his proposals first. But the company's executives are all ears when he comes in with a suggestion.
"We'd like to see the Garden run on an opportunistic basis, we'll go with it," said Davis. "If Werblin came in tomorrow with a suggestion for a Meadowsland-type complex in Connecticut, we'd at least discuss it."
Right now G and W shouldn't have trouble finding the wherewithal for any new acquisitions.
The company's Paramount Pictures unit (which is housed in the leisure time group along with the Garden Corp. and Simon and Schuster), has been throwing off tremendous amounts of cash as a result of a s series of blockbuster hits this year including "Grease," Saturday Night Fever." Meanwhile it produces four of the top 10 shows in the curret television season - "Happy Days." "Laverne and Shirley," "Mork and Mindy," and "Taxi."
Earnings have not yet been reported for G and W's fiscal year which ended July 31. But analysts expect them to be up more than 10 percent over the previous year's net of $150 million.
The story of G and W is the story of Charles Bludhorn, 52, chairman and chief executive officer, who emigrated to the U.S. as a teen-ager from Austria and started work in the import-export business.The unlikely base for the eventual G and W conglomerate was a small Grand Rapids, Mich. auto-bumper company which Bludhorn acquired in the mid-1950s.
Through most of the 1960s. G and W was the stereotype of the predatory conglomerate, consummating over 50 acquisitions in the period, which earned it the satirical moniker of Engulf and Devour.
Its pattern, says the company, was to find what it considered under-valued situations hwere the assets were sound, and where the profitability could be improved by better management.
But during the current wave of huge corporate acquisitions and takeovers, G&W has been remarkably quiet. Some believe the company changed its style somewhat after the bitter and unsuccessful attempt to take over A&P in 1973.
There is, meanwhile, a two-year-old investigation of G&W by the securities and Exchange Commission hanging over the company, and that may be tempering its aggressiveness as well.
The case originated when Joel Dolkart, former G&W general counsel and a top aide to Bludhorn, was indicted for stealing $2.5 million from two New York law firms G&W had retained. He eventually was sentenced to prison on check-forging charges, but has yet to go to jail as the SEC and the U.S. attorney's office have provided him with immunity in return for information about what he alleges to be questionable G&W operations.
But the prolonged delay in any SEC action has led onservers to speculate that the agency has had little luck in finding evidence to back up Dolkart's allegations. And G&W and the SEC have been engaged in prolonged negotiations to try to settle the case.
G&W's acquisition of the Garden Corp. is quite typical of how it has brought other companies into its corporate fold, taking an initial stake first and then building it up to a control postiion.
In the 1960s, Transnation, a real estate firm partly owned by G&W, was vying with the Garden Corp. to purchase Roosevelt Raceway, where each company had a stake.
Finally, Transnation was merged into the Garden Corp., giving G&W nearly 15 percent of Garden stock. Through a series of partial tender offers over the years, G&W finally built up an 81 percent position, all the while increasing its say in how the company operated. And it August, 1977, the company tendered for the final 19 percent of Garden stock at $10 a share, leaving some unhappy shareholders crying squeeze-out.
Which still begs the question of why G&W would want the margially profitable Garden corp., since Bludhorn is not known as a sports buff, and the acquisition does not seem to be the kind of ego trip that purchases of sports team have been for other enterprises.
"I don't believe that Charlie is a big sports fanatic, he's a businessman," commented G&W's investment banker, Max Chapman of Kidder Peabody. "There's a lot of valuable real estate both in New York and around Roosevelt Raceway that could be very profitable. Charlie also understands that in order to make the Garden attractive, you have to have good teams and good crowds. What Charlie brought to the situation is really the ability to attract people like Werblin."
And getting Werblin may turn out to be one of the best acquisitions G&W has ever made.