Four years ago, Joe Lewis Allbritton in Washington with a Texas-sized checkbook and a problem that many said more than matched his millions: saving the floudering Washington Star from collapse.
Yesterday as Allbritton announced he was selling The Star to Time Inc., it was reliably estimated that be made a profit of at least $70 million by selectively selling off The Star's more profitable broadcast properties.
Sitting in the glare of television lights at The Star building, the diminutive (about 5 feet, 7), immaculately tailored Texas banker did not dispute a reporter's suggestion that he had more than doubled the $65 million investment he says he had invested in The Star. Allbritton complimented the reporter, saying, "You add quite well."
Even that estimate may conservative, according to some people familiar with Allbritton's finances, because much of the money Allbritton put into The Star was borrowed from others and most of The Star's well known loses were offset by profits from his television, banking real estate, and ranching interests.
"Oh, how did he ever pull it off?" groused of one of The Star's long-time stockholders who had yielded control of the paper and its more successful broadcast properties to Allbritton in 1975.
The secret, said Jack Valente, a former presential aide and a longtime Allbritton confident, is that Allbritton "is a fellow who got up earlier and stay up later than all of us." He has what fellow texan Valente called "spacious imagination.He sees things. He can construct things where no one can sees things."
That is precisely what some people were saying yesterday that Allbritton had done by selling The Star to the Time Empire.
"He came here to do good, and he did well," a friend said. He showed the boys how to make money," said one Washington banker. "It's sensational . . . Allbritton is an unbelievably bright guy to accomplish what he's done," said Edwin K. Hoffman, president of Woodward & Lothrop, one of Washington's major andvertisers.
Actually Allbritton followed the same formula for making money out of The Star that he had used in making money in saving and loans, banks, real estate and funeral homes. The key, he once said is "timing . . . my best talent."
I thought, and I still think that if you get the economics of this paper on an keel and if you can get the broadcast facilities on a consolidated basis, the whole thing could be an attractive package," he sid in 1975.
Starting in September 1974, with his first $5.2 milliom investment for 1,982 shares of Washington Star Conmmunication Inc. stock, Allbritton's aim has been to create that package.
As Star personnel bemoaned his imposition of a four-day work week for four day's pay, Allbritton trimmed the paper's mounting loses, revamped management and makeup and began the task of making the organization profitable. In his Texas accent, he proudly compared the task to "turning a supertanker around in the ocean."
Yesterday Allbritton 53, clearly was ready to take the credit for having saved The Star, and at the time, to argue that it was time for someone else to underwrite the costs of rebuilding the newspaper. It's been clear all along that The Star needed more than I alone could give it," he said.
After winning approval of his investment in The Star from the company's stockholders and then the Federal Communications Commission, Allbritton solidified his ownership with $283 milliom purchase of all the remaining Star Communications stock on Jan. 29, 1976. By that time, his plan for spinning off the paper's more profitable broadcast properties was taking shape.
His overall investment to buy the properties came to about $35 million, a sum he financed largely with a $29 million loan from Chemical Bank of New York. The loan was made at 1 per cent above the prime interest rate and required no principal payments until it matured last summer.
As part of the FCC approval, however, Allbritton was ordered to divest either the broadcast or newspaper properties here because of a general FCC policy prohibiting future news media ownership concentration in one locality.
Thus, Allbritton began seeking potential buyers of the broadcast properties. Despite speculation to the contrary, a close Allbritton associate said yesterday that The Star chaiirman never intended to close the newspaper. "He feels deeply about the paper . . . he's carried a tough, tough burden," the associated state.
Allbritton also has invested as much as $30 million to underwrite The Star's losses and to improve the newspaper operations since he has been chairman of Washington Star Communications.
But Allbritton stands to earn about $130 million from various agreements he has reached on Star Communications properties. Some of the agreements were as significant in the broadcast field as yesterday's announcement was in the publishing industry. In brief, his sales have been:
September 1976 - Radio stations WMAL-AM and WMAL-FM (no WRQX) of Washington, sold to the American Broadcasting Company for $16 million, one of the highest prices ever paid for radio properties. The 1976.
April 1977 - WMAL-TV (now WJLA-TV) traded to Combined Communications Corporation for KOCO TV in Oklahoma City (estimated worth: $25 million to $30 million) and $55 million worth of preferred (non-voting) stock in Combined Communications. This deal is supposed to close Feb. 28.
April 1977 - WLVA-AM radio in Lynchburg, VA., sold to Shenandoah Broadcasting for $6000.000.
Albritton still owns, throurh his Perpetual Corp., Lynchburg's WLVA-TV, an ABC affilate, and WCIV-TV in Charleston, S.C., an NBC affilate. Those stations are estimated to be worth $4 million, and $5 million to $6 million, respectively.
Including dividends that Allbritton will receive during the next 20 years from Combined Communications, the trade of WJLA-TV has been estimated to be worth more than $94 million to Allbritton.
Not everyone was overjoyed with the apparent success of Allbritton's dealing. "Sure, of course . . . I have regrets" at having sold The Star to Allbritton, said Crosby Noyes, a former national editor at the paper and a member of one of the families that had controlled the paper for almost 100 years.
Noyes said "there was no alternative" to selling to Allbritton, whom he described as "a nice guy" whom the Noyes family found "sometimes difficult to deal with in a business sense."
In sharp contrast to what Allbritton said was less than one week of serious bargaining with Time, Inc. executives, was the more than one year of bargaining he needed to arrange the sale by the families.
"I think he's come out pretty damn well," said John H. Kauffman, who was president of The Star before Allbritton's takeover. Kauffman said he was not bitter about Allbritton's apparent success. "I'm very pleased, and so is my family. We feel Mr. Allbritton has done an excellent job," Kauffman said.
When the paper was sold to Allbritton, "our only concern was would it (a deal to save the paper) go," Kauffman said.
Valente, a member of Allbritton's Star board of directors, said yesterday that saving the newspaper was the "one overriding objectives" to which Allbritton was committed during the past four years. "He would not let The Star collapse whatever," Valente said.
I never underestimate him. If he tells me a rooster can pull a boxcar, I'm ready to go hitch him up," Valente said. Allbritton can easily be underestimated, Valente said. "He is polite, so warm, charming, you might think he's insubstantive."
Yesterday, as he talked to reporters, Allbritton mixed the metaphors of his rural Southern background with the vernacular of a big city banker.
Asked if the deal with Time would make him a millionaire or a pauper, Allbritton replied softly, "Well, I am a millionaire. I don't want to be reduced to less than that."
Some of Allbritton's announced plans may not be concluded as he has stated. For instance, the WJLA-TV deal is being protested to the FCC, and Time conceivably could back out of The Star purchase before the deal is closed later this month.
Even so, industry sources said that Allbritton has set prices on his properties and that it is unlikely they would be sold for much below those set prices. Allbritton said yesterday that he has a second bidder for The Star if the sale to Time fails. CAPTION: Picture 1, Allbritton: an estimated $70 million profit., By Ellsworth Davis - The Washington Post; Picture 2, no caption, By Terry Dale - The Washington Post