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Two potential buyers closing in on Playboy

November 12, 2009 |  6:20 pm

HughHef Hef may soon have a new boss.

Brand management firm Iconix Brand Group and a group led by Jim Griffiths, the company's former entertainment president, are both in advanced talks to acquire "gentlemen's" entertainment company Playboy Enterprises Inc. and take it private for more than $300 million, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Both companies have been talking to Playboy management for about a year, the person said. A Playboy spokesman declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for Iconix.

Any decision about a purchase will ultimately come down to Hugh Hefner, Playboy's founder and public face, who controls about 70% of its voting stock. A buyer would not only have to persuade Hefner to relinquish control of the company he started 56 years ago, but probably also to stay involved given his importance to the brand.

Chicago-based Playboy's stock price plummeted last fall to just above $1 a share as it has struggled with challenges in several of its business, including adult pay television, print and digital content. Revenue has fallen in the first three quarters of the year and the company has cut costs in an attempt to keep up. It recently reduced the guaranteed circulation of its magazine to 1.5 million from 2.6 million.

Former Chief Executive Christie Hefner left last December.

Playboy's market capitalization was just $136.3 million on Wednesday, including a 42% jump caused by a report of Iconix's interest earlier in the day. As of Sept. 30 it had $26.9 million in cash and $103 million of long-term debt, which starts to come due in March 2012.

Rumors that Playboy could be acquired started in February, when former interim Chief Executive Jerry Kern said the company would be open to offers.

In July, former Freedom Communications chief Scott Flanders took over as chief executive. Many on Wall Street had viewed Flanders' appointment as a sign Hefner wanted to revive the company instead of selling it.

"You have Scott Flanders in there who is putting a new corporate strategy into effect to turn the company around," said Steve Marascia, director of research at Capitol Securities Management in Virginia.

Flanders said in a recent interview with the Chicago Tribune that he wanted to grow Playboy by focusing on brand licensing and location-based entertainment, such as nightclubs.

That probably would be the plan for Iconix as well, which owns and licenses several well-known brands such as London Fog, Starter and Joe Boxer. 

Griffiths, who was formerly president of Playboy's Entertainment Group, is working with San Francisco-based private equity firm Golden Gate Capital on his bid. If successful, it would see him take over the company as chief executive and run it for Golden Gate, which would become the new majority owner.

-- Ben Fritz and Greg Burns

Photo: Hugh Hefner with Playboy Playmates Kristina Shannon, left, and Crystal Harris at the "Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist And Rebel" screening during the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival. Credit: Jim Ross / Getty Images.

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