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Thursday, March 21, 2013

THE HINDENBURG, THE TITANIC, AND OTHER DISASTERS

Early in 1986 I noticed a number of unfamiliar faces visiting our offices. Something was going on and I wanted to know what it was. I snooped around as I usually did, trying to uncover the mystery, but with no success. In late February, President Jack Abely called to invite me to lunch. As we walked east toward First Avenue, he said he wanted to get as far away from the office as possible. We walked into an Italian restaurant  on First Avenue, where Jack was obviously well known. I asked, "Why all the secrecy?" He ignored the question, as we ordered our martinis. He asked how the year was shaping up and I said, "good." After the second drink I could tell he was ready to spill the beans. "D&B is shopping Technical Publishing...  everything but Dun's Review is on the sales block." (That publication, which had recently changed it name to Dun's Business Month, was the only consumer magazine in the stable. Its revenues were close to $18 million, with a $3 million loss each year. Dun & Bradstreet saw it as a promotional vehicle.) I sat stunned. I knew the rest of our 23 publications were profitable and growing. I asked, "Why do they want to spin us off?"

Jack didn't know the answer. But he then suggested a possible Leveraged Buyout, looking for my initial reaction. He explained he had been pursuing the idea with The Bank of Boston. (That cleared up the mystery of  the unfamiliar faces I had seen entering his office. "I want to put together a consortium of officers and publishers to explore buying the company. Are you interested in joining us?" We ordered a third drink. Jack added, with his grimacing stare, "I'm swearing you to total secrecy. You can't say a word until we get further along." My future was a stake and I hesitated. I sat back looking at my glass and gathering my thoughts. "I'll need to see all of the financials (some I had reviewed with the publishers) and I'll get back to you."

As we walked back to the office, I couldn't help thinking this could be a great opportunity or a gigantic disaster. My future was at stake. Will I go down with the Titanic or will I strike it rich. I told him I wouldn't say anything, but that I would be going to Dusseldorf in June for DRUPA. "Don't worry it will take a couple of months to put the offer together," he assured me. A couple of months later a major international disaster, far more serious than my own, occurred on April 26th. It was the explosion and fire at a nuclear plant in Chernobyl, which spread radioactive particles across western Europe. Germany was affected and many Americans wondered if it was wise to make the trip overseas. I had told DRUPA's New York staff, I'd be going in spite of the radiation, and asked them to book a small hotel near the train station, so I wouldn't need to rent a car. Roger Ynostroza and Peter Johnston had booked rooms in Aachen, about 40 minutes from the Messe. We had learned our lesson in 1982 and were only staying a week.

We were warned against eating vegetables which may have been contaminated, to drink only bottled water, and to be extremely careful about what we ate. I was booked at the Madison (pronounced "medicin" in German. Small would be a generous adjective to describe the room. The elevator had a four person limit. But the hotel was clean and very convenient to the Hauptbahnhof  (central train station). The ride to the fairgrounds was less than 20 minutes. We attended the ritual of the opening night opera, and as usual the jet lagged handful of Americans dozed off. Peter, a music lover couldn't believe it.

The opening day, in between press conferences, we stopped  at the Kodak exhibit. Bill Sherman, who had rounded up the usual suspects for our 1982 interviews told us not even that loyal group had attended. But the next day we attended a Scitex luncheon, at which I met one of my top ten printing executives, a 34 year-old George Carlisle, who had just been named a vice president of Scitex America. (The rest of the  story in Friday's post.)