Berlusconi Flirts With Taking Company Public

Silvio Berlusconi, chairman of and driving force behind one of Europe’s biggest and most expansionary communications groups, is weighing the odds of taking his empire public.

U.S. investment bank Goldman Sachs, in a report commissioned by Berlusconi’s corporation, Fininvest, has recommended that the Italian mogul put 40% of his film and entertainment holdings on the Milan and New York stock exchanges.

The move, say Fininvest officials, is aimed at generating capital to finance the ambitious expansion plans of Fininvest’s sub-holding group, Silvio Berlusconi Communications, in Europe and the U.S.

While Fininvest’s bid for a British commercial tv franchise could be what tempts Berlusconi to go public, another reason could be his firm’s mounting debt.

Reteitalia, which includes film and tv acquisition and production, distribution, and exhibition, reports consolidated operating revenues for 1990 of $1.2 billion. This is up 118% from 1989, and the company foresees more growth in 1991.

These figures should be put into perspective, however, with an overall view of the Fininvest empire. There the balance sheets are far less rosy. Up to now, Berlusconi has been under no obligation to present a consolidated balance sheet linking his 10 divisions and scores of companies. Yet with bank debts of $2.18 billion, the Milan mogul has reason to seek outside sources of financing.

Denies debt motive

Berlusconi denies debt is pushing him to go public. “The project of quoting Silvio Berlusconi Communications [the soon to be announced new name for Reteitalia] on the stock exchange is independent of financing needs…. It is a longterm program linked to bolstering what is today the only real European major, with its library of thousands of titles and a $1.2 billion turnover. Our group… produces a cashflow more than adequate to manage our current debt,” asserted the Fininvest topper this week.

The Goldman Sachs study valued Reteitalia/SBC at $4 billion, but it’s not clear exactly how this figure was reached. Fininvest spokesmen insisted the Goldman Sachs evaluation took into consideration only Reteitalia’s 100,000-hour film and tv library (the company’s main asset, which includes the Cineriz and MGM libraries) and in-house production of 200 hours a year, which feeds the library.

Also uncertain is what Fininvest may decide to put on Wall Street. The stock package could involve many other Reteitalia holdings in the Berlusconi empire, which includes three commercial tv channels in Italy (Canale 5, Rete 4 and Italia 1); the exhibition company Cinema 5; 50% ownership (with Mario and Vittorio Cecchi Gori) in Pentafilm, Penta Video and Penta Distribuzione; 10% of the future pay-tv web Telepiu; and shares in foreign tv webs La Cinq, Telefunf and Telecinco. Other arms of Reteitalia include a Milan association soccer team and a Milan legit theater.

The real obstacle to going public, in the opinion of most observers, is Berlusconi himself. Though he owns and runs the largest Italian company not listed on the stock market, and his broadcasting and production empire easily ranks among the world’s five largest, his methods remain those of a one-man show. “Fininvest’s fundamental resource is and will remain Berlusconi,” judges Berlusconi’s immediate deputy, Fininvest Comunicazioni chief exec officer Fedele Confalonieri. “We want to open up without losing the characteristic that has made Berlusconi’s fortune: being the boss of his own companies.”

Besides Berlusconi’s reluctance to relinquish control of his companies, there are other problems to be faced before outside capital comes pouring in. A spokesman for CONSOB, the Italian equivalent of the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission, raised the question of how easy it will be to find buyers for SBC stocks in a bearish market.

But an analyst at Merrill Lynch in Rome opined that Berlusconi’s name carried such international recognition there would be “absolutely no problem” selling SBC stock.

Britain may be one of the first areas for expansion. It was revealed this week that Berlusconi has made a bid on one of the ITV franchises that go up for sale in the U.K. later this year.

“There has been no real negotiation yet,” key Berlusconi aide and Fininvest veep Gianni Letta told VARIETY. He found it logical, however, that the Fininvest group, which already owns 25% of La Cinq in France, 25% of Telecinco in Spain and 21% of Telefunf in Germany, should expand into the U.K. The new net’s name, should the Fininvest bid be successful, naturally will be Channel 5.

Berlusconi’s emissaries have been taking a close look at the Soviet Union, where Fininvest has been the concessionary for European tv commercials for a year. Fininvest reports encouraging talks with the Soviet government and tv bureaucracy over the possibility of opening a commercial tv web in Russia.

Berlusconi also has entered the cautious race to run Rome’s biggest exhib chain, the 25-screen Mondialcine circuit. Right now, the pricetag – said to be close to $22 million for rights to manage, not buy, the theaters for the next nine years – is considered by all bidders to be unrealistically high.

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