Mr. Zell financed much of his deal’s $13 billion of debt by borrowing against part of the future of his employees’ pension plan and taking a huge tax advantage. Tribune employees ended up with equity, and now they will probably be left with very little. (The good news: any pension money put aside before the deal remains for the employees.)
As Mr. Newman, an analyst at CreditSights, explained at the time: “If there is a problem with the company, most of the risk is on the employees, as Zell will not own Tribune shares.” He continued: “The cash will come from the sweat equity of the employees of Tribune.”
Granted, Mr. Zell, 67, put up some money. He invested $315 million in the form of subordinated debt in exchange for a warrant to buy 40 percent of Tribune in the future for $500 million. It is unclear how much he’ll lose, but one thing is clear: when creditors get in line, he gets to stand ahead of the employees.
Mr. Zell isn’t the only one responsible for this debacle. With one of the grand old names of American journalism now confronting an uncertain future, it is worth remembering all the people who mismanaged the company beforehand and helped orchestrate this ill-fated deal — and made a lot of money in the process. They include members of the Tribune board, the company’s management and the bankers who walked away with millions of dollars for financing and advising on a transaction that many of them knew, or should have known, could end in ruin.
But what about those employees? They had no seat at the table when the company’s own board let Mr. Zell use part of its future pension plan in exchange for $34 a share.
Mr. Newman, the analyst who predicted the trouble, said in an interview on Monday, “The employees were put in a very bad situation.” He added that while boards are typically only responsible to their shareholders, this situation may be different. “There has to be a balance,” he said, “to create sustainability for all the stakeholders.”