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Lindner: A Low Profile in a High-Profile Field

July 26, 1988|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | Times Staff Writer

Behind the proposed takeover of Aaron Spelling Productions stands Cincinnati financier Carl Henry Lindner II, a turnaround artist who is well known for his attempts to remain unknown.

Over the years, the reclusive billionaire has put together a string of eclectic deals that is the envy of Wall Street, yet he has never written a book or appeared on the sort of financial television shows favored by other big-league investors.

Now Lindner, a man who takes great pains to maintain a low profile and seldom grants media interviews, is expanding a media empire that was created last year with his successful raid on Taft Broadcasting. Since renamed Great American Communications, Lindner's company announced Monday a plan to combine the businesses of its Worldwide Enterprises subsidiary with Aaron Spelling Productions, creating Spelling Inc.

At least one associate sees no contradiction between Lindner's famed "no comment" practice and his growing presence in an industry that is so squarely in public view.

"He's always been interested in media," said Karl Eller, chairman and chief executive of Circle K Corp., a convenience store chain. Lindner's primary investment vehicle, the family-owned American Financial Corp., an insurance and banking-based conglomerate, owns about 35% of Circle K, and Lindner is a director of the Phoenix-based company.

"He is a very private, quiet guy who is probably one of the world's great investors," Eller said. "He lets you run the company, but he is great to get advice from on financial matters. . . . He's a real fountain."

A Spectacular Failure

Lindner has long had a reputation for buying into ailing companies and giving them the time and resources to return to health.

But it hasn't all been black ink and rosy balance sheets. Lindner's most spectacular public failure was Mission Insurance Group of Los Angeles.

American Financial bought nearly half of the once high-flying workers' compensation insurance company, but in 1985, Mission's reinsurance business took a turn for the worse. Despite Lindner's best efforts to revive the company, Mission was declared insolvent and is being liquidated.

Beyond the Mission debacle, American Financial's stable of investments--United Brands, Penn Central and Columbia Savings & Loan of Beverly Hills, among others--is said to consistently outperform the Dow Jones industrial index. American Financial has total assets of about $7.5 billion.

Trouble With SEC

The 69-year-old Lindner began his business career during the Depression, when he left the eighth grade to deliver milk for his family's ailing dairy. In 1940, Lindner and his brothers took $1,200 and opened an ice cream store that they built into the 200-store United Dairy Farmers chain. Lindner subsequently went into the savings and loan and insurance businesses and now even owns a part interest in the Cincinnati Reds baseball team.

The investor ran afoul of the Securities and Exchange Commission twice in the 1970s. In 1976, the SEC charged that Lindner had manipulated the price of Warner Communications stock. Three years later, the agency said Lindner failed to tell shareholders of the then-public American Financial Corp. that the company had given him and others favorable financial treatment. In both cases, Lindner settled the charges without admitting guilt.

A strict Baptist, Lindner is reputed to hand out cards carrying his favorite sayings.

When he bought Taft Broadcasting, the betting ran that the financier would remake Taft in his own image, or at least rename it Lindner Broadcasting. But true to form, the self-effacing investor, a conservative Republican, apparently resisted the temptation and named it Great American Communications Corp.

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