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A Hollywood Player Who Owns the Game

A. Jerrold Perenchio has made billions with great instincts, an iron will and a very low profile. Now he's selling Univision -- his way.

June 20, 2006|Meg James | Times Staff Writer

During five decades as one of Los Angeles' shrewdest businessmen, A. Jerrold Perenchio has perfected the art of spotting -- and then exploiting -- potential.

In 1971, the man whose friends call him Jerry did something no other boxing promoter had done: He guaranteed a $5-million purse to get two heavyweight champions into the ring. Then, he made the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier fight available on closed-circuit TV not just to cover the costs but also to reap a couple of million dollars' profit.

In 1981, when he was a business partner with TV producer Norman Lear, he negotiated a deal to buy a second-tier movie studio, Avco Embassy Picture Corp., for $25 million. Four years later, just as the home-video business was taking off, boosting the value of film libraries, Perenchio and Lear sold the studio to Coca-Cola Co. for $485 million.

Now, the mercurial 75-year-old is poised for his biggest payday yet. After running Univision Communications Inc. for 14 years, Perenchio has put the Spanish-language media behemoth on the block.

With bids due today, Wall Street analysts say the company, whose television ratings among younger viewers often rival those of ABC, CBS and NBC, could fetch as much as $13 billion. Perenchio, whose initial investment was a mere $33 million, stands to make about $1.3 billion.

"For a long time, I thought he was lucky," said singer Andy Williams, who is Perenchio's best friend. "But how could somebody sustain a lucky streak for so long? Finally, I realized that he wasn't lucky. He was just smart."

Ask those who know Perenchio to sum him up, and they all describe him as prescient. Whether booking bands in the 1950s, launching Elton John's career in the U.S. in the 1970s, co-producing blockbuster films like "Blade Runner" and "Driving Miss Daisy" in the 1980s or buying (in 1985) and then quickly flipping at a huge profit the Loews theater chain, Perenchio has made a fortune sensing trends.

"Jerry has always been ahead of everyone else," said Warner Bros. President Alan Horn, who moved to California in 1973 to work for Perenchio when he was managing Lear's business. "He has a great nose. Great instincts. And the guts of a lion."

Perenchio has something else, too, that he believes is key to staying on top: a set of 20 tenets, typed in all capital letters on a single page. Known to everyone at Univision as "The Rules of the Road," they have been Perenchio's compass and have helped make him one of the most powerful forces in Hollywood and one of the wealthiest men in America.

Forbes magazine estimates his net worth at $2.9 billion.

Tough negotiator, inflexible tyrant, brilliant marketer, control freak, financial wizard, blunt-talking s.o.b. -- Perenchio has been called all these things and more. His response? Determined silence.

The rules prohibit talking on the record.

Stay clear of the press. No interviews, no panels, no speeches, no comments. Stay out of the spotlight -- it fades your suit.

Last month, at the television industry's annual presentations of its new shows for Madison Avenue, hundreds of advertisers jammed into a Lincoln Center theater to hear Univision's pitch: This year, the more than 43 million Latinos who live in the United States will spend some $760 billion, a parade of executives proclaimed, and Univision can deliver those viewers better than any other network.

The only awkward moment came when Ray Rodriguez, Univision's president, gave a shout-out from the stage to his boss. Typically, such a gesture is choreographed with a roving spotlight, which settles on the honoree, who basks in the attention.

Not Perenchio. At the mention of his name, the crowd shifted as row after row of advertisers turned around, craning their necks for a glimpse. Perenchio didn't even wave, leaving some to wonder whether he was actually in the room.

Perenchio is serious about keeping a low profile. It's not modesty that motivates him. It's control.

In a rare interview in 1981, Perenchio told a Times reporter: "I really don't want my name in the goddamn paper. I really don't mean to be rude. I just don't want to give out interviews. I just hate them. Inevitably, I ended up hurting some people or leaving some names out, or getting quoted out of context."

Similarly, he won't pose for photographs, and Univision won't release any. (The only recent photo available is on the website of his third and current wife, Margaret, an artist, at www.margaretperenchioart.com. The shot of him in a blue sweater and white sneakers is the basis for a painting she calls "Weekend in Malibu.")

Perenchio holds his employees to the same standard, punishing those who violate the rules. In 1995, when Rodriguez was interviewed about Univision by a trade magazine, Perenchio fined him $25,000.

Just a year earlier, another top executive, Carlos Barba, had paid a much stiffer penalty. Barba, who had worked for Perenchio for years, was fired after he was the subject of a glowing profile in the New York Times.

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