Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Allen & Co. returns to Sun Valley

Moguls of media, tech and entertainment descend for 25th year

Express Staff Writer

The annual Allen & Co. conference will return to Sun Valley this July for its 25th year. A plethora of private jets at Friedman Memorial Airport are a common hallmark that the conference has commenced. Photo by Willy Cook

For the past quarter of a century, the Allen & Co. conference at Sun Valley has set the stage for some of the most important deals in the media, technology, computer and entertainment industries.

The secrecy surrounding the privately funded conference ensures the ripples from such clandestine dealings only rarely resonate across news headlines, instead materializing in ledgers and stock portfolios.

Next week, the only tangible sign that the largest annual event on Sun Valley's corporate calendar is in town will be found in the form of dozens of corporate and private jets lining the tarmac of Friedman Memorial Airport. Local residents may also notice an increased security presence in the valley.

It is estimated that 300 business moguls and their families make their way to Sun Valley for the five-day conference—the guest list is not made public, nor are the exact dates. Perennial guests include Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, Sumner Redstone, David Geffen and Rupert Murdoch, to name a few.

As the monetary tsunami washes over the valley and before it recedes back into the corporate enclaves of Wall Street and Hollywood, dollars percolate into the local economy.

"In terms of the actual economic impact on the community, it's in the millions," said Carol Waller, executive director of the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau. "And that's the money on the ground."

Waller estimated last year's conference provided the Ketchum-Sun Valley area with $217,000 in national publicity.

The host, Allen & Co., is less a household name than most of the conference presenters—a fact that is more by design than chance. Although the very private, family owned investment firm is currently in its third generation of Allen family navigation, it remains an enigma, even to those privy to the world of big business.

Allen & Co. has only one office located a few blocks from Central Park in Manhattan, employs roughly 200 people, does not have a Web site, does not issue press releases, prohibits media from attending conference presentations and has no research department—a rarity for an investment firm.

What the firm lacks in transparency and traditional research it makes up for by quietly forging old-fashioned, long-lasting relationships. This is where the conference at Sun Valley comes into play.

For a week, the decision-makers of the corporate world discuss deals over golf, fly fishing, tennis, whitewater rafting and a myriad of other activities far removed from the typical board meeting. "Direct research" is the term given to the practice of bringing money managers into direct contact with clients and corporate executives at firm sponsored events.

"Sun Valley is a cross between summer camp and an SAT test," said Disney's Michael Eisner in an interview with CNN Money in 2004.

Several years back, while driving around Sun Valley, it is reported Eisner first discussed Disney's 1996 purchase of Capitol Cities/ABC. (Allen & Co. was later paid $2 million for providing Capitol Cities with a fairness option).

Disney's acquisition of ABC is certainty not the only deal to have been orchestrated in Sun Valley, the lack of transparency, however, makes it difficult to say what monumental shifts of power have occurred as a result of a fishing trip on the Big Wood River.

One documented event indicative of the gravitational pull Allen & Co. brings to Sun Valley occurred in 2003. On the heels of revelations that CIA intelligence wrongly asserted Iraq's Saddam Hussein had attempted to buy uranium from the African nation of Niger—a major piece of evidence used to justify the invasion of Iraq—former CIA Director George Tenet was the most sought after man in Washington, D.C.

And while big city reporters and the Senate Intelligence Committee sought Tenet for comments, he was in Sun Valley, providing a private intelligence briefing to guests of "Camp Allen."

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