Friday, July 13, 2007

Allen & Co. sparks intrigue

The highly secretive, long-standing conference hosts pillars of corporate America

Express Staff Writer

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg leaves the big city taxis behind, opting instead to walk to Thursday morning?s meetings at Sun Valley Co.?s Limelight Room. Photo by Chris Pilaro

The crème de la crème of the media, technology, computer and entertainment industries have once again risen out of the corporate enclaves of Wall Street and Hollywood and into the thin mountain air of Sun Valley.

The 2007 Allen & Co. conference marks the 25th year investment banker Herbert Allen Jr. and guests have enjoyed the traditional grandeur of Sun Valley Resort. The fertile soil of the valley has allowed many million-dollar deals to take root, and the surrounding array of outdoor activities including whitewater rafting, fly fishing and golf have help cultivate long-standing and prosperous relationships.

This year is no different.

News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, a perennial guest and one of the media's most sought after targets, is reported to be in the midst of negotiations to acquire The Wall Street Journal for $5 billion. Despite Associated Press reports that Murdoch appeared frustrated Wednesday following talks with the publisher of The Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones & Co., saying it was "unclear where the company's controlling shareholders stood," he appeared comfortable by late afternoon.

"It's great up here," Murdoch said. "It's always nice to have a chance to schmooze with your competitors." Murdoch went on to say that the atmosphere in Sun Valley, being far removed as it is from the boardroom, has a tendency to lend to productive talks.

"This is a very unique conference," he said.

The AP reports that Wall Street advisors see Murdoch's offer as simply too high to beat. He is offering $60 a share, or 65 percent higher than the stock was trading before the proposal was made public.

Murdoch is only one of many power brokers in town for the five-day conference.

Only weeks removed from his decade-long reign as British Prime Minister, Tony Blair is slated to give the final presentation on Saturday to guests of "Camp Allen." When exactly Blair will arrive has not been released. What is certain is the world media will take note of his trip to the Wood River Valley.

Blair's trip to Sun Valley comes in the middle of recent controversy over his appointment as international envoy to the Palestinians on behalf of the Middle East Quartet—the United Nations, United States, the European Union and Russia.

According to British news Web site The Telegraph, Russian officials are frustrated with Blair's appointment because of his close ties to U.S. President George Bush.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former NBC news anchorman Tom Brokaw are also scheduled to speak on Saturday. The topics of the lectures are unknown. However, on the heels of Bloomberg's defection from the Republican Party and with rumors of a possible presidential run as an Independent, there is plenty to discuss.

AOL-Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons was also in town for the "Camp Allen" festivities. Parsons, who is known to be eyeing Yahoo as a potential addition to the ailing AOL-Time Warner coffer, may see the Sun Valley conference as a fitting platform for a rebound. Ever since Time Warner agreed to be acquired by Internet upstart America Online in 2000 (before Parsons was CEO), the company has been striving to regain its stature on Wall Street. The merger featured a stock swap priced at $284 billion. The stock market now values AOL Time Warner at $61 billion—a $223 billion decrease in shareholder wealth.

Although every presenter is notable and is an expert in their respective fields, several stand out as so-called household names.

The short list includes Barry Diller, a director, chairman and chief executive officer of IAC; Anderson Cooper, Emmy Award-winning journalist for CNN; Larry Page, co-founder of Internet giant Google; Meg Whitman, president and CEO of eBay; and Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

An emerging theme of the Allen & Co. conference is the presence of new media pioneers. The Internet-based information companies are increasingly finding their names on the highly exclusive guest list. Perhaps the old guard is looking for a crash-course in computer dissemination.

Less known but rapidly emerging companies like Joost, Spot Runner and Ning all have representatives on the podium this week. Earlier this year, Joost CEO Mike Volpi left Cisco after 13 years. At one time he was considered a likely successor to Cisco's current CEO, John Chambers. But now Volpi is choosing to leave a stalwart in corporate America for a new upstart company with high hopes. Joost describes itself as a new way of watching TV on the Internet, offering a combination of television—complete with shows and strong picture quality—with the power of the Internet to bring people together and deliver entertainment on demand

And while Janus Friis, Nick Grouf, Gina Bianchini, and Mike Volpi may not yet be household names, they are indicative of the ever-changing, multifaceted nature of the media, technology, computer and entertainment industries.

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