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Copyright © 2002 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of July 10 - 16, 2002


Ready, set, merge!

CEOs gather at Allen & Co. 
conference in Sun Valley

Express Staff Writer

The tarmac at Friedman Memorial Airport is lined with polished private jets. Elite restaurants in and around Sun Valley have stocked up on culinary treats and fine wines. Residents up and down the Wood River Valley have cleared their calendar for the week to take on odd jobs.

And while most everyone knows what the buzz is about, only a handful know who might be discussing what this week at investment banker Herbert Allen Jr.’s 20th annual conference of media and technology moguls. Security at this year’s Allen & Co. event is tighter than ever, and the guest list for Allen’s event has been guarded with special care.

Held in Sun Valley each July, the conference has in the past hosted business and entertainment titans such as Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey, Tom Brokaw, Ted Turner, and Tom Hanks. Last year, Allen¾who heads his own New York City-based firm called Allen & Co. and owns a condo in Sun Valley¾brought in Mexican President Vicente Fox to talk about trade relations between the United States and its sometimes jealous south-of-the-border commercial partner. However, the event received a deluge of unwanted media attention when it was revealed that Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham collapsed outside her vacation rental, was quietly whisked away, and later died in a Boise hospital.

This year, guests started arriving over the Fourth of July weekend, and a detailed schedule of events for the scores of conferees started on Tuesday morning. Through Saturday, they will participate in a flurry of events that were planned months in advance, including golf, tennis, hiking, fly fishing, and whitewater rafting. Daily business meetings¾whether they are on a par-3 at the golf links or in a conference room at the Sun Valley Lodge¾will bring together unusual pairings of CEOs and influential faces from Hollywood, Silicon Valley and Wall Street.

And while Allen & Co. will pick up the extraordinary tab for the event, company executives hope that the heavy doses of clean, mountain air and leisure activities will foster something other than summertime relaxation. What they’re really after is a share of earth-shattering business deals that might take place, such as the one in 1995 when Walt Disney Chairman Michael Eisner struck a deal to purchase Capital Cities Communications and ABC for $19 billion.

Despite the 20th anniversary billing, little is being said about this week’s affair. No press releases were issued, and only a select few outsiders—all of whom are instructed to keep quiet about the goings on—are allowed to view or participate in the events.

Bob Cosgriff, managing director of Allen & Co., said that scheduled events for the conference will be held throughout Sun Valley through July 13. "We want people to get out and enjoy the area," he said, noting that no special events have been planned as part of the 20th anniversary. "I think it will be similar to other years."

Typically, Wood River Valley residents—many of whom have been screened and hired by Allen & Co. to serve the guests as drivers, baby-sitters, caterers and tour guides—oblige in the company’s requests to keep the event as low profile as possible. In return, local employees earn steep hourly wages and generous end-of-the-week tips.

Clearly, the quiet cooperation of valley locals has played a large part in making the conference an annual event.

"We consider ourselves guests, and appreciate all that people have done for us," Cosgriff said. "The entire valley has been very good to us."

All of the local employees are screened to ensure they will not be a security risk, and even baby-sitters are asked to sign confidentiality agreements assuring they will not divulge information on conferees. (This year they have been asked to wear matching company-issued shirts while working for the conference.)

Those who do not work directly for the conference can benefit as well. Carol Waller, executive director of the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber of Commerce, said that the week’s expenditures by Allen and his guests pump "millions of dollars" into the local economy. "They are a very high-end group," she said. "I would say that their average daily expenditures would far exceed that of the average visitor."

Some residents in the Wood River Valley have expressed concern that the annual bonanza of temporary, high-paying service jobs will expire because of growing concern among organizers about providing security for such a large group of high-profile collaborators. However, Cosgriff said that he sees the annual conference continuing into the future. "Currently, we have no plans to end it," he said. "I see it continuing."

While Cosgriff declined to offer a list of guests or events, it appears that the Allen conference is still the place for the nation’s high-rollers to be this week. Rick Baird, manager of Friedman Memorial Airport, said that he expects 40 to 60 private jets to be stationed at the airport at various times this week. "It will be extremely busy here," he said. "It will be hard to find places for jets to park," he said, noting that air traffic in and out has not been unusually high.

Indeed, the golf courses, tennis courts, and hiking trails will be busy this week. But, in the wake of revelations of bogus accounting practices employed by such notable firms as Enron and WorldCom, and investor confidence down across the nation, many outsiders are wondering if conferees will be talking more about their golf swings than mergers and acquisitions.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.