Activist investor Carl Icahn is nominating two directors to the board of Gannett (GCI), the media giant that publishes USA Today and operates 43 television stations and affiliated online sites. Icahn has a 6.6 percent stake in Gannett which he acquired back in August. Gannett responded by saying it was surprised by Icahn’s “aggressive actions.”
But the company shouldn’t be. “It’s basically what he promises his investors,” says Yahoo Finance Senior Columnist Michael Santoli. “He’s going to go out there and not wait for the fruit to fall from the tree. He is going to shake it.”
In a letter to Gannett CEO Gracia Martore, Icahn said he was pleased with the company’s plans to spinoff the TV business but expressed concerns about the future of the separate companies once on their own. "After Gannett completes the spinoff...I would not be surprised if either company became the target of a takeover attempt," Icahn wrote. That’s something that Icahn wants, but his concern is that the company would adopt corporate governance measures that would turn-off potential buyers. Icahn is hoping his board nominees will put pressure on the board.
Shares of Gannett haven’t done much since Icahn bought-in last summer. “Now it seems like he’s saying he needs to have some kind of pay back here,” says Santoli, “and they way he thinks to do it is to have each of the individual companies that are going to result in the split to be more or less takeover bait.”
Some of the businesses are more attractive bait than others. “The TV business which also has some of the digital media assets in it looks pretty attractive,” says Santoli. “They’ve always kind of relied for years now on kind of the TV station business and there is a very active market. In fact, that was one of biggest M&A sectors last year.”
The publishing business is a different story. But, as Santoli points out, the local publisher units may have some appeal.
Icahn has been busy this week. On Wednesday, eBay (EBAY) announced it made a deal with Icahn to give an Icahn Capital executive a seat on the eBay board of directors as the company readies the spin off of its fast-growing payment system, PayPal. The spinoff should be finalized by the second half of 2015, eBay CFO Bob Swan said in a conference call on Wednesday. The company also announced it may spinoff its eBay Enterprise division which advises retailers on e-commerce.
Last year saw some high profile corporate spinoffs including Time Inc. (TIME), Tribune Publishing (TPUB) and Lands’ End (LE). In addition to PayPal splitting from eBay, Ferrari is expected to be spun off from Fiat Chrysler (FCAU) this year as well. “I don’t know where it ends,” says Santoli. “I mean obviously Wall Street seems to think that it’s kind of a magic formula…anything that’s unrelated businesses within a company, pull them apart and the market applies a separate higher multiple to each piece.”
But, Santoli says, “Obviously it can’t be that easy and we’re going to get to a silly point or we’re really going to have companies that genuinely do have some linkages between the businesses that make sense to keep.”
That might include companies like 3M (MMM). Santoli says no one pressures 3M to spinoff its disparate businesses because the stock is doing well. “There is so much money in activist funds right now.," he says. "It’s seemed like the one hedge fund strategy that really has worked in the last couple of years. Why is it going to stop?”
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