Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Billionaire Crown Likes Sara Lee Corp.

James S. Crown, a driving force behind the billionaire Crown family empire, just plunked down around $13 million to acquire one million shares of locally-based Sara Lee Corp. The purchase sure looks like a vote of confidence in Sara Lee CEO Brenda Barnes' sweeping efforts to turn around the lagging consumer product company that's best known for its cheesecake, breads and Jimmy Dean Sausage.
The Crowns have been busy recently. James Crown bought the Sara Lee stock last Friday,according to the company filing. That would be right around the same time another major Crown family investment--JP Morgan Chase-was in the midst of acquiring the near bankrupt Bears Stearns brokerage house for $2 a share, or $236 million.
James Crown, who has been a Sara Lee director for years but until now did not own a significant block of the stock,, will have direct control over 100,000 Sara Lee shares and indirect control over the remaining amount, according to the company filing.
Add these holdings to the Crown family's investment in General Dynamics, Hilton Hotels, an Aspen skiing company, sport teams (part-ownership in the Chicago Bulls and New York Yankees), and real estate, including the iconic Rockefeller Center.
The 54-year-old Jim Crown, president of Henry Crown & Co., defines heavy hitter. In addition to overseeing the family's operations and investments, he's also a trustee at the Chicago Symphony and chairman of the University of Chicago's board.
Recently, BW Chicago--the local monthly produce by Businessweek--named him one of the 10 most powerful people in the city's "new guard". (I know, because I wrote the article!)
CEO Barnes, one of the most influential women in Corporate America, became Sara Lee CEO in 2005. Since then, she has been overhauling the food and consumer products company--in hopes of improving earnings and stock performance--primarily by selling brands and assets (about 40 percent of the company).
She's also shaking up the place by relocating Sara Lee's headquarters to suburban Downers Grove from downtown Chicago, overhauling top staff and responsibilities, and cutting jobs.
Some have speculated that the only way Barnes will ever maximize shareholder value is by liquidating the company.
Right now, Wall Street's reaction to Barnes' changes is mixed. Recently, D.A. Davidson & Co. issued a buy recommendation, while JP Morgan downgraded the stock from neutral.
Maybe Jim Crown will have a talk with that bearish JP Morgan analyst just to remind him of the ad slogan: "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee".

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