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Extended Stay America Hotel Chain to Be Sold to New York Investors

By Ben Werner, The State, Columbia, S.C.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

Mar. 6--In one of the largest business deals in South Carolina history, the Extended Stay America hotel chain said Friday it would sell to a New York private investment company for $3.1 billion.

The Blackstone Group said it would pay $19.625 for each share of the Spartanburg company. It is a 24 percent premium over Friday's closing price of $15.81.

If approved by shareholders, the sale would mark another big deal for George Dean Johnson, the South Carolina entrepreneur who founded the company in 1995 and has served as its chairman.

It also would mean profits for H. Wayne Huizenga -- the Blockbuster Video founder who started Extended Stay with Johnson and owns about 11.8 percent of Extended Stay stock -- and Microsoft's Bill Gates. His Cascade Investment LLC owns 6.1 percent of Extended Stay.

When asked why sell now, James Ovenden, Extended Stay's chief financial officer, said Blackstone approached Extended Stay's board with an deal too good to turn down.

"They offered a 24 percent premium over where our stock closed for the past 24 months," he said.

After trading near $18 a share two years ago, Extended Stay's stock dipped as low as $10 per share a year ago. It has hovered between $15 and $16 per share since September.

In comparison, the Walt Disney Co. board balked last month at the 9.9 percent premium offered by cable giant Comcast Corp.

Blackstone knows something about the hotel business. Its Homestead Studio Suites subsidiary, a 132-unit extended-stay hotel chain, will oversee Extended Stay's 475-unit operation.

Extended Stay's headquarters will remain in Spartanburg. Johnson moved the company to Spartanburg from Fort Lauderdale in September 2001, and the company moved into new offices in May 2003.

Johnson -- who also co-founded Blockbuster Video and payday loan outlet Advance America -- has made his name and fortune by building profitable companies fast and then cashing out.

It appears the same strategy followed with Blockbuster, which was sold a decade after it started for $156 million in stock, is what happened with Extended Stay.

Johnson, who was not paid a salary but instead received Extended Stay stock options, stands to gain several million dollars from his 7.6 percent stake in the company.

For 2002, Johnson received 625,000 stock options at an excise price of $12.88.

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(c) 2004, The State, Columbia, S.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. BBI, MSFT, DIS, CMCSK,

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