|By Kathy Bergen, Chicago
TribuneMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 27, 2007 - If the dissolution of the Pritzker empire were a book, the latest chapter -- the sale of industrial conglomerate Marmon Holdings Inc. to investor Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. -- could provide tantalizing clues to how the crown jewel, the Hyatt hotel chain, might be sold.
While the billionaire family has been grooming Global Hyatt Corp. into an entity that could be taken public, observers now say a private deal may be just as likely.
The Berkshire Hathaway deal, along with earlier transactions, brings the breakup of the Pritzker fortune to nearly the halfway point, easing some of the pressure on family business leader Thomas Pritzker to do a major Hyatt deal right away. The Pritzker family has agreed to split up its fortune among 11 adult cousins by 2011, a decision reached after internal rifts.
While Berkshire Hathaway is a publicly traded company, the $4.5 billion deal for 60 percent of Marmon played out much like a private deal -- a 10-day sprint involving two titans, Buffett and Thomas Pritzker, the intensely private head of his family's business. And it was announced on Christmas Day, the quietest business day of the year and the day when business reporting staffs are at a bare minimum.
The deal, as well as a separate $1 billion investment in Hyatt in August by heirs to Wal-Mart's Walton family fortune and investment bank Goldman Sachs, speak volumes about how the Pritzkers like to conduct business, said one family friend.
"Both are really very, very smart Pritzker-type deals, because they were quiet, privately done, with no public auction, between significant principals sitting around the table, without fanfare," he said.
The preference for privacy was instilled in Tom by his late father, Jay, who built the family empire together with his brother, Robert. And the desire to stay out of the public eye is unlikely to change in an ultimate deal for Hyatt, the family friend said.
Tom Pritzker did not respond to an interview request Wednesday. In previous interviews he has acknowledged preparing Hyatt for the possibility of going public, but has not committed to going that route.
And the capital markets will play a key role in that decision, obviously.
"At least for now, the IPO market is terrible, so I don't think anything is imminent," said Steven Kisielica, co-founder of Lodging Capital Partners in Chicago.
The credit crunch is crimping private deals as well, though some deals still will get done, said Ted Mandigo, a hospitality consultant based in Elmhurst.
"Lending has tightened on new development, which means the way to expand a portfolio is buying, rather than building," he said, noting that life insurance companies, pension funds and some large real estate investment trusts have money to invest.
For instance, after it digests its deal for Hilton Hotels Corp. The Blackstone Group LP likely will continue shopping, Mandigo said. "And some other large real estate investment trusts are stepping up to the table," he said.
Thomas M. Begel, chairman of TMB Industries, a leveraged buyout group that has done deals with the Pritzkers, said Hyatt represents "such valuable assets that I'm sure Tom is looking at all the options to see what gives the family the greatest yield."
With the Berkshire deal the family is getting near the halfway point of selling its assets, with proceeds to be disbursed to heirs. The sale of Conwood, a smokeless tobacco company, for $3.5 billion last year, together with the $1 billion investment in Hyatt and the Berkshire Hathaway purchase of a 60 percent stake in Marmon, for $4.5 billion, comes to $9 billion.
The overall value of the family's businesses before the breakup began, often estimated at $15 billion, cannot be determined precisely but may actually be considerably more.
The remaining assets include the 40 percent of Marmon that Berkshire Hathaway will buy over the next five to six years; the Hyatt chain; TransUnion, one of the nation's three largest credit bureaus; and a stake in Royal Caribbean cruise line.
Hyatt, which owns or operates more than 735 hotels and resorts in 44 countries, represents the largest slice of the remaining value. A year ago, one analyst estimated that Hyatt could be worth more than $11 billion if taken public.
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