EXCLUSIVE: First, let me knock down this untrue rumor: I know for certain there is no IMG World board meeting on a conference call or otherwise today to discuss ousting board member Michael Ovitz in response to allegations he’s maneuvering inside the board and with Forstmann, Little & Co investors to run and/or own the global management and production giant. Also, let me say definitively that Mike Dolan is and will remain for some time IMG’s President/COO because he was handpicked by chairman/owner Teddy Forstmann to run the company. The 71-year-old Forstmann is battling brain cancer in a very public and courageous struggle. Forstmann specifically told his board members that, no matter what happened to him, Dolan was to be given a minimum of 2 to 3 years to continue running IMG’s global sports, fashion, entertainment, and media business if not longer. IMG’s board is purely an advisory board since this is a private company (and not like a board of directors of a public corporation) and therefore does not have the power to remove any board member much less Ovitz.
What the real story is, according to my months of reporting, is that IMG management has lawyers working on how to remove Ovitz from the board and prevent him from interfering with Dolan’s running of the company or with Forstmann, Little & Co investors. “This prick was fucking around with management. Is he being put in his place? Yes,” an insider tells me. The allegations against Ovitz include that he is “harassing” management by demanding IMG financial records; pressuring Dolan and senior IMG executives to report to him by trying to set up a so-called executive committee within the board to oversee IMG activities because of Forstmann’s illness and treatment; and approaching Forstmann, Little & Co partners and investors telling them he was interested in buying IMG with the backing of Greg O’Hara, the managing director of One Equity Partners LLC.
(One Equity Partners is a private equity firm that often functions as the leveraged buyout arm of JP Morgan Chase & Co which is a primary investor. O’Hara is becoming quite a controversial character because of the Hollywood company he keeps: besides Ovitz, he is also trying to raise money for embattled Ryan Kavanaugh to buy out his Relativity Media’s investor Elliott Associates. But so far that has been all talk and no action. Same now with Ovitz, who according to my reporting was not anywhere close to securing the money to buy out IMG.)
Recently, according to my sources, Dolan decided, “Ovitz goes or I go.”
“So really the fight is between Mike Ovitz and Mike Dolan, the handpicked guy by Teddy to run the company,” an insider tells me. “Ovitz is interfering with running the company while Teddy is sick. It’s like what Alexander Haig did when Reagan was shot: ‘I’m in charge here.’ That’s the bullshit he’s trying to pull. So now lawyers are advising Mike Dolan.”
Ovitz has strenuously denied to me that he wants to run and/or buy IMG or has attempted to do so. (See Ovitz’s comments below.) “Of course he’s denying it. He’s a scumbag,” a board member tells me. “But the problem for him is that he cast a net so wide looking for backing and money. He’s out of the closet. He’s not even subtle about it. He wants to own the company, and he doesn’t believe in current management. But this is a very healthy company. Throw the motherfucker Ovitz out. Teddy doesn’t need to deal with this shit.”
The allegations against Ovitz might be harder to believe if he didn’t have a history of trying to destabilize companies to further his own ambitions. And Ovitz also has a history of using people’s illnesses to his advantage in business situations. (At the same time, to be fair, Ovitz also has a history of helping people to recover from illness. He is a complex guy…)
Back in early May, I was first tipped by an insider that “Ovitz is trying to become CEO of IMG while Teddy Forstmann has brain cancer”. As a long-time Ovitz watcher, I was naturally intrigued. Especially because Ovitz (despite his protestations to the contrary) has been trying to find his way back into the business spotlight ever since he left the Hollywood talent agency CAA to become president of the Walt Disney Co and was fired by his best friend Michael Eisner, his attempt to bring a NFL football team to the Los Angeles area proved quixotic, and his management and production company AMG failed, alongside a myriad other ventures.
That same early May, IMG appointed Mike Dolan to chief operating officer after it was revealed that Forstmann was undergoing treatment for his brain cancer. The 64-year-old Dolan at the time was IMG’s chief financial officer but was taking on the newly created responsibilities to ensure “effective day-to-day management of the company,” according to a memo sent to IMG employees obtained by Bloomberg News. Dolan also was continuing to serve as CFO until he named a successor.
I found it interesting that this had turned into another Mike vs Mike battle. The last one was Michael Eisner vs Michael Ovitz. This latest was Michael Dolan vs Michael Ovitz.
What I found out was that some Forstmann insiders wanted the real story to get out to put a stop to Ovitz’s unseemly activities. But others didn’t want the unsavory story to be made public because of sensitivity to Forstmann’s illness and feelings. I was told then that Teddy did not know about Ovitz’s maneuvering. This was a tough call for me as a journalist. I decided to adopt a wait-and-see attitude vis a vis Ovitz’s maneuvering and IMG management’s pushback. As recently as today I was told that insiders believe Forstmann still doesn’t know about Ovitz’s maneuvering. The people close to him aren’t sure they want to tell him, either. But because the rumors today have found their way into an Internet article and onto business wires like Reuters, albeit in an inaccurate way, I’ve decided to disclose my reporting.
In mid-May I spoke to Ovitz about the allegations I heard. He confirmed to me that he’d been placed on Forstmann’s IMG advisory board around the start of 2011 before Forstmann’s illness. He said he came on the same time as former Univision Chairman/CEO Jerry Perenchio and joined Live Nation Entertainment’s Executive Chairman Irving Azoff, former Goldman Sachs President/Co-COO John Thornton, former Chris Craft owner Herb Siegel, Ariel Investments President Mellody Hobson, and banker and investor Evelyn Robert Adrian de Rothschild. Said Ovitz: “Everyone on that board I know. He’s always chosen the same little crew of people to be on his board. Ted’s done so well for us as investors.”
Ovitz outlined for me his 30-some-year relationship with Forstmann whom he met while chairman of CAA and their close personal and professional relationships. Those ranged from philanthropy and causes like school literacy, to private equity firm Forstmann, Little & Company’s leveraged buyouts of about a half-dozen companies including Gulfstream, Ziff Davis, and Topps as an investor and/or board member. “No matter what’s happened in my life, good or bad, Ted’s been my friend.” Ovitz said.
He told me that he and Forstmann had talked for some time about his joining IMG’s board but “I didn’t want to be on any boards at all right now. Teddy’s asked me over the last 5 years to go on the board.” Ovitz said he kept declining until the start of this year.
Several incumbent IMG board members were surprised to see Ovitz when he showed up for the first board meeting. “He’d not even attended [Forstmann’s] Aspen conference several years in a row,” one board member noted to me.
In that same conversation, I asked Ovitz about the allegations regarding him and IMG. Ovitz strenuously denied that he was using his position on the board and the fact of Forstmann’s brain cancer to maneuver behind the back of his friend of 30 years and/or take over running the company from Michael Dolan. He denied that he was seeking or even wanted to replace Forstmann as head of IMG and run the company himself instead of leaving it in the hands of Teddy’s handpicked successor Dolan. Ovitz called Forstmann’s illness “really sad” and “just totally horrible” and declared that “Running Ted’s company is not something I’m interested in right now. My job is to support my friend who is really sick. Mike Dolan, who is President/COO, is exquisitely qualified and is doing a phenomenal job keeping the company together. He’s a great all-around guy.”
When I asked if there’d been any discussion of having him run IMG, Ovitz told me, “There’s been zero discussion of it. The board is focused on trying to support Ted. If anybody can beat cancer, it’s Ted. He’s built like an ox. He’s tough. He’s game physically and emotionally. Anyone who is propagating rumors is just full of garbage. Everybody is shellshocked. It’s so godless. And quickly. At dinner he had a little cough. It was happening in 24 hours. His life turned upside down.”
Ovitz claimed that he’d made medical arrangements to help Forstmann. “It’s all I care about. I call him every day.”
When I asked Ovitz how the allegations may have started, he suggested it was because the “CAA business model and the IMG business models and are a bit different because of the production business but also similar. But there are no discussions. The company is set up so well that it’s really running well. The representation business is not. Right now, solid as a rock getting it back together. IMG sold a lot the representation business. CAA stole agents. Our focus is on the college sports business and international joint ventures now. And to help Ted.”