News Column

The Invisible Media Mogul

December 2003, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

If Jerry Perenchio is a misunderstood man, he deserves to be. For years, the CEO of Univision Communications has not granted media interviews. Security guards wave off photographers who try to snap his picture. In 1996, Univision provided Hispanic Business with an official photograph, but the network quickly requested its return, and that was the last known image of the CEO. For that reason, this issue's cover features an illustration based on that photograph.

The lack of information about the 72-year-old Mr. Perenchio invites people to fill in the blanks. A Los Angeles magazine story quoted anonymous sources who called him "smooth," "dapper," and "witty." But no one denies his most public attribute: a knack for successful deals. This year's merger of Univision and Hispanic Broadcasting stands as his latest triumph in a life of gutsy negotiations.

Mr. Perenchio came to Hollywood from Fresno, the son of an Italian-American vintner. An only child, he attended the University of California at Los Angeles, where he made money organizing frat parties. After a stint in the Air Force, he took a job in 1957 at the talent agency MCA. Under the legendary agent Lew Wasserman, Mr. Perenchio developed 20 rules he still shares with Univision executives. First rule: Never talk to the press. He has been known to fine Univision executives for granting interviews, and he once fired the president of Univision Television Group for talking to The New York Times.

Yet the intensely private Mr. Perenchio has plenty of friends. He financed the bio-pic Frida after star Salma Hayek cornered him at a party. He took time away from TV to promote Oscar De La Hoya's boxing career. Politicians also have a place in his circle, and he's friendly with elected officials ranging from California governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger to members of the Malibu city council. Again, his secretive nature tends to create an impression of shadiness. A 1996 Forbes headline sums up his public image: "Congress makes laws. Folks like Jerry Perenchio get rich figuring ways around them."

Although critics complained about Univision's right-wing news bias during the merger debate, the company's CEO is a model of bipartisanship. He has given money generously to two governors – the Republican Mr. Schwarzenegger in California and the Democratic Bill Richardson of New Mexico. In the 1990s, he supported conservative California governor Pete Wilson but opposed many conservative ballot initiatives, such as Proposition 187 and Proposition 227, which targeted illegal aliens and bilingual education, respectively. He hired Henry Cisneros out of the Clinton Cabinet in 1996, despite a lingering scandal.

From the agent business, Mr. Perenchio discovered broadcasting. He dabbled in boxing promotion and pioneered pay-per-view. He partnered with Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin at Tandem Productions; later, he and Mr. Lear purchased Embassy Communications. They then sold both companies to Coca-Cola, taking home $230 million. He also flipped Loews Theaters for another $140 million.

That money formed the nest egg used to buy Univision from Hallmark in 1992. Mr. Perenchio ended up owning 75 percent of the station group and 50 percent of the network, with Mexico-based Televisa and Venezuela-based Venevision taking the rest. When Univision went public in 1996, the original investors diluted their holdings, but Mr. Perenchio maintained a special class of stock that gave him 10 votes for every share, thus ensuring his control of the company.

From frat parties to prize fights to Hispanic market broadcasting, Mr. Perenchio's knack for guessing the future has paid off handsomely. The latest Forbes 400 ranks him as the 76th-richest person in the United States, with a net worth of $2.3 billion. Usually money talks – but not in the case of Mr. Perenchio.


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