Carl Lindner Jr., who learned about business in a family dairy shop and became a billionaire buying and selling companies as founding chairman of American Financial Corp., has died. He was 92.
Lindner died yesterday of “causes incident to age,” the company said in a statement.
Though averse to publicity, Lindner made news through the years by purchasing Chiquita Brands International Inc. (CQB), the Cincinnati Reds baseball team and the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper, among other entities he brought under the control of American Financial. Others included Provident Bank, Penn Central Corp., American Financial Enterprises, Fisher Foods, Great American Insurance, Taft Broadcasting Co., Spelling Entertainment and General Cable Corp.
He was a longtime resident of Cincinnati and a pillar of the city’s business community. A devout Baptist, teetotaler and contributor to anti-pornography efforts, he worked closely with his siblings and then his children as his empire grew.
Forbes magazine’s estimates of the net worth of Lindner and his family topped out at $2.3 billion in 2006 to 2008. The magazine pegged their wealth at $1.7 billion in 2010. In March, Forbes dropped the family from its list of billionaires.
Lindner served as chief executive officer of American Financial, a provider of insurance and annuities, for 45 years before turning the company over to two of his sons in 2004, retaining the role of chairman.
In 1999, he led a group that bought controlling interest in baseball’s Reds from Marge Schott. American Financial had been a part owner of the team since 1981. Lindner sold his majority stake in 2005.
A major political donor, mostly to Republican causes and candidates, Lindner raised more than $200,000 for George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004, according to Common Cause. The Center for Responsive Politics estimated that Lindner assembled, or “bundled,” $250,000 to $500,000 in contributions to Republican John McCain in 2008.
In a 1985 commencement speech, a rare public address, Lindner said he had supported both Democrats and Republicans in his lifetime but had recently decided “to give five times my normal contribution to any anti-communist,” according to a 1986 profile in Cincinnati Magazine.
After taking over Chiquita in 1984 and moving its headquarters to Cincinnati, Lindner parlayed his political connections in both parties to open new markets to the company’s bananas, Time magazine reported in 1996. He gave up his Chiquita stake when the company went through bankruptcy in 2002.
In 2007, Chiquita pleaded guilty to U.S. charges that it had paid the United Self Defense Forces of Colombia, a group designated a terrorist organization in 2001 by the U.S. State Department, more than $1.7 million in protection money in at least 100 installments from 1997 to 2004.
Only the company was charged, not any individual executives. Lindner was chairman when the payments started.
In 1940, the family opened a cash-and-carry dairy store under the name United Dairy Farmers in Norwood, near Cincinnati. Lindner started working there at 11 and eventually dropped out of school to help run the business, along with his younger siblings Robert, Richard and Dorothy.
Expanding the Business
Lindner, with his siblings, ran the business following their father’s death in 1952. He guided the company’s continued expansion by borrowing money to build small suburban shopping centers to house new dairy stores, according to Cincinnati Magazine.
Branching out, the family founded American Financial Corp. in 1959, bought Thriftway supermarkets in 1961, entered property and casualty insurance in 1962 and took over Provident Bank in 1966.
In 1973, Lindner became majority owner of Great American Insurance Co., American Financial’s flagship for insurance products.
Lindner worked closely with an attorney, Charles Keating, who eventually joined American Financial as a top executive. The Securities and Exchange Commission said in a lawsuit that the two men engaged in self-dealing. Without admitting guilt, Lindner and Keating signed consent orders in 1979 promising not to violate securities laws, and Lindner agreed to repay $1.4 million to the company.
Keating moved on to take charge of Phoenix-based homebuilder American Continental, an affiliate of American Financial. His success there led to his purchase of Lincoln Savings & Loan in California. The U.S. government seized the thrift in 1989, a milestone of the S&L crisis, with an estimated cost to taxpayers of $3.1 billion. Keating served four years in prison on fraud charges.
Unhappy with the level of scrutiny that public companies receive from regulators and shareholders, Lindner took American Financial private in 1981, to the dismay of some shareholders unhappy with their per-share payment.
He also drew complaints from his management of Great American Communications Co., owner of television and radio stations, after acquiring it in 1987 and changing its name from Taft Communications. SEC filings showed that Lindner “repeatedly tapped the cash-strapped Great American for management fees and huge dividends and shuffled the company’s assets to other Lindner affiliates” before taking the company into a prepackaged bankruptcy, Business Week reported in 1994.
The 1994 merger of Lindner’s American Financial Corp. and American Premier Underwriters, another insurer he controlled, led to creation of a new, public parent company, American Financial Group.
The Cincinnati Enquirer reported in 2000 that Lindner had streamlined the company by reducing debt, emphasizing specialty insurance lines and selling operations not related to insurance, including Great American Communications and another broadcaster, Guardian Communications.
With his wife, Edyth, Lindner had three sons -- Carl III, Craig and Keith.
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