There is very little about Marc H. Bell that suggests the sex business kingpin lurking within. Bell does not wear pinky rings or keep his shirts unbuttoned to reveal chest hair and gold chains. Nor does he work in smoking jackets and silk pajamas. Bespectacled and buttoned-down in conservative business suits, Bell is a graduate of Babson College and a member of the board of trustees at New York University, where he earned an MBA. In an interview, he described himself as "a family man with children."
The family of brands at FriendFinder Networks, where the 42-year-old Bell is chief executive officer, includes an array of adult properties such as Penthouse and websites like adultfriendfinder.com and bondage.com. Now Bell wants to buy one of the most famous names in adult entertainment: Playboy Enterprises (PLA). He has bid $210 million to buy the Chicago-based publisher of the magazine that became a symbol of the sexual revolution during the Sixties and Seventies but has struggled to remain relevant in an age of hard-core pornography and sexuality served in digital bytes.
Bell says FriendFinder, which earlier this year tried to go public, owns 30,000 websites with a vast social networking presence and affiliate partnerships with another 200,000 sites. Together they attract 140 million unique visitors each month. Bell says he would immediately place the Playboy brand on the affiliate network, which would push that traffic to Playboy's digital content.
"We can have a massive impact on Playboy's online presence," he says. "We are the natural acquirer because we're the only ones who have the platform. We'll have huge synergies and the ability to do great things with this from day one."
Standing firmly in the way of Bell's desire to absorb the Playboy brand is Hugh Hefner, who founded Playboy in 1953 and now controls 70 percent of the company's Class A voting shares and 28 percent of the Class B nonvoting stock. Hefner, at age 84, put Playboy's status in flux on July 12 with an offer to take the company private in a buyout valued at $185 million.
Bell, who submitted his competing bid two days later, refuses to say if he has heard from Hefner. He has asked the Playboy board for a meeting. Hefner's only public response to Bell's offer has come via Twitter, where he regularly comments on the daily activity at the Playboy mansion in Los Angeles. "Penthouse really isn't in the picture," Hefner tweeted. "I'm buying, not selling."
FriendFinder, based in Boca Raton, Fla., lost money in 2006, 2007, 2008, and for the first nine months of 2009, according to Securities & Exchange Commission filings. The company has $500 million in debt, much of it owed to Bell, his business partner, real estate investor Daniel C. Staton, and two associates. Bell said he will fund the Playboy purchase by taking on another $150 million of debt. FriendFinder also has $30 million in cash and, if needed, Bell says he and Staton can personally cover the balance. FriendFinder, combined with Playboy, would have about $150 million in annual cash flow, Bell says. "This is very easily bankable. And we may just be the bank."
FriendFinder this year postponed an initial public offering that was planned to raise up to $240 million, according to SEC filings. The company wanted to sell a 49 percent stake to pay down debt. Bell said the IPO was cancelled because the market was weak at the time, and that a buyout of Playboy won't affect plans for a future offering. "When the market is right, we'll go again," he says.
Through his Marc Bell Capital Partners, Bell is an investor in restaurants, nightclubs, films, and Broadway shows. He has Tony Awards for putting on August: Osage County and Jersey Boys. He built the Web hosting company Globix and sold a large share of his stake before the company filed for bankruptcy in 2002. Bell and Staton bought Penthouse out of bankruptcy for $52 million in 2004, and in 2007 they paid $500 million to purchase Various, which included networking site AdultFriendFinder.com.
While others have said that Playboy's demise is due to the proliferation of hard-core adult content, Bell says there's value in owning adult brands that people aren't embarrassed to be associated with. He concedes that his Playboy bid will likely succeed only if Hefner cancels his own bid and joins Bell in a partnership. He wants Hefner to remain as editorial director of Playboy magazine and has made it clear to Hefner that he can continue to live in the company's 30-room mansion. Explains Bell, who has a mansion of his own: "I would never move into a smaller house."
The bottom line: FriendFinder Networks CEO Marc Bell wants to put Playboy content on his online platform. He just needs Hugh Hefner to go along.