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Business Week Looks at the Hugh Hefner Lawsuit

from – No one could blame David Brown for being piqued at Hugh Hefner. Brown bought a chunk of Playboy Enterprises Inc., believing in the way the company made money, which is mostly by feeding male sexual fantasies.

That formula hasn’t worked so well for shareholders since the birth of X-rated Web sites. The shares, higher than $30 in 1999, dropped below $10 two years ago and have gone nowhere since.

Nonetheless, Hefner continues to live out the Playboy dream. He does so at the expense of minority shareholders, claims Brown, who owns 47,000 shares of Class A stock and 130,000 of Class B.

If he’s right, then there is such a thing as wretched excess even for a playboy-in-chief.

Brown filed suit this week in state court in Los Angeles complaining that the 83-year-old Hefner shooed off prospective buyers for the company rather than give up his indulgences. He wants to represent all minority shareholders and seek unspecified damages, plus a court order directing Hefner to carry out his fiduciary responsibilities.

Playboy spokeswoman Abigail O’Donnell said, “We aren’t commenting on this issue.”

Instead, Hefner continues squiring about busty 20-something blondes in multiples, only now he’s 60 years older than they are. His current trio of favorite babes star in the TV show and online video, “The Girls Next Door.”

Why would he want to move out of the 30-room Playboy mansion in Los Angeles, that Wonderland of male adolescent desires and grotto parties bursting with near-naked female bodies?

“Hefner has continued to live the good life and make sure everyone knows it,” Brown says in the suit.

Whether you find Hefner’s conduct disgusting or cartoonish or admirable, it wouldn’t matter unless his pursuit of pleasure cost shareholders the chance to get a solid return on their investment. Brown says it did. He claims Hefner chased off would-be buyers, who were contemplating purchasing Playboy for about $300 million. That’s roughly three times the company’s market capitalization, which now stands at $116.5 million.

One suitor, Iconix Brand Group, walked away in large part because of disagreement over what would happen to old Hef, some news accounts reported, saying he’d never leave the mansion alive.

Hefner, who owns 70 percent of the company’s Class A stock, could have smoothed out that sticking point if he had wanted. His company owns the mansion, which he leases.

It would have been simple enough to pack up his smoking jackets, slippers and Viagra. It’s not as if he lacks the wherewithal to stave off homelessness. And surely he will have fun-loving female friends wherever he goes.

Hefner’s duty to minority shareholders requires him to put their pecuniary interests above his prurient ones, Brown says. If he’s right and Hefner spiked deals to avoid eviction from his pleasure palace, then it’s just another page from Playboy’s playbook.

Isn’t the essence of the Playboy philosophy to seize the day, day after day, year after year, decade after decade?

And yet the lawsuit feels flimsy. It ignores other reasons the would-be deals might have fallen apart.

Iconix, which licenses and manages brand names like London Fog and Candies, had a complicated plan for unraveling Playboy’s various businesses so that it could keep the brand and logo and unload the soft-core porn.

To get out of the adult-entertainment video business, it would have had to dump TV and online operations.

It couldn’t be done. Besides, what meaning and value would the Playboy bunny logo have without its link to plentiful, sexy women?

And think about it: If Hefner did sabotage deals, was it really because he wanted to breathe his last gasp in the Playboy mansion? He has no daily duties to perform for the company, though he retains the title of chief creative officer.

My guess is that Hefner’s hold on the business stems from something more than the joy of hanging out with bosomy babes. His daughter, Christie Hefner, 57, stepped down as chief executive officer in January 2009. The elder Hefner has said he wants to pass his chunk of the company to his two teenage sons.

It’s not as sexy as the notion that Brown lays out, and it would mean the man has an inch of depth, despite his image.

If Hefner does want to hand over the business to his sons, he should be asking whether the company will last that long.


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