WILMINGTON - The largest union at The Inquirer's parent company is having "ongoing discussions" with about six potential partners to join the bidding for the company, a union executive testified Wednesday.
The possible bidders include the Communications Workers of America and multimillionaire Raymond Perelman, according to Bill Ross, executive director of the Newspaper Guild of Greater Philadelphia.
Ross was the final witness in a three-day hearing in Delaware Chancery Court to determine how Interstate General Media Holdings L.L.C. will be sold.
Co-owners Lewis Katz and H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest on one side, and co-owner George E. Norcross III and two allies on the other, want to dissolve the company, unable to reconcile their differences over its governance.
Norcross testified this week that he was prepared to bid at least $77 million if Vice Chancellor Donald Parsons Jr. orders a private auction among IGM's five current owners. Katz wants a public auction, but testified that he would match that bid in either a private or a public auction.
Perelman, a businessman and philanthropist, expressed interest in buying the company in past years. In an interview late Wednesday, he confirmed that he told union representatives he would cooperate on a bid.
But, he added, "I wouldn't pay $77 million" for the company.
Perelman also questioned how operating a paper with its largest union as an owner would work.
"How are they going to negotiate work rules and pay rates if they're the owners?" he said. "I don't think it can be done."
The CWA is the international parent union of the Newspaper Guild, which represents nearly 500 IGM employees in the news, advertising, finance, and other departments at The Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News, and Philly.com.
In his testimony, Ross described the other potential bidders as "a mix of private equity firms and a couple of additional philanthropists." He said he did not have permission to name them, but said all the parties would be able to put up a minimum bid of $77 million - if, after examining the company's books, they decided to join the bidding. It was not clear if the potential investors might be willing to pool their money with the Guild.
Ross said the Guild would put up $2 million cash, subject to the approval of its membership.
"We look at ourselves as an insider group. . . . We know how the business runs," Ross said.
He and Guild attorney Lisa Lori disputed a story in Wednesday's Inquirer that suggested that the CWA was committed to matching the $77 million pledged by Katz and Norcross.
"They have the money. I just don't know that they are going to pay it," Lori said after the hearing, referring to the CWA. "Possibly they could. Possibly they will say, 'No, thank you.' "
Lori added, "It is all very contingent and subject to a lot of things. The numbers are the start. . . . If the numbers make sense, the next step is to take it to the membership for approval, which can happen very quickly."
Ross said the union and its partner could be ready to offer a bid within 30 days of Parsons' ruling in the case.
"I have said that time is of the essence," Ross testified. "The company is not at a tipping point, but in my opinion, it is in a very bad situation."
After testimony ended late Wednesday, Parsons closed the courtroom to the public and reporters to have what he called a "somewhat free-flowing discussion" with the owners, Guild officers, and their respective attorneys.
The judge said it was "not mediation" and that he was preparing to hear closing arguments next week, tentatively next Thursday.