In business, as in the stock market, timing, and the willingness to take just the right amount of risk, is everything. And few business executives have perfected the art of walking the tightrope like Strauss Zelnick, former entertainment business mogul, private equity player and now possibly the next kingmaker at troubled video-game maker Take-Two Interactive ( TTWO). Zelnick headed 20th Century Fox as president and chief operating officer in 1989 when he was just 32 and moved to BMG Entertainment as CEO five years later. He quit the company soon after the music label struck a deal with troubled file-sharing service Napster ( NAPS) and went on to start his own private equity firm, ZelnickMedia. Still, few video game enthusiasts and investors had heard of him before he appeared in a filing by a group of activist shareholders as a nominee for the position of nonexecutive chairman for a new board of directors at Take-Two. The shareholder group, consisting of Oppenheimer Funds, SAC Capital Management, Tudor Investment, D.E. Shaw Valence Portfolios and ZelnickMedia, collectively owns a little more than 45% in the company, and it is looking to oust current CEO Paul Eibeler and change the company's board. Take-Two shares
soared more than 14% on news of the Securities and Exchange Commission filing on Wednesday. On Friday, the stock gained another 4.2%, to $20.27, less than $1 away from its 52-week high.
The shareholder group retained ZelnickMedia as a financial and management consultant and gave Zelnick the power to pick the next CEO for the company. If successful, Strauss Zelnick will emerge as the power behind Take-Two. Once offered the job of CEO at Yahoo! ( YHOO), Zelnick turned it down, citing too many challenges at the online giant, to run his own media and entertainment private equity firm. But he's isn't shy of fighting battles. Along with his friend financier Carl Icahn, Zelnick fought for a director seat on the board of Blockbuster ( BBI). If he comes to Take-Two, he brings not just financial smarts but also the ability to outthink competitors and successfully bring value to a company that many analysts say is floundering because of poor management. "Zelnick has got a very good reputation," says Ben Silverman, who runs insiderscore.com, an insider trading intelligence service, and has worked as a consultant in the music business. "He always got the job done, and he made money for everyone." Ironically though, the only blip in Zelnick's successful career is his performance as the head of a video game company in 1993. Crystal Dynamics, where Zelnick came to be the CEO after he left 20th Century Fox, was a developer for the 3DO, a new gaming console that was to hit the market during the holiday season in 1993.
The 3DO console failed, and Crystal Dynamics felt the heat. Zelnick resigned not much later, having been at the company barely a year. Other than that, however, Zelnick appears to have the Midas touch. He helped take BMG to its position as the No. 2 music label in the market during his reign. And his private equity firm has done well for itself. Last week, ZelnickMedia sold book, music and video marketer Time-Life to Reader's Digest for $91.8 million via Direct Holdings, an entity formed by ZelnickMedia and another private equity firm, Ripplewood Holdings. Zelnick had bought Time-Life from Time Warner ( TWX) with a deal structured as a small cash payment and a payout largely based on performance and royalties. Time-Life was turned around from business losing a reported $14 million in 2003 to a profitable entity by the time it was sold this year. Zelnick did a similar trick at catalog retailer Lillian Vernon, which he took private in 2003 for about $60 million. "He's as smart as they come," says Seth Haberman, CEO of the video advertising delivery firm Visible World. Haberman first met Zelnick in 2002 when he showed Zelnick a demo of his company's product. "Strauss has a lot of experience in the media business, and he has a very quick strategic read of a situation," says Haberman. "When I showed him my demo, in just about 10 seconds he told me what the focus of the idea should be and who I should target. That saved me a lot of time and money."
Zelnick also has taken his share of chances. Michael Aiken, managing director of Spring, a record-label music marketing agency, says Zelnick is a man always ahead of the curve. Aiken first met Zelnick when he wrote a letter to Zelnick suggesting how BMG could leverage its catalog to help advertisers connect with consumers. "Zelnick was probably the only CEO of a major media company who would, off a letter written by a completely unknown person, say 'let me talk to this guy,'" says Aiken. "He was shopping for ideas and wasn't afraid to talk to anyone who had an interesting idea." Though Zelnick and Aiken didn't end up working together at BMG, Aiken says it was clear that Zelnick was rethinking the music business long before everyone else. Take-Two could use some of that out-of-the-box kind of thinking. The New York-based game publisher posted a
higher-than-expected loss in its fourth quarter, amid the video-game industry's transition toward newer consoles such as Sony's ( SNE) PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's ( NTDOY) Wii. "Take-Two's record of providing guidance and not meeting it is pretty pathetic," says Arvind Bhatia, an analyst at Sterne, Agee & Leach, which does not own shares or have an investment-banking relationship with Take-Two. For its part in bringing about a regime change at Take-Two, ZelnickMedia will get a monthly management fee of $62,500, an annual bonus of up to $750,000 if it achieves predetermined financial performance thresholds, and an option to purchase shares equal to 2.5% of the common stock, according to the SEC filing. It will take more than a reckless gamer to bet against Zelnick at this point.