Carlson board sharpens its focus

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 23, 2014 - 7:51 PM

Firm will spend TGI Friday’s cash to buy 100 percent control of Carlson Wagonlit Travel.

Now it’s up to the grandchildren.

With four seats on the 11-member board of directors, the third generation of the late Curt Carlson’s heirs have established themselves as key players in a family-owned business that last year celebrated its 75th anniversary.

The Minnetonka-based company over the weekend announced a major move designed to consolidate its place in the travel and hotel industry by acquiring 100 percent ownership of Carlson Wagonlit Travel (CWT).

That news followed the announcement last month that Carlson is exiting the restaurant business with the sale of TGI Friday’s, a chain the company has owned for 39 years.

Sunday’s announcement was the result of an ongoing strategic review of Carlson’s business profile, said CEO Trudy Rautio.

“The family has been consistent in its vision,” Rautio said in an interview. “They’re looking for long-term sustainability.”

The company said it will use proceeds from its sale of TGI Friday’s to acquire the 45 percent stake in CWT currently held by the investment bank and financier JPMorgan Chase & Co. Terms of the purchase are confidential.

Rautio also said that the JPMorgan transaction will still leave the company with additional capital to invest in its hotel business, which includes Radisson, Radisson Blu and Radisson Red, Country Inns & Suites, Park Plaza, Park Inn and the new Quorvus collection of exclusive boutique properties.

“We see investment opportunities either through new hotels or partnerships,” Rautio said.

Both transactions signify that Carlson’s third-generation family members are in the business for the long haul, said a family business expert.

“They have a strategic sense of where they want to go and what they want to develop,” said Tom Hubler, founder of the family consulting firm Hubler for Business Families. Hubler has never worked with the Carlson family.

The sale of TGI Friday’s is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $800 million. Both the Friday’s sale and the CWT purchase are scheduled to close at the end of July.

“This solidifies our presence in the [travel management] marketplace,” Rautio said. “CWT is a solid brand, it’s global and it’s growing.

Rautio also said CWT, which is the largest travel management company in the industry, “is profitable and has a strong cash flow.”

CWT is by far the biggest segment in the Carlson business portfolio. In 2013, the travel management provider generated sales of $26.9 billion and net revenue of $1.7 billion.

The Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group had sales last year of $7.5 billion while sales at TGI Fridays were $2.7 billion.

“You’re seeing steps in the strategy to be a more-focused company,” Rautio said.

In 2008, Carlson sold its Regent Seven Seas cruise line. In the same year, Carlson got out of the leisure side of the travel business and a year later sold its Carlson Marketing Division. And then late last year Carlson put its Friday’s chain on the auction block.

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