[PROFILE] Will Mesdag - Financier
- A Moneyman on a Takeover Mission
Financier Will Mesdag is pushing L.A. billionaire Marvin Davis' bid
for Vivendi's entertainment assets
By James Bates, Times Staff Writer
Right about now, the behind-the-scenes moneyman orchestrating Marvin
Davis' audacious $13-billion bid to control Vivendi Universal's
entertainment assets is somewhere on the Atlantic Ocean, hopefully
closer to South America than to Africa.
Will Mesdag is pausing from the biggest takeover proposal in the
media industry this year to pilot his 60-foot yacht, the Constanter,
toward St. Lucia from the Canary Islands in the annual Atlantic Rally
for Cruisers race. "There's nothing better," said
Mesdag, "than 'driving,' especially downwind."
That's what deal makers also like to see in a good investment. But a
cool reception by Vivendi Universal and Wall Street skepticism are
making for strong headwinds.
As the man who drives Davis' financial empire, Mesdag's mission
includes addressing straight on whether Davis' latest bid is anything
more than another example of "kicking the tires." A slew of Davis
near-misses -- which includes four airlines, CBS and the Dallas
Cowboys football team -- continues to plague the billionaire,
spawning a reputation in certain quarters for looking deals over but
passing on them when they get too expensive.
It's a reputation Mesdag believes is unfair.
"I'm not inclined to waste my time," Mesdag said. "If Marvin wasn't
serious, I wouldn't be involved with Marvin. I have any number of
things I could be doing."
Nonetheless, many on Wall Street believe debt-laden Vivendi
Universal -- whose portfolio of Universal Pictures, Universal Studios
theme parks and Universal Music entices Davis -- soon will join that
list of could-have-beens.
When word of Davis' bid first surfaced 10 days ago, "we didn't take
it very seriously," said Michael Nathanson, a Sanford C. Bernstein
Davis and his camp point to a list of consummated deals that includes
20th Century Fox and the Pebble Beach golf resort (both since sold);
numerous oil and gas ventures; and development of major real estate
projects from Denver to Chicago to the Water Garden in Santa Monica.
Mesdag also notes that anyone with the kind of dollars Davis has (4.6
billion of them, Forbes estimates) gets pitched more deals than he
"A lot of people would like to have Marvin as an investor," Mesdag
said. "We try to do justice to all of the proposals that come in,
without rejecting any of them outright."
Mesdag compares Davis' financial empire to a hedge fund with
investments of varying risk. There are the inherently big-gamble oil
and gas operations that formed the cornerstone of Davis' early
success, balanced by real estate and a large chunk of conservative
Two areas Davis knows well and wants to get into, Mesdag said, are
airlines and entertainment.
Hence the Vivendi Universal offer. The deal was hatched by Brian
Mulligan, who served as chief financial officer of Seagram Co. when
it still owned Universal studios, the theme parks and the world's
largest recording group. Mulligan then persuaded Davis and Mesdag.
Mesdag maintains that Davis and his partners have the firepower to
make it happen.
"The only issue outstanding is whether Vivendi is prepared to
consider the sale of these assets, and would ultimately agree to sell
them to us," Mesdag said.
So far, potential partners in the Vivendi Universal deal include Bain
Capital and Texas Pacific Group, with other investment groups
possibly interested. Mesdag won't talk specifically about partners,
but acknowledges that Davis can't do the deal without them.
He promises they will be drawn to Davis' willingness to pony up
serious money as the deal's leader.
"Suffice to say, we've been involved with various people who have the
capacity to make their own judgment," Mesdag said. "They take Marvin
seriously and have been working with us to put this proposal
Anyone with the proximity that Mesdag has to Davis automatically
qualifies as a power player in Los Angeles.
Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan says Mesdag was an important
part of an intimate "kitchen cabinet" that met Sundays at Riordan's
home to advise him on what turned out to be an unsuccessful
During the primary, Riordan recalls, Mesdag advised him to play more
to the Republican base rather than focus on incumbent Gov. Gray Davis.
"I wish I had followed his advice more," said Riordan, who was
defeated by businessman Bill Simon. "I might be governor today."
Still, Mesdag is virtually unknown outside high-level business
He has no formal title other than senior advisor to Marvin Davis and
describes his role as something of a personal investment banker to
the billionaire. Davis, however, says that description doesn't do his
lieutenant justice, adding that Mesdag is forcefully going after
deals on his behalf.
"He'll walk through a wall to get what he wants," Davis said.
The role suits Mesdag, 49, who spent 20 years at the Wall Street firm
Goldman, Sachs & Co., most recently as head of the Los Angeles office.
A self-described "meat and potatoes" investment banker, Mesdag
handled less glamorous deals such as the sale of Arco to British
Petroleum, as well as work for Southern California Edison.
Davis is known as a demanding boss who at 77 still immerses himself
in his business and investments. Acquaintances say, however, that
Mesdag's even-tempered style meshes well.
"Marvin's not the easiest guy for some people to work for," said
fellow billionaire Eli Broad. "But Will's got the brights and the
Broad has seen that first hand as Mesdag's neighbor. Mesdag heads an
informal homeowners association in the private Brentwood enclave
where they both live. In that post, he's had to garner support on
such issues as replacing palm trees and shrubbery, forming a
consensus among neighbors who often have wildly different opinions.
"It's a lot of petty issues, but he's got the patience of a saint. He
gets along very well with people," Broad said.
Added another neighbor, Oaktree Capital Management Chairman Howard
Marks: "He's very high on the intelligence, integrity and likability."
Long before he became Davis' personal financier, Mesdag got a taste
for exactly how personally involved Davis can get in a deal. Mesdag
was still at Goldman Sachs when he decided to move the company's
offices from downtown Los Angeles to Fox Plaza in Century City, which
at the time was owned by Davis.
Rather than delegating the lease negotiations to underlings, as most
billionaires would have done, Davis sat across the table from Mesdag.
"When Marvin owns a building, Marvin cares about who his tenants
are," Mesdag said.
After retiring from Goldman Sachs last year, Mesdag set out on
several adventures. He climbed Argentina's Aconcagua, the Western
Hemisphere's tallest peak at 22,841 feet. He began racing the
Constanter. Named after his grandfather's boat, it is Dutch
Then Davis came calling, offering Mesdag what he naively thought
would be a part-time gig.
"I assumed it would give me a lot of time to pursue my recreational
interests and my extracurricular activities," Mesdag said. "But
Marvin certainly has a very full plate."
For his part, Davis said Mesdag's aggressiveness "has added a new
vitality to this company. Not that the people here were bad, but he
added new vitality."
'T' for Taco
Born T. Willem Mesdag, he was raised in South Dakota and Illinois.
The "T" stands for Taco, his Dutch great-grandfather's name, which
Mesdag went by as a youth but gave up as an adult because of the
"Unfortunately, I didn't come to that conclusion until I finished law
school," said Mesdag, a Cornell Law grad. But, he added, "If I'd had
a son there would be another Taco in my family." (He and his wife,
former Fortune magazine journalist Lisa Miller Mesdag, have two
Mesdag isn't making any predictions about his future, saying he is
focused on carrying out Davis' business deals and making time for his
hobbies, such as his sailing adventure.
But Broad said he sees Mesdag as a potential successor to Davis
someday, someone who could run the family fortune for Davis' heirs.
"I know [Davis] is very high on him," Broad said. "Of all the people
Marvin has around him, Mesdag is the likely person if Marvin wasn't
around to run his businesses."
PROFILE] Will Mesdag