BBC Worldwide sells Lonely Planet to Kentucky billionaire for massive loss

After weeks of speculation, travel publishing group Lonely Planet has confirmed it has been sold to a media group owned by reclusive Kentucky oil and land billionaire Brad Kelley.

The move comes several years after the company’s original founders, Tony and Maureen Wheeler, sold the former Melbourne-based business to BBC Worldwide, and left the day-to-day operations.

A local spokesperson for the company confirmed it was “business as usual” with regard to local staff numbers. The local office was reduced following the BBC Worldwide takeover in 2011.

Tony and Maureen Wheeler were unavailable for comment.  

BBC said in a statement it would sell the company to NC2 Media, which is owned by billionaire Brad Kelley, for $US77.8 million or £51.5 million – nearly £80 million below the original purchase price.

The business, despite continued innovation, has struggled to maintain its value in the face of a transforming media industry.

Although a significant proportion of the company’s revenue comes from digital ventures, travellers are tending to read free content online.

BBC Worldwide says the BBC itself didn’t lose any money on the deal but an oversight panel has recommended a review.

The BBC acquisition of Lonely Planet attracted controversy, with industry figures suggesting the move into publishing wasn’t appropriate for the organisation.

“BBC Worldwide has been exploring strategic options for Lonely Planet over the last year and was keen to find a new owner that could bring greater focus and capital to the business,” BBC Worldwide said in a statement.

“NC2 Media demonstrated a commitment to invest in Lonely Planet and today’s announcement concludes the process to find the right buyer.”

Lonely Planet is the largest publisher of travel guide books in the world. The Wheelers founded the business in Melbourne in the 1970s, and slowly expanded its range of guidebooks to both popular and niche locations, directed at backpackers and serial travellers.

The business was a solid success story for the local travel industry, with Lonely Planet books gaining recognition around the world.

In 2007, the company sold a 75% stake in the business to BBC Worldwide for $201.6 million. Then, in 2011, the pair sold their remaining 25% stake for $67.2 million.

NC2 Media’s main shareholder is billionaire Kelley, who amassed large amounts of his fortune through tobacco investments in the 1990s.

Since then, he has spent most of his time focusing on land and conservation investments, and is said to be the fourth-largest landholder in the United States. Kelley is notoriously reclusive, shunning photographs, interviews, and even email.

Kelley has already delved into digital media before with another venture, OutWildTV, a travel video site. In a statement to the TheNextWeb, NC2 Media executive director Daniel Houghton said the goal for Lonely Planet will be to upgrade the business with “21st century digital technology”.

“If we can do this, and I believe we can, we can build a business that, while remaining true to the things that made Lonely Planet great in the past, promises to make it even greater in the future.”

This article first appeared on LeadingCompany’s sister site, SmartCompany.

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