Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Boldface buyers

I’ll never sip a Dunkin’ Coolatta again without feeling a little star-struck. Not that long ago, the guy behind the purveying chain was supposedly the poor schlub who had to get up before daybreak to make the donuts. Now, with Dunkin’ Donuts about to be purchased in one of the largest foodservice deals ever, that flour-dusted character may soon be hobnobbing with powerbrokers and big-name politicos.

The $2.43 billion, all-cash deal involves more names than a phone book: Dunkin’ Donuts, Baskin-Robbins and Togo’s, sold by Pernod Ricard to The Carlyle Group, Thomas H. Lee Partners and Bain Capital, who collectively outbid Kohlberg, Kravis Roberts and Trimaran, among others. But the powers behind the players are the ones you’re likely to find in boldface within elitist newsletters like The Washington Post and The New York Times.

Consider the name plaques on the executive floor of The Carlyle Group. The chief executive: Lou Gerstner, former chairman and CEO of IBM Corp. and the guy brought in to tame RJR Nabisco after that Frankenstein of a conglomerate was formed. Assisting him are people like Thomas “Mack” McLarty, the business partner of Henry Kissinger and former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton. Then again, the White House seems to be a farm team for Carlyle. A past chairman was Frank Carlucci, former U.S. Secretary of Defense under President Ronald Reagan.

More political connections come from Bain Capital, a current co-owner of Burger King and one-time principal of Domino’s. The Boston-based firm was started in part by Mitt Romney, currently the Republican governor of Massachusetts and possibly a future President of the U.S.

And then there’s Thomas H. Lee Partners, a former big stakeholder in Morton’s and Smith & Wollensky, not to mention a little consumer-products company called Snapple. The company fosters fantasies of being at a family gathering and hearing old Aunt Martha blurt out something about that distant cousin Tom Lee who’s somehow involved in finance.

It’s no wonder that Dunkin’ Brands CEO Jon Luther described the trio of buyers as a near dream team. Of course, he was thinking of their business savvy, not their media-recognition quotient. Either way, the chain has come a long way from the days when founder Bill Rosenberg started peddling donuts from a lunch truck.

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