By Dan Primack & Scott Cendrowski
FORTUNE -- Last fall came word that Forbes Media LLC was on the block for a reported $400 million, with Deutsche Bank (DB) hired to find a buyer. The price-tag was stunning. Not only was it a much larger multiple than where other business media properties were valued, but even Forbes shareholder Elevation Partners was holding it at a much lower cost.
Rumored suitors included German publisher Axel Springer and Singapore-based conglomerate Spice Global.
Then yesterday came a report that Forbes was nearing a deal to sell itself for "less than $250 million" to China's Fosun International.
So two questions: What is Fosun International, and is Forbes really going to be sold for less than $250 million?
Fosun is publicly-traded in Hong Kong, and controlled by billionaire chairman Guo Guangchang. In China, it runs sprawling businesses in real estate, insurance, pharmaceuticals, iron ore mining, steel-making and private equity. Over the first six months of 2013, the latest reporting period, the company posted revenue of $4 billion. More recently, it has been expanding its operations outside of China's borders.
Over the past few years, Fosun has bought a stake in the Greek fashion label Folli Follie, paid $725 million to J.P. Morgan (JPM) for One Chase Manhattan Plaza in New York, acquired Club Med, bought an Israeli medical equipment maker, invested in the U.S. luxury brand St. John Knits International and boosted insurance assets after launching ventures with Prudential Financial and Peak Reinsurance in China.
Guo says he has even bigger ambitions for Fosun. After winning the bid for Portugal's biggest insurance company earlier this year, he said in a statement, "This marks a solid step for Fosun to evolve into Warren Buffett's model." Perhaps that also means the Oracle's investments in print media. Buffett was an early and longtime holder of The Washington Post Co., which was recently sold to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Fosun already publishes Forbes' Chinese edition, which enjoys a strong brand in the county.
Fosun International dropped 2% in Hong Kong trading on Thursday following the Forbes buyout rumors, before eventually climbing back to end the day little changed. The company's senior director of investor relations didn't respond to e-mails and calls on Thursday.
When Forbes first went on the block last fall, multiple sources tell me that Time Warner (TWX) offered around $175 million but was completely rebuffed. Do not pass go, do not come into the second round of bidding. (note: Fortune is published by Time Warner subsidiary Time Inc.).
But if Forbes is ultimately going to sell for "less than $250 million," why wouldn't a $175 million bidder been asked to sweeten the pot? If, for no other reason, than to possibly put some pricing pressure on more generous suitors like Fosun? Just doesn't seem to make sense.
We can only come up with three possible explanations:
All we know for sure is that while Fosun makes sense as the buyer, the new price talk doesn't comport with what Forbes and its bankers did last fall.
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