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Reclusive billionaire rancher could buy Lonely Planet from the BBC

Wednesday, 6 March 2013 | By Patrick Stafford

Travel company Lonely Planet may be up for sale, just two years after the company was purchased by BBC Worldwide, with a reclusive tobacco billionaire from the United States who doesn't even have an email account cited as the potential buyer.


While there is little information about Brad Kelley, all reports indicate he is a cautious investor, sticking to safe investments such as land and conservation efforts.


The BBC's commercial arm has confirmed it is now investigating new paths for the business, which originated in Melbourne and still maintains an office there.


"We have been exploring strategic options for Lonely Planet for some time now but no deal has been done and we are not going to comment on speculation about its future," the BBC Worldwide arm said in a statement.


The rumours come just two years after Lonely Planet founders Tony and Maureen Wheeler sold their remaining 25% stake in the business to the BBC, which purchased the majority of the company for $201.6 million back in 2007.


Reclusive Kentucky billionaire Kelley, who amassed a huge fortune through selling his discount cigarette operations for nearly $US1 billion in 2001, is discussing the purchase.


The Business Insider report claims Kelley – who is one of the biggest landowners in the United States – will buy a controlling stake in Lonely Planet, with the BBC to maintain a small stake to help guide editorial and management. It is understood by the report a base will also be maintained in Britain.


The report also suggests the selling price will still be "way below" what the BBC originally paid back in 2007 and even lower than the $135 million figure cited in 2012.


Potential buyer Kelley is one of the more reclusive Rich Listers in the United States. He's rarely photographed, rarely gives interviews – he doesn't even have an email address. Reports indicate he prefers to stay out of the spotlight, preferring to focus on his main investments in land and conservation interests.


Forbes pins his fortune at $1.9 billion as of this month.


Kelley is one of the top five landowners in the United States, owning more than 1.7 million acres across three separate states.


By all accounts he is a cautious investor – his ranches don't get much of a financial return. As this Wall Street Journal article demonstrates, his strategy is focused on changing the use of the land itself to increase its value.


Kelley spends much of his time working with conservation interests, along with thoroughbred breeding and racing operations.


Lonely Planet was founded by the Wheelers nearly 40 years ago in Australia. Although the business originally focused on travel guides, it has expanded into digital operations as well. The Wheelers left day-to-day operations when they sold their minority stake in 2011.


This story first appeared on SmartCompany.