Sell a business

Lonely Planet founders sell remaining stake to BBC

By Andrew Crook and Oliver Milman
Friday, 18 February 2011

Lonely Planet founders Maureen and Tony Wheeler have sold their remaining 25% stake in the guidebook business for $67.2m (£42.1m) to BBC Worldwide.


The duo informed staff this afternoon in an emotional address at the publisher’s Footscray offices that their time at the firm was up.


In an email to staff, the Wheelers said: "We’ve always been believers in simple rules and straightforward answers – you cannot be half pregnant, you cannot jump across a ravine in two steps – and as 25% owners we knew we would always be back seat passengers, along for the ride but no longer behind the wheel.


"Well, we’re confident about the people who are in the front seat and at the controls. It’s time for us to open the back doors and get out.


"...Of course we feel towards Lonely Planet just the way any proud parent feels about their child. Eventually that kid is going to grow up, wave goodbye and walk out the door, but you’re never going to stop worrying about them, you’re always going to be proud when they do good and annoyed when they don’t.

"Well, this may be the moment when Lonely Planet waves goodbye to us, but we’re always going to be Lonely Planet’s number one believers and supporters."

When the couple sold three-quarters of their share in 2007 to the BBC, the contract contained an agreement that said they could sell the remaining shares at the same price as they were worth at the time.

The decision to sell breaks a 38-year connection with Lonely Planet, after a 1973 on a park bench meeting in London’s Regent’s Park. The couple then produced a guide, Across Asia on the Cheap, that became a best-seller.


According to the BBC Worldwide website, for the financial year ended 2009-10 Lonely Planet sales rose 8.4 million pounds to 51.4 million pounds, while profit grew to 1.9 million pounds - an improvement of 5.1 million pounds on last year.


The decision to sell-out was widely predicted, with Tony Wheeler heavily involved in global charity the Planet Wheeler foundation in recent to assist third world countries with development projects.


The couple have also emerged as figureheads at Melbourne’s Wheeler Centre, a leading literature and cultural forum that regularly hosts well-attended seminars.


Crikey publisher and Wheeler Centre chairman Eric Beecher recently praised the Wheelers’ business acumen, telling StartupSmart that it was “obvious he and Maureen are…highly pragmatic, tough and strategic as business people.”


“You don’t create a massive international brand like Lonely Planet — arguably Australia’s best known brand in the world — through idealism alone. There were many really hard and painful decisions along that path,” Beecher said.


Earlier this week, StartupSmart ran a profile of Tony Wheeler, with the Lonely Planet co-founder explaining how he went about turning a handful of hand-stapled books into a global publisher. You can read the profile here.

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