'He's a Man of Flair and Mystery'

Following is Dec. 15, 1985, story from the Houston Post under the headline: 'He's a man of flair and mystery/Self-made Mexico City millionare hopes to become co-owner of UPI:

MEXICO CITY-- Few names in the hazy world of Mexican journalism raise more questions than Marion Vazquez-Rana.

A self-made millionaire, the publishing baron captured news space worldwide last month when he and Houston partner Joe E. Russo bought struggling United Press International for $41 million.

If the deal is finally approved by a bankruptcy court judge -- possibly today -- Vazquez-Rana will have cleared a hurdle of questions but landed in a sea of red ink.

Although he is an international sports figure, much has been said but little known about Vazquez-Rana since his metoric financial rise from Mexico City's downtown barrios in the early 1950s.

Some say he began selling rugs off his shoulder or contraband trinkets with his Spanish immigrant father. He contends the father and brothers opened a furniture store when he was 12.

"I signed my first business check at 18," he brags, and was named president of the Almacenes Vazquez furniture company at the same age.

Because of his stylish dress, he is still referred to as el mueblero (furniture salesman), a nickname he detests.

Why he made his foray into publishing has been more controversial and dogged by rumors. As the rich often do in Mexico, he found powerful friends in government.

In 1976, "the finance minister told me a newspaper chain was for sale. I didn't want to get involved. I had a magazine for a year, but it gave me a lot of problems, and I sold it off."

The chain was Organization Editorial Mexicana, which published 36 dailies around the republic and was taken into receivership by the government after its owner fell deep into debt with Mexican and foreign creditors.

"I arrived and paid $12 million and guaranteed the other $71 million of debt with my signature," the dapper, mustachioed Vazquez-Rana said in a two-hour interview.

"It cost me $83 million. Today, I owe nothing and have doubled the number of papers. I have not earned one peso in salary and have no expense account."

At first he owned 76 percent, but 10 months later he bought out five partners whose names he still refuses to reveal. Now, he says, he owns 96 percent and wife owns the remaining shares.

A rumor that former president Luis Echeverria Alvarez owns or owned a part of the chain and is a key Vazuqez-Rana back is one that won't die. Books and journalists still contend he was responsible for the government's acquisition (1970-76) and Vazquez-Rana was his "agent."

"I bought a chain in the hands of the government, and people in charge of the news worked for the government. I was responsible for the rumor it was an Echeverria paper because I kicked them all out," says Vazquez-Rana, 53,

"I want to kill this rumor and could do it in 48 hours with a couple of stories about him. There's no turning back this rumor."

Still, the gossip that Echeverria was behind the takeover and the thought that he might be behind the Vazquez-Rana acquisition of UPI set off a number of inquiries.

One top UPI executive confirmed that all three groups at UPI formed a committee just before the purchase was announced to investigate Vazquez-Rana.

The investigation resembled "due diligence," which is usually conducted in takeover attempts.

"We did reverse due diligence," where UPI investigated the buyer instead of vice versa, the executive said. "The committee even searched computer banks but could find no evidence of Echeverria meddling or wrongdoing."

The U.S. government also was concerned that the fiery, left-leaning former president might be involved. The State Department was advised of the hearsay, and U.S. Embassy officials interviewed Vazquez-Rana but could prove nothing.

A large oil portrait of Echeverria, who Vazquez-Rana says "will always be my friend," hangs behind the publisher's desk.

Vazquez-Rana says he has been interested in purchasing UPI for three years.

However, he was not interested in a partner when bidding against Russo for the company last autumn. But, during the negotiations the two struck up a conversation in an elevator.

According to Vazquez-Rana, the two went from the elevator to a room, talked an hour, and Russo agreed to drop his bid and take a 10 percent interest in the 78-year-old news service.

UPI filed for reorganization under Chapter 11 of the federal bankruptcy code last April. In May, it reported $40.2 million in debts and some $24 million in assets.

Regardless, some UPI insiders feel that Vazquez-Rana may be just the tonic the wire service needs. He boasts he will invest another $40-odd million in UPI. Indeed, in less than 10 years he has turned his debt-ridden chain into a world class publishing empire.

His 70 newspapers (combined circulation 2.1 million) include the sepia and white all-sports tabloid Esto, which, with a half-million circulation, is the country's largest.

The predominant El Sol national chain receives 12 wire services including Russian and Chinese. He has bought more than 50 modern presses for the chain in recent years.

To keep their formats and content roughly the same except for local story holes, he will spend $1 million in the next few years buying a facsimile transmission network from his new rival, The Associated Press.

The El Sol chain has state of the art photo composition equipment and was the second Mexico City paper to feature color. His journalists were the first in Mexico to utilize computers and a computerized layout screen.

In rebuilding UPI, the International Olympic Committee member says he will beef up sports coverage and investigate launching a financial news service. Vazquez-Rana says he would also like to put UPI back in the photo business.

The Reuters wire service recently bought UPI's overseas photo operation. UPI officials confirm Vazquez-Rana approached four Reuters photo executives visiting Mexico City Thanksgiving week about repurchasing the photo division.

Vazquez-Rana's political leanings also have aroused controversy. Although a close "amigo" of Fidel Castro since the Cuban leader was exiled in Mexico, the friendship has unraveled.

As president of the Pan American Games organizing committee, Vazquez-Rana angered Castro by deciding the games would be staged in Indianapolis next year instead of Havana.

"I continue to be good friends with him, but he doesn't want to be friends with me," Vazquez-Rana says of Castro. "I fulfilled my duty with the Pan American Games."

Vazquez-Rana calls himself "center right" politically. "I don't like the left, but I'm not 100 percent to the right either. I can be a friend of most communists without being a communist myself."

Mexican leftist have not been pleased a compatriot is now an international media mogul.

Instead, they demanded the government launch an investigation to see if Vazquez-Rana siphoned off precious dollars from the central bank to purchase UPI. The government answered "no."

A chain smoker who talks nonstop, Vazquez-Rana says, "My one vice is a passion for wristwatches."

On weekends he dresses in casual sports attire. A black leather jacket in his office came from the rack at a Liverpool department store.

For the past five years, Vazquez-Rana has always worn a black tie to remember his deceased father. "But neckties, I hate them all, of any color," he says. "The man who invented the necktie should be shot."

Worth approximately $600 million, Vazquez-Rana enjoys unpretentious luxuries. He has a series of adjoining offices on El Sol's third floor boasting gardens replete with waterfalls, fountains and an Indian pheasant.

A well-furnished bar and dining facilities are available for meetings. He also has a small cinema, barber facilities, massage table, sauna and gym. "When I'm mad I come to hit a few here on the punching bag."

In the boardroom, the two tables for his directors are placed in a "V" for Vazquez.

Vazquez-Rana has sporting credentials to match his wallet. He has visited 126 countries in the last two years because of his duties as president of the Association of National Olympic Committees worldwide.

Captain of Mexico's 1972 Olympic marksmanship team, he has received more than 100 awards and commendations.

"I live for sports. My life is sports. I love sports," he says. "And he insists he can keep his conflicting interests apart.

"I have two criteria. I'm a sports leader. When i go to UPI I'll put on a UPI jacket and forget I'm the owner of Mexican newspapers."


NOTE: This story was written by Joseph Harmes, who was the Mexico City-based correspondent for Newsweek.