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You Only Sell Thrice

By ANDREW ROSS SORKIN

as Vegas

ALEX YEMENIDJIAN, the chairman and chief executive of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was sitting at his private pool outside his high-roller villa at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino here last Monday. He had just struck a $5 billion deal to sell MGM, the Hollywood studio famous for its roaring-lion mascot and film franchises including James Bond, to Sony and a group of investors after an agonizingly long auction.

But he wasn't interested in talking about the deal. He wanted to discuss why he never wanted to sell the company in the first place and why his boss, the elusive billionaire Kirk Kerkorian, who controls MGM and has now bought and sold the studio three times since 1969, did not especially want to give it up, either.

"There is a perception out there that Kirk is a seller if somebody gives him a good price," said Mr. Yemenidjian, cutting a 007-like figure in a double-breasted blue blazer with a yellow silk handkerchief protruding from the breast pocket. "That isn't true. I think it bothers him that Hollywood thinks that he treated MGM as an investment toy. Not one time did either Kirk or the board tell me, 'I want you to clean this company up and prepare it for sale.' Not once."

Mr. Yemenidjian, 48, has been dogged by his reputation as MGM's flipper in chief ever since Mr. Kerkorian installed him as its boss in 1999. Back then, the company was beaten and battered, written off as a has-been, a debt-laden stepchild of the studio that once produced films like "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz." And when Mr. Yemenidjian arrived on the scene, he was a virtual unknown in Hollywood. If anything, he was considered Mr. Kerkorian's henchman, an accountant by training whose experience was in deal making, not movie making.

Yet within five and a half years, Mr. Yemenidjian (pronounced yem-ma-NEED-jee-an) turned around the business by drastically scaling back the studio's productions, scoring a few unexpected hits like the comedy "Barbershop" and the documentary "Bowling for Columbine" and milking its library of more than 4,000 films for every last dollar of sales. He won respect on Wall Street, if not fans among the Hollywood elite. Then he performed the final scene of the script that had been written by critics the day he arrived: he sold the studio. In doing so, he made a bundle for Mr. Kerkorian - who banked at least $2 billion - as well as a small fortune for the company's minority shareholders.

"Bringing an outsider's viewpoint to Hollywood may not have necessarily endeared him to the agents, movie stars and the rest of the quote-unquote Hollywood community, but from a shareholder's standpoint, he's exactly what you'd want in the C.E.O. of a publicly held company," said Jack Liebau, the principal at Liebau Asset Management, one of MGM's largest minority shareholders.

But as Mr. Yemenidjian leaned back in his faux 17th-century Tuscan chair, he said he still wished he could have ordered a rewrite and made his own blockbuster acquisitions instead of selling. "We tried to acquire other companies and they weren't available," he said in a rare interview. He ticked off a list of targets that he said he had pursued vigorously: Vivendi Universal. Sony Pictures. Paramount Pictures.

"There was nothing left to buy," he said with a shrug. "And we are not fully integrated like Viacom and Time Warner and Disney and all these companies. There was no place for us to go." So he negotiated himself out of a job.

How Mr. Yemenidjian, who, like Mr. Kerkorian, is of Armenian descent, came to become Mr. Kerkorian's top lieutenant, to run the last independent studio in Hollywood and to sell it in a heated auction between Time Warner and Sony could be its own dramatic release. There is even a potential sequel: for all the sniping by critics in the movie industry, Mr. Yemenidjian is being talked about as a possible successor to Michael D. Eisner, who will step down as chief executive of the Walt Disney Company in 2006.

MR. YEMENIDJIAN was born in Argentina; his father was a shoemaker who had fled Armenia. The family moved to Los Angeles when Alex was 13. He did not speak English, but he was already brokering deals. When the principal of the private Armenian school where he enrolled told him he would have to be held back and start in seventh grade rather than eighth grade because of a lack of English skills, Mr. Yemenidjian returned with a counterproposal.

"I said, 'I'll make you a deal,' '' he recalled. "I will do the first semester of seventh grade and if I get straight A's I will jump to the second semester of eighth grade.' He went for it because he thought there was no way I could do it."

Of course, Mr. Yemenidjian made good on his promise. And at school he met his wife, Arda. They have two children - a daughter, 23, and a son, 19.

Mr. Yemenidjian graduated from California State University, Northridge, in 1977 and founded his own accounting firm, focusing on taxation, in 1981. A workaholic by nature - "I don't do vacation very well," he said - he went to school at night to get a master's degree in business taxation from the University of Southern California.

He worked during most of the 1980's as an accountant for Hollywood clients like the "Entertainment Tonight" anchor Mary Hart. But in 1989, Mr. Yemenidjian went to a lunch that would change his life. A mutual friend of his and Mr. Kerkorian's, George Mason, a managing director of Bear Stearns, planned for them to meet. "For me, it was my opportunity to meet my idol," Mr. Yemenidjian said. "I had no idea that this would turn out to be a disguised interview."

Two days later, he recounted, "Kirk asked me if I would take a leave of absence from my firm for six months to work on a special project.''

"He never told me what the project was and I never asked," Mr. Yemenidjian said. "When I showed up on January 1, 1990, I found out the project was selling MGM."

That was the second time Mr. Kerkorian would sell MGM. He had bought it in 1969, sold it to Ted Turner in 1986 and bought back a large chunk of it only months later, when Mr. Turner's financing fell apart.

The second sale, with the help of Mr. Yemenidjian, was to the Italian financier Giancarlo Parretti in 1990. But Mr. Kerkorian would buy it back again in 1996.

Mr. Yemenidjian, who acknowledged that he lacked "any

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