CHICAGO - Hugh Hefner's offer to take Playboy Enterprises Inc. private drew the promise of a competing bid on Monday from the owner of archrival Penthouse magazine.

That raises the possibility that Playboy's 84-year-old founder could lose control of the men's magazine he started more than half a century ago.

The media company said Monday that Hefner has lined up backing from a little-known private equity firm to buy the Playboy shares that he doesn't already own and take the company private. That offer values the organization at $185 million.

A few hours later, Marc Bell, the CEO of Penthouse owner FriendFinder, said his company will make a formal bid soon.

Playboy, which Hefner launched in 1953, had its most popular years in the 1970s and has been struggling recently to stay profitable amid dwindling ad revenue and increased competition from free alternatives that are available online.

The racy magazine, which still generates the largest share of the company's revenue, sold about 311 ad pages last year, down from 765 in 2000, according to the Publishers Information Bureau. Its average circulation has fallen by about a million over the same period to 2.02 million copies.

These days, most of the company's profits come from licensing its brand for consumer products such as men's underwear, women's lingerie, watches, energy drinks and slot machines. Its licensing unit reported a net income of $21 million last year, followed by $9.9 million from the company's television properties and just $1.6 million from the magazine and its website.

Based on the number of shares outstanding on April 30, Hefner's proposal offers $122.5 million, or $5.50 for each share he doesn't already own. That's a nearly 40 per cent premium above Friday's closing stock price of $3.94. Playboy's shares climbed $1.60, or 41 per cent, to $5.54 in afternoon trading Monday.

Hefner, the company's chief creative officer who's known for his silky pyjamas and young, curvaceous girlfriends, plans to team up with private equity firm Rizvi Traverse Management LLC for the deal.

In late 2008, Hefner's daughter Christie resigned as chairman and CEO. Scott Flanders replaced her last summer. Since then, speculation has mounted that Playboy would seek a suitor, for a merger or acquisition.

But that's something Hefner appears to oppose. In his letter to Playboy's board of directors, Hefner said he has no plans to sell his shares — or the company. He rebuffed any suggestion that there should be a merger between Playboy and other potential bidders.

Playboy, which is headquartered in Chicago, described Hefner's offer letter as a proposal and said there was no guarantee it would get any formal bid from Hefner. But if it does, the board of directors will form a special committee to consider the bid.

At the end of April Playboy had 33.6 million shares of stock, of which Hefner owns more than four million shares in two stock classes.


Andrew Vanacore reported from New York.

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