In the 2Â 1/2 years since prominent Eugene businesswoman Carolyn Chambers died, her children have been sorting through her complex network of businesses, from broadcast stations to wineries, deciding what to keep and what to sell.
The assessment was happening quietly, behind the scenes, until the recent announcement that the family plans to sell its 53-year-old Eugene television station KEZI and two Oregon sister stations to a Georgia-based partnership for $30 million in cash.
That highly publicized decision has raised questions about what will happen to Chambers' other businesses, what role the next generation of Chamberses will play in the local economy, and whether the Chambers family will continue to be a significant force in local business and philanthropy.
Pat Frishkoff, former director of the Austin Family business program at Oregon State University and a family business consultant in Eugene, said she expects some changes as Chambers' children reshape the assets their mother left them and build their own. But she doesn't see the family's influence dwindling.
"You have as good a situation as you possibly can have when you lose an icon who is so well-known with that number of businesses and that level of wealth," said Frishkoff, who knew Carolyn Chambers for more than 20 years.
Many family businesses have just one asset, so when it is sold, there is no more family business, Frishkoff said.
"This is a family with a whole family of businesses, some of which Carolyn started, many of which I suspect she supported not only emotionally but financially, but some of which came pretty much all on their own through the next generation," Frishkoff said.
"The Chambers name is clearly not going away -- not with how well the family members are known, the businesses they have, and so forth," she said.
Carolyn Chambers' longtime friend Gretchen Hult Pierce also sees Chambers' children continuing to play an active role in the community.
"What form that takes I can't tell you, because they're all individuals and they're all in a different place in their life," Pierce said. "To the extent that we all continue to want them involved in our community, then I think they'll be very encouraged to stay involved."
Business in the blood
Chambers died Aug. 8, 2011, at age 79, after a lengthy battle with cancer.
She had three children, Bill, Scott and Liz, with her first husband Donald McDonald, who died in 1962. She had a son, Clark, and daughter, Silva, with her second husband, Dick Chambers, founder of Chambers Construction, who adopted Bill, Scott and Liz.
Bill, 56, and his wife, Karla, have branched out into their own family business. They own and operate Stahlbush Island Farms, a Corvallis farm and food processor that ships products throughout the United States and to about 15 other countries.
Bill is personal representative of his mother's estate, and he and Silva, along with Carolyn Chambers' longtime attorney Roger Saydack, are trustees of the Carolyn S. Chambers Trust, which contains most of her personal assets.
Scott, 54, is the chief executive officer of Chambers Communications Corp., the media company Carolyn Chambers founded in 1983.
Liz, 53, owns Silvan Ridge Winery, known as Hinman Vineyard when Carolyn Chambers bought it in 1991. Liz also recently launched her own label, Elizabeth Chambers Cellar.
Clark, 49, invests and lives in Salem.
Silva, 45, directs the family's real estate company, CDC Management. She also owns and operates her own property management business, Silva Management Co., in partnership with local commercial brokers Alan Evans, Jeff Elder and John Brown.
"It's kind of the Chambers of commerce," Scott Chambers joked about his family's diverse business interests.
"That's one thing our parents taught us is work hard -- that's true of the entire family," he said. "Everyone works hard."
The golden age of TV
That was especially true of Carolyn Chambers, who became a broadcast entrepreneur in the late 1950s and was still making real estate deals while receiving hospice care in her home in the last year of her life.
She was just four years out of college when she borrowed $100,000 in 1957 from her auto-dealer father to launch Liberty Communications with her first husband, Donald McDonald, and other investors, including her parents, Julio and Elizabeth Silva. Three years later, Liberty's KEZI-TV station hit the airwaves.
"She had a theater background," Scott Chambers said. "I think that was the motivation for going into KEZI. She and my biological father (Donald McDonald) were actors and performers.
"She had performed at the Very Little Theatre, pre-Hult Center. He had performed in New York off-Broadway."
Liberty expanded into cable television over the years. In 1983 -- when her partners, despite her objections, decided to sell KEZI along with Liberty's other assets to a Denver company -- Carolyn Chambers bought back KEZI and founded Chambers Communications Corp.
Chambers Communications grew over the years and had added several Oregon TV stations, a video/film production unit, and cable systems in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California by 1998, when it moved into a new $11 million, 90,000-square-foot media center on Chad Drive.
A year later, Chambers sold the cable systems to AT&T Corp. She set up the charitable Chambers Family Foundation with part of the proceeds.
Chambers had numerous other business interests, including buying Hinman Vineyards and development projects, such as the U.S. Bank tower in downtown Eugene, the Levi-Strauss offices on Chad Drive and Pioneer Pacific College in Springfield's Gateway area.
Exiting the KEZI stage
Since Carolyn Chambers' death, her children have been taking a hard look at all of her business interests and deciding what to do with them. That led to the recent decision to sell KEZI, the flagship of Chambers Communications Corp.
"We've been basically looking at all assets over the last several years, and you're either growing or you're not," Scott Chambers said. "In TV, we didn't feel like we could grow the way the business needed to, given our other holdings."
The company quietly told trusted brokers that it wanted to buy more Oregon stations or to sell KEZI, Chambers said.
"We were as much looking to buy stations as we were sell stations," he said. "We made an attempt to (build the business) through acquisition here locally, and we were outbid for KMTR.
"We had exhausted all opportunities with existing owners in Eugene, Medford and Bend. We decided if we can't grow it, we should probably get out."
So the family agreed to sell KEZI and its sister stations in Medford and Klamath Falls to Heartland Media LLC and MSouth Equity Partners, a private equity fund, for $30 million. The deal came together just in the past four months, Chambers said.
Frishkoff said she thinks the family made a wise decision.
"They're selling an asset in an industry that is very risky," she said. "In a risky industry you look for a good time to get out of it.
"Journalism has changed so much, and that's a real hard one to chase and to keep abreast of and make money in. Though the community may feel sad because it's lost its... local touch with those stations.
"I think the family thought carefully about that and made the best decision economically for the family and got out while the getting was good."
Frishkoff said that if Carolyn Chambers were still alive, she, too, might have decided to sell.
"In some ways, it's just like buying stock in a company," she said. "There's a time to hold, a time to buy, a time to sell."
Scott Chambers said that Carolyn left some direction about the businesses, but she didn't indicate that the family should either grow the broadcast TV business or get out.
"With the facts that we have today," he said, "I think she would agree with our decision."
Gretchen Pierce said that asking what Carolyn might have done is beside the point.
In her experience as manager of her own mother's estate, Pierce said "by will and design we started going into ultimately estate liquidation mode because the estate belonged to me and my siblings, not just me. ... So it doesn't matter what Carolyn might or might not have done. They're in a very different situation now and they're making decisions that would come from this very different state of affairs."
Finding new directions
Scott Chambers, as well as Bill and Silva Chambers, who are directors of Chambers Communications Corp., said they can't say what the family will do with the sale proceeds from KEZI.
"It hasn't been determined yet whether we'll use the proceeds in communications," Scott Chambers said, adding, "We're not going to pursue broadcast TV."
The family is looking at other opportunities with a good return on investment. "That's basically our criteria," he said.
The Chambers family will lease to the new owners KEZI's 18,000 square feet of the media center's 60,000-square-foot main building, he said. The rest of the main building is for lease.
Essig Entertainment, a Eugene audiovisual staging and event company, already is leasing the two 15,000-square-foot sound stages behind the main building.
The decision to lease out the entire media center brings an official end to the dream that created it.
"The whole vision we had for this media center was to create jobs for (film and video) production in Oregon," Scott Chambers said. "The reality is production ended up (being based) in Portland, and we struggled to migrate it south.
"We invested a lot of money and did 2,000 hours of TV and about eight feature films (over 15 years). In the end, we decided that for the family we weren't going to continue doing that investment."
Chambers said building the media center "was mostly my idea, but (Carolyn) fully supported it. She really liked the idea of creating (production) jobs in Lane County.
"I think she was as passionate and interested in the movie business as I was."
Deciding to sell the station that their family founded and that their mother fought so hard to buy back wasn't easy for the siblings.
"It's always hard to go out when things are going well," Scott Chambers said. "If they weren't, it might be easy to step away.
"The people I've worked with here at the station (are) just outstanding, and they stay."
Scott Chambers said only he and Dana Siebert, the station's president and chief operating officer, will leave KEZI when the sale closes, which is expected in late June.
Chambers said he will enter a new phase of his life then. He will continue to serve with Silva as a trustee of the Chambers Family Foundation, a private, nonprofit foundation that manages $18.6 million and has awarded $10.6 million in grants to 325 organizations from 1999 to 2013.
He said he also will continue to serve on the board of the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, of the Nature Conservancy in Oregon.
Chambers, his wife, Kellie, and business partner Dan Giustina formed Merchant Films production company in 2008, according to state business filings.
"We've produced two feature films," Chambers said. The company's first North American release, "Something Wicked," a thriller starring the late Brittany Murphy, will be shown in Regal Theaters on April 4, Chambers said.
"Merchant Films will continue to exist, and we'll look to produce other feature films as the opportunity arises," Chambers said.
Spilling into Oregon wine
Carolyn Chambers' oldest daughter Elizabeth, known as "Liz," became sole owner of Silvan Ridge winery southwest of Eugene in May 2012.
Carolyn Chambers bought the winery, originally Hinman Vineyard, in 1991, and Liz has managed it for nearly 20 years. The name changed to Silvan Ridge over the years, with the Hinman name remaining as a second label, Liz Chambers said.
The Chambers family had owned a second winery, Panther Creek Winery in McMinnville. But it sold it last year to Bacchus Capital Management, a private equity firm with wineries and brands in Oregon and California.
"I owned the (winery) building," Liz Chambers said. "The family chose to sell the brand, and the winemaker (Michael Stevenson) stayed with me and said, 'Let's start something new.'
"In the spirit of my mom's entrepreneurial ways, I said 'I think that's what she would want me to do.'?"
In December, Chambers launched Elizabeth Chambers Cellar, a boutique winery specializing in pinot noir from the Willamette Valley. Chambers said she wants to produce no more than 4,000 cases a year under that label.
"I want it to be something to be really be proud of," she said. The winery also will produce a small amount of pinot gris, she said.
Silvan Ridge has about 12 full-time employees and a number of part-time employees who work at harvesting grapes and in the tasting room. Some employees work for both Silvan Ridge and Elizabeth Chambers Cellar, she said.
Chambers said she loves the wine industry, which is growing in Oregon.
"There were many times I thought, 'Do I want to do this?'?" she said. "I don't have to work, but I don't know what I'd do with myself if I didn't. I love the winery and my employees. It's fun to go to work every day."
A lot of people in the community have been asking Chambers about her wineries, she said.
"I'm very proud to say that they're mine and I'm looking to see them grow," she said.
Ready for development
Silva Chambers, the youngest of Carolyn Chambers' five children, manages the family's extensive and varied real estate holdings.
Among them are the Media Center on Chad Drive, and neighboring Comcast and Levi-Strauss office buildings; the U.S. Bank tower in downtown Eugene; the Holly Square office building and adjacent former KEZI studio on Coburg Road; Pioneer Pacific College in Springfield's Gateway area; and offices near Springfield's Island Park.
"We are continuing to run the real estate that we currently own," Silva Chambers said. "We have nothing for sale."
As for whether there will be more development in the future, Chambers answered: "Gosh, I sure hope so."
"We don't build it and they will come," she said. "We have our properties that are ready for redevelopment. They have Evans, Elder, Brown signs saying 'build to suit.'
"I'm not cold calling, either."
Most of the family's property is in Lane County, with some in Douglas and Deschutes counties, Chambers said.
"We don't hold a lot of retail property," she said. "We do more general office, and some medical office."
Dave Hilles, the current owner of Chambers Construction, said he thinks the Chambers family will continue to be active in real estate development.
"Each of the kids certainly has their own businesses and interests, and they still have the real estate development side, so I'm sure the Chambers name will continue on the development side of the business," he said.
Hilles became president of Chambers Construction after Dick Chambers died in 1986. Hilles said he and Carolyn Chambers became equal partners in the business in the mid-'90s, then he bought her out over the next 10 years.
Separate from her work with Chambers family real estate, Silva Chambers owns her own real estate management company in partnership with local commercial brokers Alan Evans, Jeff Elder and John Brown. In that business, she oversees the management of more than 1.1 million square feet of property that houses more than 222 business tenants.
Farms and haciendas
Bill, the oldest of the Chambers siblings, owns and operates Stahlbush Island Farms. He and his wife, Karla, both economists by training, started the farm in 1985.
Today, the company ships sustainably grown frozen fruits and vegetables and organic canned food products to all 50 states and exports to about 15 countries. The company is privately held and does not reveal financial figures.
In 2012, Stahlbush Island Farm was named "sustainable plant of the year" by a food industry trade publication. The award honored its sustainable practices, including a biogas system that transforms waste and crop silage into energy, removing more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than Stahlbush is responsible for creating.
Bill Chambers said his mom helped with a loan when Stahlbush Island Farm was just starting out.
"We paid her off in about four years," he said.
Carolyn Chambers named Bill the personal representative of her estate. Most of the assets in her personal estate are going through the Carolyn S. Chambers Trust, with only a few assets going through probate, according to Lane County Circuit court records.
The largest asset going through probate is Chambers' property in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, valued at $1.16 million, according to court papers.
Non-Mexican citizens can't own property directly if it's within 20 miles of the coast, Bill Chambers said. So the property is held in a Mexican trust, or fideicomiso. He said he's in the process of trying to buy the Mexican property so it can be put in the Carolyn S. Chambers Trust.
"Most of the companies did not go through the trust," Scott Chambers said. "We have a complicated group of holdings. It would be too complicated to even explain. There's a lot of companies and lot of ownership structures."
While family members aren't saying what they'll do with the proceeds from the KEZI sale or any other family assets, Frishkoff, the family business consultant, predicts that "they'll probably invest it in more businesses."
"That's what usually happens," she said. "They probably don't need it to live on.
"My guess is that you'll see it used either to grow existing businesses (or) it may be used to accelerate what the next generation is doing."
A smooth transition
Frishkoff said Carolyn Chambers' business succession "seemed to have been exquisitely well-planned. There was a lot of forethought on Carolyn's part of what would happen to the businesses, but more importantly of the family's involvement after she passed."
The transition appears to have proceeded without the bitter squabbling and power struggles among heirs that derail some business successions.
"Generally, there's agreement among siblings about how to proceed," Scott Chambers said.
A codicil that Carolyn Chambers added to her will in 2005 may have helped that along. It states that anyone who contests or challenges the validity of her will be cut out of it, along with any of that person's direct descendents.
When Frishkoff heard about that provision, she let out a hearty laugh.
"That's so Carolyn!" she said. "She's ruling from the grave!"
"Carolyn Chambers knew she was not going to live forever," Frishkoff said. "She was a smart businesswoman;... she took the time to write down what made sense. Most people don't take the time to think it through like she did.
"She was one smart cookie."
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