Orlando CEO’s bid for Forbes Media under fire from alleged rival bidder

by | Jun 27, 2023

  • The bid to bring the ownership of Forbes media empire back to the United States from China has faced criticism, but sources claim the attacks are baseless and driven by a rival trying to put together a competing bid.
  • The bid is led by Austin Russell, the CEO of Orlando-based Luminar Technologies, and if successful, would bring Forbes back to the US.
  • Sources familiar with Russell’s bid say a California businessman, David Robb, has been quietly trying to undermine the deal.
  • Robb has a history of intriguing international business dealings, including briefly serving as CEO of the controversial Megaupload.com.

A bid to bring the ownership of the Forbes media empire back to the United States from China has faced a wave of criticism in recent weeks, but sources with direct knowledge of the successful negotiations with Forbes’ current Chinese owners say the attacks are baseless and driven by a rival bidder with a questionable business background.

The acquisition bid for Forbes Media, led by Austin Russell, the world’s youngest self-made billionaire and CEO of Orlando-based electric vehicle tech firm Luminar Technologies, was announced last month. If successful, it would conclude a long-drawn-out sale process to bring the company back to the United States from China.

Now, just weeks after the announcement of the deal, sources familiar with the negotiations and congressional scrutiny say California businessman David Robb is behind repeated attempts to raise doubts on Capitol Hill in an alleged effort to scuttle the deal with Russell at the helm.

Media stories that appeared in Axios and other publications called into question Russell’s lack of media experience and raised questions around regulatory complexities, congressional oversight, and foreign partners who are helping Russell finance the estimated $800 million deal.

A pair of sources, both with knowledge of the ongoing discussions between representatives of the Russell bid and Forbes’ Chinese owners, say Robb is trying to keep his fingerprints off efforts to undermine the deal while pushing negative information in the media.

“For months Robb has been trying to put together his own deal to buy Forbes,” said one source with direct knowledge of the negotiations between Russell’s group and Integrated Whale, the Chinese company that currently holds a majority stake in Forbes.

A second, similarly placed source, says Robb’s interest in the deal didn’t end when his own bid failed to materialize.

“It’s no secret that David Robb was trying to put together his own deal to try and buy Forbes,” the person said. “It’s also no secret that he’s been trying to sabotage the Russell deal with anyone who will listen, while trying his best to keep his fingerprints off the dirty work.”

To be clear, the source did not accuse Robb of wrongdoing, but suggested he and his associates were waging an aggressive but stealthy public relations campaign behind the scenes as the Russell deal moves through regulatory hurdles. Both sources asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the international business deal.

When reached directly, Robb dodged efforts by The Capitolist to ascertain his role in the process, declining to answer specific questions, while a source familiar with his business dealings claimed that Robb has no interest in the Forbes deal and nothing to say about the Russell bid.

“I wish Austin Russell nothing but the best,” Robb wrote in a text message to the Capitolist when initially reached for this story.

But in sharp contrast with Robb’s public-facing posture, a series of texts and email exchanges over the last several weeks paint a completely different picture. Over that span, both the California businessman and an associate expressed a desire to bolster reporting about Russell and his bid for Forbes. Through Robb, an associate initially offered to send background materials on Russell, but both the associate and Robb himself repeatedly sought assurances that the materials not be attributed to them.

“Can you please give me some comfort on this,” Robb wrote in one text message, after complaining that in his opinion, a previous Capitolist story made Russell “look like a hero for saving the company from its Chinese owners.”

Ultimately, neither Robb nor his associates delivered any materials, critical or otherwise, of Russell or the Forbes deal.

While Robb’s precise role in the ongoing Forbes Media buyout saga remains unclear, records show that Robb himself has a number of intriguing international business dealings and has often sought and won media attention, including from Forbes.

Between 2011 and 2012, court records show that Robb briefly served as CEO of Megaupload.com, reporting to the company’s infamous owner, Kim Dotcom, but an associate says Robb resigned his position some time before Megaupload was seized by the U.S. Department of Justice, working in concert with New Zealand authorities.

Robb has never been named as a defendant in any Megaupload.com legal proceedings.

One of Robb’s other business projects – and one that still hasn’t come to fruition – is an ultra-exclusive residential cruise ship concept called Utopia. The company behind the project, Utopia Residences, purportedly has wealthy clients paying as much as $36 million for a single apartment aboard the ship. Promotional materials suggest the ship would constantly sail its ultra-wealthy passengers to major events around the world, including the Olympics, or the massive News Years Eve bash in Sydney, Australia, and other world-class parties and events. The Utopia website simultaneously promises it will promote the philanthropic efforts of the ship’s would-be residents. The project launched around 2009, and even though its website looks like it hasn’t been updated since that time, the company has nevertheless garnered waves of media coverage that include fancy concept renderings of a cruise ship.

But like Robb’s alleged Forbes bid, Utopia appears to be a ghost ship. Robb’s company, Utopia Residences, signed a letter of intent with Samsung Heavy Industries to construct the vessel fourteen years ago.  Despite some advances in developments around the unique challenges of building a residential cruise ship, records show Utopia still hasn’t been built, and might never be, due to insufficient funds.

Ironically, in 2009, Forbes helped play a role in hyping Robb’s Utopia concept with some early positive press. The story serves as an insightful example for why there is so much interest and contention over the ownership and control of the Forbes Media company.


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