Bankruptcy trustee settles in at Baltimore Jewish Times

The new face in the office of the publisher of the Baltimore Jewish Times and Style Magazine is Zvi Guttman, a man in a black yarmulke, white shirt, dark tie and black suspenders who settled into the conference room Monday, opened his laptop and began the work of a bankruptcy trustee: selling the business and searching for assets to pay creditors.

"The trustee becomes the owner, the board of directors, the officers. … Legally I've replaced all those," said Guttman, who worked with the door shut, sitting at a long table surrounded by empty chairs, with nothing in front of him but his computer, a phone and an open spiral notebook.

While he has management authority legally, as a practical matter, he said, he's not a publisher and would not be involved in day-to-day business decisions.

That's still up to the chief executive officer of Alter Communications Inc., Andrew Alter Buerger, and his general manager, Linda Yurche — for now. Where they and other company managers and employees will stand after the sale is completed is not yet clear and could depend on the buyer, Buerger said.

Buerger said Scott M. Rifkin, who heads an investment group that has shown interest in buying the company, has said he would not change the management. Another possible buyer, WJW Group LLC, the Rockville-based publisher of Washington Jewish Week, has not made that commitment.

WJW Group "told me they would sit down and talk with me about what my value would be to the new company," said Buerger, whose great-grandfather established the weekly Baltimore Jewish Times in 1919.

The publication, in magazine format, offers everything from recipes and wedding announcements to local, national and international news and is considered a mainstay of the area's Jewish community. Paid print circulation stands at about 8,500.

As of late Monday afternoon, WJW — which was expected last week to make a bid — had made the sole offer, Guttman said. He said the bid — for about $400,000 — came by email Monday morning. Guttman said he had talked with a lawyer representing Rifkin, but the group had not yet made a bid.

Guttman said he hoped to send all bids to U.S. Bankruptcy Court by Wednesday and have a hearing scheduled for late next week. The hearing could take the form of an auction to be conducted by him or by a judge, he said.

He added that the bid amount would be the most significant factor in the choice of a buyer, which would be made by a judge.

Buerger and Yurche said they remained optimistic that a sale could be completed within a week or two that would provide the cash needed to keep the Baltimore Jewish Times appearing on Fridays, as it has for 93 years.

"We're laser-focused on keeping these doors open until we find a buyer," Buerger said.

By Monday afternoon it looked like a usual business day at the suite of offices on Park Avenue, but it didn't start out that way, said Neil Rubin, the Jewish Times' senior editor of news.

"It's definitely better than it was first thing this morning, when it was very, very bad," Rubin said Monday afternoon. "People were very upset and nervous when they came in this morning."

Rubin said Guttman met with the employees for about a half-hour in the morning and "calmed a lot of people down."

"People had a lot of questions," Rubin said.

Rubin and Yurche said questions concerned health insurance and unemployment insurance, as well as questions about getting the publications out and how Guttman expected the sale to go.

Employees spent an anxious weekend after learning Friday that, in the absence of a reorganization plan from Alter and its chief creditor and former printer, H.G. Roebuck & Son Inc., a bankruptcy court judge had decided to appoint a trustee.

That decision was the culmination of a week of hearings, during which Judge Nancy V. Alquist was originally scheduled to consider competing reorganization plans from Alter and Roebuck. Within days those arrangements were shelved and the two sides were talking about a joint plan. Alquist set a Friday morning deadline for the two sides to file their proposal, but they could not agree on terms.

With the company being sold, it now seems "unlikely" that Roebuck — which at one time was seeking $1.7 million that it said it was owed in lost profits as a result of a breach of contract — would be paid anything in the bankruptcy, Guttman said.

Buerger said he expected that Alter would be sold for between $400,000 and $600,000, and that those proceeds would be used to pay creditors. The earnings of the new company would not be used to pay creditors, Buerger and Guttman said.

With Buerger's highest estimated figure, there would be enough money to cover full payments to the first two creditors in line, Wells Fargo and Buerger's mother, Ronnie Buerger. The balance would be divided among a number of other creditors, including Alter's lawyers and landlord. Roebuck would be last in line.

The landlord, 901 LLC of Owings Mills, has filed for permission to begin eviction proceedings if nothing is resolved by a March 31 deadline to continue or end the lease. A hearing on the motion is scheduled for April 12 in bankruptcy court.