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Can former SBA head Maria Contreras-Sweet save Weinstein Co.?

Maria Contreras-Sweet
Maria Contreras-Sweet, who ran the U.S. Small Business Administration during the Obama administration, has made a surprise bid for the Weinstein Co.
(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)

Los Angeles-based business leader Maria Contreras-Sweet has launched companies, boosted Latino and female entrepreneurs, and run the U.S. Small Business Administration under President Obama.

This week, in a surprise Hollywood plot twist, she emerged as potentially the best hope yet to save troubled movie and television studio Weinstein Co.

In a Nov. 8 letter obtained by The Times on Sunday, Contreras-Sweet made a bold proposition to acquire the company, rename it, keep it whole, and install a majority-female board of directors.

If successful, her takeover would mark a major transformation for a studio that is reeling from dozens of sexual harassment and assault allegations against its co-founder and former co-chairman Harvey Weinstein. The current board is all-male, including Weinstein’s brother, Bob. Recent lawsuits have accused Weinstein of negligence, and its financial struggles have threatened to push it into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

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Contreras-Sweet, in her letter, said she felt compelled to take action to help women who have suffered indignities and employees who may otherwise lose their jobs.

“I believe we have now reached a crossroads where it is imperative that a woman-led board acquire control of the company and create content that continues to inspire audiences around the world, especially our young girls and boys,” Contreras-Sweet said in the letter.

Contreras-Sweet declined to comment beyond the letter.

Weinstein Co. representatives did not respond to requests for comment. It’s unclear how the board will respond to the proposal, which would also require a fund to compensate women who’ve accused Weinstein of misconduct and result in Bob Weinstein’s ouster from the company. One banker familiar with the company who was not authorized to comment was skeptical of the bid.

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Harvey Weinstein has acknowledged some past bad behavior toward women, but has categorically denied all allegations of non-consensual sex.

Financial details of Contreras-Sweet’s offer were not revealed in the cover letter, but people familiar with the talks, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said her bid has significant financial backing from women in industries including private equity, venture capital and entertainment.

Company executives have said the studio would fetch close to $300 million, but people familiar with the firm’s finances say those estimates are inflated.

The bid from Contreras-Sweet surprised some industry insiders, who noted her lack of experience running entertainment companies.

But Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce Chief Executive Gary Toebben, who has known Contreras-Sweet for more than a decade, said her experience in politics and business would be an asset.

“She has always had a keen interest not just in business, but in helping women both in business and in politics and helping women develop a voice in the community,” Toebben said. “If you want to flip a reputation on its side, they would be hiring the right person.”

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Contreras-Sweet came to America with her mother and five siblings when she was 5, settling in Baldwin Park.

She ascended the ranks of public service and private enterprise. She started her political career by volunteering for Jimmy Carter’s 1976 presidential campaign, and later worked for Assemblyman Joe Montoya and the U.S. Census Bureau. She then spent 15 years at 7Up-RC Bottling Co., where she became vice president of public affairs.

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Under California Gov. Gray Davis, Contreras-Sweet was secretary of the Business, Transportation and Housing Agency, managing a $14-billion budget.

After leaving public office, she co-founded the private equity firm Fortius Holdings, which backed small Latino enterprises in Calfornia. She also founded ProAmerica Bank, catering to small and medium-sized businesses in the Latino community that she believed were underserved.

Most recently, she led the U.S. Small Business Administration from 2014 to 2017, where she created a program to encourage inventions for women and families, and expanded funding for women’s business centers.

“I remember just trying to work off the credit cards and how hard it was to manage my own business,” she told the Times in a 2015 interview. “You spend all day long getting the business and then all night long getting the business done.… So I learned about the struggles an entrepreneur faces.”

Under Contreras-Sweet’s proposal, Weinstein Co. would keep its roughly 150 employees and its remaining film and TV projects. The company also would have to set up a mediation process and litigation fund to compensate alleged victims of Harvey Weinstein. Contreras-Sweet would become executive chairwoman of the board.

Contreras-Sweet discussed the proposal with attorney Gloria Allred, who suggested including the mediation fund for alleged victims as part of the bid. Allred is representing multiple women who have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct. Last week, an anonymous actress represented by Allred sued Weinstein and the company for battery and assault.

Separately, the company was hit with a class-action lawsuit on behalf of dozens of women accusing Weinstein of sexual assault, battery and lewd conduct.

“I would like to see her and her team acquire the company, and I think that is the only way that TWC can be saved,” Allred said. “Saving the company will benefit employees, shareholders, vendors and if her proposal is accepted, it will be very important to victims.”

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Last week, Weinstein Co. got a much-needed financial lifeline when it sold its North American distribution rights for “Paddington 2” to Warner Bros.

Previous attempts to secure financing from Thomas Barrack’s Colony Capital and New York fund manager Fortress Investment Group fell through. Others who have considered buying all or pieces of the company have included Lionsgate, talent agency Endeavor and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

ryan.faughnder@latimes.com

@rfaughnder


UPDATES:

6:45 p.m.: This article was updated with additional reaction to Contreras-Sweet’s bid for Weinstein Co.

This article was originally published on Nov. 19 at 8.35 p.m.


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