After more than a decade of out-of-town ownership, the Los Angeles Times will once more be locally owned, this time by a billionaire immigrant with a track record of immense success and dizzying — if sometimes unfulfilled — ambition.
Patrick Soon-Shiong, a doctor turned entrepreneur who was born in South Africa to Chinese parents, has reached a deal to buy The Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune, a move that would shake up Southern California’s already tumultuous media landscape and expand Soon-Shiong’s vast and varied business holdings.
With a fortune estimated by Forbes magazine at $7.8 billion, Soon-Shiong’s deep pockets could portend reinvestment at The Times, which has seen its newsroom cut in half amid steady declines in newspaper advertising and more than a decade of management turmoil at its owner, Tronc Inc.
Soon-Shiong has been an investor in Tronc since 2016. At the time of that initial investment, he told The Times he wanted to “save the integrity” of the publication.
“We need newspapers,” he said. “We need this intellectual integrity. We need writers and editors who are passionate about this work.”
Soon-Shiong is one of several local billionaires — including Eli Broad, David Geffen and Ron Burkle — who had for years been rumored to be interested in acquiring The Times.
Compared with Broad and Geffen, Soon-Shiong is less well known as a philanthropist or civic leader. Much of his activity in those areas, as in his business pursuits, has been focused on healthcare and engineering.
In 2009, he began to put into motion a plan to streamline the nation’s healthcare system by uniting doctors, hospitals and insurers through high-speed fiber optic networks, supercomputers and what he called a “wisdom database.”
That same year, he pledged $100 million to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. He later made a financial guarantee to help underwrite the reopening of Martin Luther King Jr. Community Hospital. He and his wife, Michele Chan, operate the Chan Soon-Shiong Family Foundation.
Last July, he announced that his Culver City company NantWorks would take control of the operations of six California hospitals, including St. Vincent Medical Center near downtown Los Angeles and St. Francis Medical Center in Lynwood.
Soon-Shiong bought into The Times’ parent company in 2016 amid a hostile takeover bid by rival publisher Gannett Co. His investment of $70.5 million helped Tronc fight off Gannett and seemed to make allies of Soon-Shiong and Tronc Chairman Michael Ferro, but their relationship quickly soured.
Owning the city’s largest media company would add to a business portfolio that includes a network of medical research firms that he established to, in his words, “solve cancer” — the latest ambitious goal for the physician turned entrepreneur.
Soon-Shiong was born in 1952 in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. His parents had left China during World War II. His father was an herbal doctor.
Soon-Shiong received his medical degree at the University of Witwatersrand, where in the late 1970s he treated South Africans who had been injured during the Soweto riots.
He interned at Johannesburg’s General Hospital, which had never admitted a Chinese student before, Soon-Shiong has said. The chairman of the department stipulated that his application would not be accepted unless he finished better than fourth in his class, which he did. He worked in the cancer wing, where he remembers an Afrikaner patient who refused to be treated by a “Chinaman.”
At a time when other colleagues were leaving South Africa, he accepted a surgical residency with the University of British Columbia. In Canada, he met Chan, who worked at the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. The couple immigrated to the United States and Chan, an aspiring actress, was cast in the TV series “Danger Bay” and “MacGyver.”
He joined UCLA Medical School in 1983 as an assistant professor in the gastrointestinal surgery division. He later became director of UCLA’s pancreas transplant program.
After developing a method for treating diabetes by transplanting insulin-producing cells into a patient’s pancreas, Soon-Shiong left UCLA and founded his own medical research firm in 1991.
By the late 1990s, he was broadening his research into cancer treatments, developing drugs to fight not just diabetes but also breast cancer. One of those drugs would become the foundation of his fortune. Called Abraxane, it was a redesigned version of a top-selling cancer drug called Taxol. He sold the company that developed Abraxane to Celgene for $2.9 billion in 2010.
Soon-Shiong also built and sold another pharmaceutical company, generic drugmaker APP Pharmaceuticals, which was acquired by German company Fresenius for an estimated $4.6 billion.
But his work has not been without controversy.
Abraxane is not so much a new drug as a reworked, repackaged version of one of the best-known cancer fighters — paclitaxel, a compound derived from the Pacific yew tree. When the drug was approved in 2005, a group of top oncologists questioned whether the expensive drug was “just old wine in a new bottle.”
In the 1990s, he got into a legal feud with his brother and others. In 2014, a whistleblower lawsuit was filed in Panama City, Fla., alleging one of his companies, NantHealth, was “engaged in a multitude of fraudulent activities.”
That year a profile in Forbes described his “deep streak of P.T. Barnum showmanship” and a talent for angering “investors and colleagues alike.”
Over the last year, Soon-Shiong’s companies have been dogged by weak stock performances and shareholder lawsuits. Last spring, biotech news site Stat found that the University of Utah spent much of a $12-million donation from Soon-Shiong on genetic testing services provided by NantHealth.
Soon-Shiong called the story “maliciously false,” but investors nevertheless fled NantHealth’s stock, sending shares tumbling. The company went public in June 2016, pricing shares at $14; shares now trade at about $3. Shares of another Soon-Shiong company, NantKwest, have fallen to about $4 from their initial public offering price of $25 in July 2015.
Both of those companies were hit with fraud suits by investors after their stocks tanked. Soon-Shiong has denied the investors’ claims. He has also been sued by singer Cher, who claims he and others duped her into selling shares in a promising drug company back to the firm at a fraction of the stock’s value.
In 2016, Soon-Shiong launched Cancer MoonShot 2020 — a collaboration of companies, doctors and researchers that said it would conquer cancer in just four years. The group had to later change its name to Cancer Breakthroughs 2020 after a lawsuit was filed by the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, which had already staked claim to the “moonshot” name.
An avid basketball player, Soon-Shiong shoots hoops weekly with colleagues and is a part owner of the Los Angeles Lakers.
In 2012 when Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University, described Soon-Shiong, he made an off-the-cuff assessment of his friend. Before the two men took to the stage for a public conversation about healthcare, Crow called him “an unshielded nuclear reactor.”