Dr. Scott Rifkin says the Baltimore Jewish Times "has a long and distinguished history and deserves to be saved" as its parent company is mired in a contentious bankruptcy. So he did what he's known to do, when he feels the time is right: He jumped in.
Rifkin, 52, an Owings Mills physician and health care entrepreneur who is the managing partner for Mid-Atlantic Health Care LLC, has taken the lead in a group of investors proposing to become majority owners of the Times' publisher, Alter Communications Inc. — a plan to which a key creditor has objected. His goals are relatively modest: to see that the paper that he started reading as a boy in Randallstown has a future as a mainstay of the local Jewish community.
"You don't buy this thinking you're going to have the next News Corp.," said Rifkin, who is already involved in media as an investor in PressBox, a Baltimore sports monthly and online publication. "It's not going to become a giant enterprise."
He has investments in real estate and in a few companies, he said. He founded Mid-Atlantic in 2003, and just last summer it bought five nursing homes in an $80 million deal, which at the time increased its holdings from six to 11 centers in Maryland, Delaware and Pennsylvania. The deal also made Mid-Atlantic Philadelphia's largest single nursing-home operator.
In his latest venture, Rifkin is leading a group of investors who have agreed to put up $600,000 in exchange for an 80 percent ownership share in Alter Communications. Rifkin said the investment split among group members is still being worked out, and he cannot reveal the number of people involved. He's well aware that the proposal still has a long way to go and that the case is in the hands of U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge James F. Schneider.
Schneider had asked Alter and its chief creditor and former printer, H.G. Roebuck & Son Inc., to come up with a joint plan, setting deadlines in late October, then November and December. Alter and Roebuck could not agree, so last week Alter filed this proposal involving the Rifkin group on its own.
Roebuck has filed its objections, arguing that "the numbers simply make no sense." Instead, the printer has asked the judge to name a Chapter 11 trustee to take charge of the reorganization, and Alter intends to file a motion opposing a trustee.
Alter Communications' lawyer, Maria Ellena Chavez-Ruark, has called the investor group "our white knight," offering the "only viable option" to save the company.
Rifkin's role in the plan doesn't surprise people who know him.
"No, not at all. Because I know he realizes the Baltimore Jewish community is better when a Jewish Times is present," said Joseph DeMattos Jr., who is the second vice president of the Har Sinai Congregation, a Reform synagogue in Owings Mills. "It kind of becomes a no-brainer" to see that Rifkin would want to do something about the bankruptcy stalemate, he said.
DeMattos, CEO of the Health Facilities Association of Maryland — whose members and associate members care for some 20,000 Marylanders — calls Rifkin a "kinetic, serial entrepreneur. … He's got so many things going on." Rifkin cares about "getting his business right, in service and innovation, both in business and the community," DeMattos said.
They met about 10 years ago, when Rifkin called on DeMattos to talk about ways to use emerging technologies in health care. DeMattos said Rifkin saw the possibilities of using telecommunications such as Skype as a way to expand the reach of health care providers.
Rifkin's elder brother, Alan Rifkin, an Annapolis lawyer and an influential Maryland lobbyist, said he heard about his brother's part in the investment group about a month ago when Scott Rifkin came to him for legal advice.
"There's no surprise in this particular instance, when there's an institution at risk, that he rapidly stepped up to the plate," Alan Rifkin said. He said his brother knows how do the risk-benefit calculation, but ultimately, he's "not saddled by the inertia of overconsideration."
That was evident in 2006, when Scott Rifkin — a graduate of Randallstown High School, University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the George Washington University School of Medicine — jumped into politics. He took on then-Del. Bobby Zirkin in the Democratic primary for the District 11 state Senate seat.
"I saw myself as a volunteer for the government," said Rifkin. "I wasn't going to take a salary."
That didn't go so well; he was trounced by Zirkin by a margin of nearly 3-1.
"I can't imagine I would ever do that again," said Rifkin.
He said he knows the Alter Communications proposal could go nowhere, could be thrown out by the judge or supplanted by some other plan. Given the pace of deliberations in bankruptcy court, he'll have to practice patience.
"I'm a businessperson," he said. "I always want it to come together yesterday."