The Charter Co.'s high-profile headquarters occupied a 19-story Downtown tower, also called the Universal Marion Building, at 21 W. Church St. The building, developed in 1962, now is owned by JEA. The top for some time featured a revolving restaurant....

The Charter Co.: How a legacy lives on 30 years after bankruptcy

Apr. 21, 2014

Before it filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization on April 20, 1984, The Charter Co. was Jacksonville’s biggest — and probably most interesting — corporation.

It was 30 years ago on Good Friday that the company began to officially end.

Charter ranked 61st in the Fortune 500 list of America’s largest corporations when it filed for Chapter 11, based on its 1983 revenue of $5.6 billion.

The company built by Jacksonville businessman Raymond K. Mason at one time had more than 180 subsidiaries under its wing, with interests including insurance, banking, convenience stores and popular magazines Redbook and Ladies Home Journal.

However, oil was Charter’s growth engine. When oil prices started soaring in the 1970s, Charter’s stock flew with it and the company became a darling of Wall Street.

Mason hired young, energetic executives and sent them around the world to tend to his network of oil, insurance, communications and other companies. Many of those hires remain in Jacksonville as successful businessmen and women.

Financiers, bankers, investors and other Charter veterans include Howard Serkin, Steve Wilson, Jack Uible, Mac McGriff, Ray Van Landingham, Penny Thompson, Chester Stokes, Hawley Smith, Heyward Cantrell, Curtis Loftin, Jim Winston, Fred McGinnis, Russell Newton, Bruce Bower, Dix Druce, W. Frost Weaver, and a long list of others.

Along the way, Mason generated national and international attention. In November 1975, President Gerald Ford and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat conducted talks in Jacksonville at Deerwood Country Club and Epping Forest, which was then Mason’s estate. Charter had extensive holdings in the Middle East.

Mason often worked and hosted business lunches at his boat-house office at Epping, a San Jose riverfront estate that is miles from his 19th floor Downtown office at the top of what is now the JEA building.

Fortune magazine featured Mason clad in yellow silk pajamas.

Mason, born in Jacksonville, also owned property in Ireland, including a castle hotel once owned by his mentor, the powerful Ed Ball. Ball ran the Alfred I. duPont Trust formed by his brother-in-law. Alfred and Jessie Ball du Pont lived at the Epping Forest estate, which Mason and his family later owned.

Unfortunately, the 1980s were not as kind to Charter. Problems started with a 1982 helicopter crash in Ireland that killed four key Charter executives, including President Jack Donnell.

Meanwhile, a drop in oil prices in the 1980s and some problems in the insurance markets sent Charter’s finances spiraling down and the company eventually landed in bankruptcy court.

The Chapter 11 also led to another deal. Gate Petroleum Co. founder Herb Peyton bought Epping Forest as Charter filed bankruptcy and he turned it into the Epping Forest Yacht Club.

Charter did emerge from bankruptcy in 1987 but it sold off many of its businesses as it went through the Chapter 11 reorganization.

Under the reorganization plan, Charter issued stock to creditors to pay off its debts and Cincinnati financier Carl Lindner acquired a majority of the stock. He moved the company’s headquarters from Jacksonville to Cincinnati in 1988.

Under Lindner, Charter eventually sold off all of its remaining pre-bankruptcy business interests and used the proceeds to acquire control of Spelling Entertainment Group Inc., producer of popular 1990s television series Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210 and other programs.

Charter was renamed Spelling Entertainment in 1992. Spelling was eventually acquired by Viacom Inc. in 1992.

Mason, 87, was just 36 when he became president of Charter, the new name of a company that traced its history to the Mason Lumber Co. in 1919.

The Daily Record sought comment from Mason, who lives in Orange Park, to reflect on Charter but he said he preferred not to comment.

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(904) 356-2466