To the rescue

(FORTUNE Magazine) – For Dr. Earl W. Brian, the chairman of WNW Group Inc., his attempts to save United Press International must seem a bit like the old days as a surgeon in Vietnam. Long-suffering UPI has been hemorrhaging since 1986 under the ownership of Mario Vazquez-Rana, a Mexican publisher. For the past six months Vazquez's lawyers have been urging him to liquidate. At the 11th hour, Brian, 46, came to the rescue, agreeing to pay up to $55 million for the right to manage UPI for the next ten years. Now comes the real operation. And a smooth operator Dr. Brian is. While he hasn't practiced medicine since leaving Army service in 1970, Brian has capitalized on his medical degree. He worked first as director of health care services and later as secretary of health and welfare in California, under Governor Ronald Reagan. After an unsuccessful run for the Senate, he joined Xonics, a maker of X-ray equipment, as president. In 1978 the divorced Brian married Diana Vivian, a New England debutante. Two years later, he launched Biotech Capital, a venture capital firm that invested in medical companies. Vivian's father, who put money in the company, was installed as vice president, treasurer, and secretary. So why is Brian qualified to run UPI? ''I'm probably not,'' he jokes. In the early 1980s Brian invested $22 million in a fledgling cable television service he now heads: Financial News Network. Since then he has acquired interests in other electronic media companies, in 1987 changing Biotech's name to Infotechnology. Says Brian: ''I decided a long time ago when I survived Nam to do what I felt like and have a good time.'' Maybe a little too good. Over the years Brian has caught a lot of flak. Xonics was besieged by legal and financial problems. He was questioned in the special prosecutor's investigation of his old pal Ed Meese, and accused of using his contacts in the Reagan Administration to win federal contracts. But he seems genuinely committed to breathing life back into UPI. He notes that recent efforts to better market the wire service's information were ''too little, too late.'' The surgeon's knife may go deep: ''We must do far more significant alterations if this company is going to survive.''