Right time and place for Fairfax’s Greg Hywood

In recent days, the Fairfax Media share price looked like it might hit the psychologically important point where it was once again worth more than a copy of the $1.50 Sydney Morning Herald.

On Friday the price crept up to $1.44 – well up on last months’ low of $1.35 when the company’s new strategy was announced by the now departed CEO Brian McCarthy. But by the end of today we were back down to $1.41.

The share market did not, it would seem, like the uncertainty created by putting in Greg Hywood as interim CEO while an executive search commences for McCarthy’s replacement.

And taking the temperature of the advertising market too, the appetite is not for a drawn out search.  

Those I have spoken to argue for a quick decision, and for the most part for a candidate who already knows the market. That puts Hywood – who only joined the board three months ago – in the right place at the right time for the $3m job.

“A young 54 or so”, is how one Hywood fan describes him. Which seems to meet the Fairfax remit of a candidate with “the commitment and energy required to drive the performance of the business over the next three to five years”.

Another fan of Hywood is the most powerful media agency boss in the country, Harold Mitchell (who also counts Fairfax as a client). Mitchell, boss of Aegis in the region which includes Mitchells, Carat and MPG, told me this afternoon: “He’s an outstanding newspaperman and publisher, and well suited to one of the most senior roles in Australian publishing.”

Simon Davies, head of print at meda agency OMD, argues that having only just revealed a new strategy and structure: “You don’t want to now lose that momentum with a three month or six month candidate search.”

Two sources I spoke to used the example of Sol Trujillo, the controversial American boss of Telstra from 2005-2009. Contradictorily, one pointed to Trujillo’s tenure as an example of a disastrous overseas appointment of somebody who did not have local knowledge or contacts while the other argued the opposite – that Trujillo drove much needed change where an insider would have been unable to.

Meanwhile, although those I’ve spoken to inside Fairfax anticipate Hywood will be appointed sooner or later, Fairfax Media chairman Roger Corbett wasn’t giving many clues about timing during a phone conversation this evening.

He told me: “Both Greg and the board believe this is a really critical appointment and in the meantime we are in very good hands. We’ve got to be sure we get the right person.

“I don’t think time is of the essence.”

Was there a minimum or maximum time the process would take?, I asked. “I’m not putting any time on it at all.”

However, he did concede: “Sometimes you hit the jackpot quite quickly.” And he also pointed out that he only recently carried out a recruitment process for new blood for the board, which has already given him a good picture of “some very interesting names”. One of which was Hywood, of course, who he chose to put on the board.

To the media agency market at least, there are other candidates. Somewhat controversially considering the state of the paper’s ad revenues, one Melbourne based agency boss nominates The Age’s sales supremo David Hoath.

I did try a couple of names on Corbett. How about The Australian’s deputy CEO Nick Leeder? It was a bad mobile phone line, which is, I think, why Corbett replied “Nick who?”

However, the job description certainly seems to match Hywood, with Corbett telling me he needs somebody with deep experience of newspapers, but with a digital outlook, without specifying direct digital experience.

Hywood, with a career in newspapers that began with The Australian Financial Review in 1976, and has spanned Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra, London and Washington, certainly has a print heritage. He has published and held editor or editor in chief roles at all three of Fairfax’s crown jewels – the Australian Financial Review, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

If there is an experience gap, last time Hywood was in publishing (he was ousted from Fairfax by Fred Hilmer in 2003) digital was not a major factor. His biggest role in his time away from newspapers was as CEO of Tourism Victoria.

Corbett’s words do seem to rule out one internal candidate though. Fairfax Digital boss Jack Matthews has previously been talked about as a potential successor to McCarthy. However, he lacks any siginifcant newspaper experience.

For demoralised Fairfax journalists, having a boss who loves and understands journalism would be an obvious plus. John Hartigan’s proud labelling of himself first and foremost as a journalist is a small part of what gives News Ltd its swagger.

I also asked Corbett: Is local market knowledge not essential then? “Local market knowledge is very helpful.”

But if Fairfax appoints Hywood, who then for the vacancy to lead its new metro publishing unit – which will unite the print and online editions of the SMH and the Age? Effectively, that person becomes deputy CEO of the company, even if not by name. It might make sense for that person to be based in Melbourne while Hywood is in Sydney.

Certainly, it’s a role Fairfax would find impossible to appoint until it has its CEO.

Suddenly a return for Hywood’s old colleague – and friend – Anthony Catalano, currently inflicting extensive damage on Fairfax’s real estate revenue with Victoria’s The Weekly Review, doesn’t seem a completely ridiculous idea, even if it would mean writing a big cheque to bring him back inside the fold.

First though, if it hasn’t already, the Fairfax board needs to make up its mind. After weeks of delay, I suspect that from this point, things will move fast.

Tim Burrowes


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