When, nearly a year ago, Kerry Stokes appointed former Woodside Petroleum chief executive Don Voelte as chief executive of Seven West Media it raised more than a few eyebrows. Today’s announcement that he has in turn been replaced by Tim Worner is far more conventional.
Last June’s announcement of Voelte’s appointment to succeed the legendary David Leckie, the architect of Seven’s dominance of television, was completely unexpected given that, while Voelte had some media experience as a non-executive director of West Australian Newspapers and subsequently Seven West, his executive experience was in the global oil and gas industry.
Worner, in contrast, has spent his working life in television, initially as a journalist with Seven in Perth before working his way through Seven West’s executive ranks over 18 years through a series of production and programming roles until he became chief executive of Seven West’s broadcast TV division in 2011. He has the right curriculum vitae to be chief executive of a media group with television as its key business.
Nevertheless, the departure of Voelte from the chief executive post less than a year after he was appointed produced another round of raised eyebrows, even though Stokes made it clear that Voelte’s tenure was always destined to be short-term and driven by a particular brief.
At Seven West’s investor day earlier this month Voelte was able to say that he had taken more than $100 million out of the group’s cost base – $75 million of which would drop to the bottom line – and identified additional opportunities for improvement in its performance.
He was also able to say that, while net profit this year would be down "a few million", he believed this financial year would be the "worst of it" for the group’s profitability even if advertising revenues didn’t improve.
Stokes referred to the "fundamental changes" Voelte had made to the group. Apart from rebasing costs Voelte’s team unveiled a series of future growth strategies at the investor day, giving Worner both a clean cost base and a road map to follow in the early part of his tenure.
Voelte’s appointment last year came in the midst of difficult and deteriorating advertising conditions and as a reinvigorated Nine Entertainment began to regain its mojo and its ratings to provide Seven West with a sterner challenge. Stokes may have felt at that time he needed a very experienced and hard-edged chief executive to knock the basics of the business into shape even if his choice had limited media experience.
Voelte will remain close by, resuming his position as a non-executive director and also taking on the deputy chairman’s role.
With veteran media executive John Alexander (who had senior executive experiences at Fairfax and in the Packer family media interests before they were sold) joining the board earlier this month, Voelte, former News Ltd executive Doug Flynn and Stokes himself, there is considerable media experience around the board table for Worner to call on.
There is also David Leckie, who was appointed an executive director of Seven Group Holdings with an "advisory and counsel role" when, mainly for health reasons, he retired as Seven West’s chief executive. Seven Group is the vehicle through which Stokes controls Seven West. Had he retired a little earlier, of course, his successor would have been James Warburton, who impatiently jumped ship for a very short-lived and unhappy stint as chief of Ten Network.