Last drinks only just beginning around News

Kim Williams is wasting little time in the reformation of Rupert Murdoch's Australian operations.

Kim Williams is wasting little time in the reformation of Rupert Murdoch's Australian operations.

KIM Williams is wasting little time in the reformation of Rupert Murdoch's Australian operations, with two senior executive changes already this week - and more rumoured to be in the wind.

In a year when News has been the news almost as often as it reports on it, the rearrangement of managers is still under way, and will flow into the new year.

On Monday it was the turn of chief operating officer Peter Macourt to decide that it was time for last drinks at News Ltd.

Macourt, who many credit as being the man who kept Williams' predecessor, John Hartigan, on the fiscally responsible track, was (as Insider pointed out a few weeks back) potentially a rival to Williams for the chief executive's job.

''I believe now is the right time to step aside and allow a new regime to take the company into the future,'' was Macourt's sanctioned self-assessment quote in the News press release announcing his departure. Cynical Insider reads that as an executive falling on a provided sword.

In a nice touch, there was even a tribute from the vanquished Hartigan. ''Over the past 11 years no one did more to support me in my role, or more to advance the interests of News Ltd than Peter.''

Insider is not certain whether that job reference from Harto was a positive or a negative in Williams' assessment of Macourt.

As Williams (pictured) builds his new regime, he has brought an ''outsider'' into the notoriously clannish halls of News' Holt Street head office in Sydney, importing Jerry Harris from Queensland to take on the new role of managing director of newspapers and digital products.

There is speculation that he may be joined at head office by Brisbane Courier-Mail editor-in-chief David Fagan - which might make Chris Mitchell at The Australian squirm, given that Fagan was his replacement in Queensland when he took the prestigious Sydney role.

The lanky red-headed Harris is himself an import from his beginnings with News Corporation as a classified ads salesman at The Times in London. He defected briefly to the Packer family's Australian Consolidated Press when he moved to Australia more than 20 years ago, but returned to head up advertising for The Australian.

It was Harto who sent Harris to Queensland in 2001, where he has remained until being recalled to the front line this week. He is not, though, a cleanskin in terms of Holt Street, having worked there for a decade including as managing director of the Mirror Australian Telegraph Publications unit.

His appointment probably puts paid to suggestions that Peter Blunden, feted former editor of News' Herald Sun in Melbourne and now managing director of the Victorian business, will be going to Sydney - although Insider hears that he may have been at Holt Street yesterday.

Veteran News columnist Mark Day's tip earlier this week that Col ''Sink Plugger'' Allan, the New York Post's finest and a long-time mate of Harto, might be returning to Sydney was a bit premature - although News sources say that all will be revealed next month, which in Allan's case is a confronting thought.

Two years ago News' January revelation was that Murdoch's son-in-law Alasdair MacLeod had outplaced himself after Harto redesigned his job.

On the Brazilian busesBUS-MAKING Melbourne family the Grendas called out ''Marco'', and their investment banker, UBS, has returned with the answer ''Polo'' - Brazil's Marcopolo.

The Brazilian group was a surprise entrant in the sale process of the Grendas' Volgren bus-building operation, and is believed to have agreed to pay close to $100 million. Insider estimated last month that the business might sell for $600 million, showing why he is not an investment banker.

The family disposed of its eponymous suburban bus line to a fellow family-owned business, Ventura, for about $400 million in November.

Selling the business has been a difficult decision for a family that prided itself on how it treated its workers - so much so that the staff were all called together and informed of the plan, rather than letting them hear second-hand.

It is quite probable that what clinched the deal was that, in spite of Marcopolo being publicly listed and the original shareholders having reduced their grip, the Brazilians identified with the family-run operation. Paulo Bellini, who led the foundation of Marcopolo in 1949, is still its chairman.

The Grenda family will retain a 25 per cent stake in the Volgren operation, which Insider believes is part of earn-out arrangements over the next three years.

Marcopolo, listed in Brazil with a market worth of about $A1.7 billion, was last seen with an estimated global production of 30,000 buses - which probably means that it churns out as many buses in a day as Volgren does in a year.

It is thought the buyer wants to use the Australian operation as a launching pad into parts of Asia.

It already has a components plant in China and a joint venture with India's Tata.

Experts in euthanasiaAS USUAL, readers of ASX announcements are almost the last to know what is happening with a company once it slides into any form of insolvency.

In the case of the defunct Prime Trust, motto ''Experts in Retirement'', it took until last night for the market to be formally informed of something that happened three weeks ago - its corporate shell is being euthanased by liquidators.

Prime Trust, chaired by former federal health minister Michael Wooldridge, fell over a year ago after a series of suspensions while it tried to renegotiate more than $300 million of bank debts.

It sold off its retirement villages to try to clear the books, but the queue of unrequited, unsecured unitholders is believed to have been even larger.

insider@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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