Voelte paves the way for Seven's next emperor

As he did at Seven West, Don Voelte may play a pinch-hitting role at Seven Group which will set the scene for the rise of Kerry Stokes' ultimate successor.

When Don Voelte completed his brief but effective stint as chief executive of Seven West Media and a more conventional television executive in Tim Worner was anointed his successor it appeared the executive leadership of Kerry Stokes’ empire had been settled.

Today, however, Stokes announced that Voelte, who appeared to have been returned to his former role as a non-executive director of Seven West, has been appointed managing director and chief executive of Seven Group Holdings.

The real significance in that appointment lies in who he succeeds – Peter Gammell, Stokes’ trusted right-hand-man for more than 20 years. Gammell will continue as a director of Seven West and Stokes said he would now concentrate on strategy and business development. There were discussions occurring about the creation of a role in which Gammell would report directly to Stokes and the Seven Group board.

Gammell himself related the decision to step down as chief executive and a director of Seven Group to the more than two decades that he had spent as a "commuting executive from Perth".

In effect, in the space of less than a fortnight, Stokes has overseen a generational change in his group’s leadership, although today’s decision might appear odd in that context, given that Voelte is a 60-year-old.

Voelte’s short tenure as Seven West’s chief executive, while the appointment was unexpected when made, was understandable given the health issues that had affected David Leckie, the key figure in Seven’s rise to domination of the commercial television sector. Voelte, a former director of West Australian Newspapers, was on the Seven West board and trusted by Stokes as a safe and experienced pair of hands.

Voelte quickly re-based Seven West’s costs, helped develop a set of longer term growth strategies and gave Stokes time to decide on a permanent replacement. Worner, having risen through the ranks over nearly 20 years at Seven to become chief executive of its broadcast TV business, was a logical choice.

With Gammell wanting to step back from the day-to-day grind at Seven Group, it perhaps isn’t as surprising that Stokes has again turned to Voelte, the former chief executive of Woodside Petroleum, to fill the vacuum.

In fact it is probably a more obvious fit for Voelte than Seven West, where he will become deputy chairman.

Seven Group, apart from its 35 per cent interest in Seven West, owns the WesTrac Caterpillar franchises, 45 per cent or so of Coates Hire (which Seven Group and its private equity partner Carlyle Group are seeking to sell), a big portfolio of investments and the best part of $500 million of cash mainly generated by the sale of its interest in Consolidated Media Holdings to News Corporation last year.

Given WesTrac’s exposure to the resources sector, it fits better within Voelte’s range of executive experiences than the television and newspaper industry, where there is as much intuition as conventional management skills required.

Voelte’s appointment may again be relatively short-lived, with a brief to position WesTrac for the downturn in the resources sector and the slowdown in China (where WesTrac has a big presence), to oversee the divestment of Coates and to map out a strategy for deploying the mountain of cash Seven Group would then have (Coates has been valued at more than $3 billion) before handing the group over to a successor.

There is a very obvious successor waiting in the wings. Last year Stokes appointed his son, Ryan, chief operating officer for Seven Group. The younger Stokes is also chief finanical officer of Australian Capital Equity, the family’s private company, and a director of Seven West.

His careful and steady elevation through the group’s ranks appears designed to ensure that he is properly prepared to eventually take over the reins of the group from his father, with a stint as chief executive of Seven Group – after Voelte has completed his term – an obvious penultimate posting.

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