Worner to raise the stakes at Seven
Seven West Media's second-largest shareholder, the private equity group KKR, successfully put its 12 per cent stake up for auction late Tuesday with an asking price 7¢ below the company's closing price for the session - a sign of continued tough times for the media industry.
The KKR stake is a legacy from the $4 billion buyout of the company's television and magazine assets back in the 2006 boom times. But the holding has dwindled in size due to various corporate restructurings and a partial sell down in 2011.
The precise timing of last night's move was dictated by the resignation of Seven West Media's chief executive Don Voelte. The deal was put on hold until Voelte's departure was announced.
Voelte is leaving his post a little earlier than expected.
He was for Kerry Stokes what Al "Chainsaw" Dunlap was for the late Kerry Packer. Voelte was the tough-guy cost-cutter put into Seven to inject financial discipline.
There is still plenty to do at Australia's best-performing network to recalibrate the business, so either Voelte got impatient or Stokes thought he had done enough to be able to hand on the rest of the execution of Seven's new strategy to long-time executive Tim Worner.
Seven West Media is on track to take out $100 million in costs. But there will need to be more over time as the broader industry continues to face the pressures of negative cyclical and structural forces. Seven is the best house but in a lousy street. (And Nine is working very hard at renovating its program and financial performance.)
Voelte was never going stay in an executive role at Seven, but putting him in the job as chief executive for just a year has to be considered unusual.
But billionaire media moguls don't always follow the usual protocols and conventions when it comes to running a business, and this includes how they deal with succession.
Seven West Media's ultimate controlling shareholder, Stokes, is no exception. Having said this, the appointment of Worner to the top job should be well received.
Other companies might have appointed Worner a year ago and brought in management consultants to work on the cost restructuring - but these hired guns only make recommendations that management then needs to execute.
It is easier for Voelte as an outsider to make the tough decisions - he has no Seven history and no baggage. And as an appointed chief executive (rather than an interim chief executive) he had a real mandate to make changes.
At the time of Voelte's appointment the investment community was puzzled by this left-field appointment. Worner was then head of Seven's broadcast television.
Over the past couple of years management changes at Seven West have been a bit haphazard. Some of this can be laid at Stokes' feet but some comes with a bit of bad luck.
Stokes can be blamed for allowing David Leckie to stay too long - despite his knowing his ability was compromised by his health. Leckie has been one of the best executives the television industry has seen and made Stokes a lot of money. Stokes knew Leckie's time was up but was reluctant to move him on.
In 2011 Stokes had been grooming another television executive, James Warburton, to replace Leckie. But Warburton was too impatient to wait and instead took an offer to run rival network, Ten.
Within a year Warburton had been sacked by Ten's chairman, Lachlan Murdoch, and Leckie had moved to a non-executive position on the board of Seven West's parent company Seven Group, where he has a title but no real job.
Worner was next in line, but Stokes decided to put Voelte in the top role to inject "business discipline" and take the lead role in recommending his successor.
Like game show Survivor, there was a list of chief executives on Seven's management island; one would ultimately win the title.
Voelte confirmed the company sought no applications from outside but he would not say how many internal candidates were considered.
Ten recently moved outside the industry to find a replacement for Warburton while Nine's senior management has been stable for several years under David Gyngell.
The stated view in Seven was it had the best team and there was no point casting the net wider. While Worner was the most obvious choice, Rohan Lund, who had been elevated to the role of chief operating officer, was also a contender. He is now one of two in the box seat to replace Worner as head of TV.
Kurt Burnette is the only other Seven executive who would be considered to have a chance to take this prime position.
Having outlined at least part of the Seven West Media succession plan Stokes may be called on to outline the future governance of its parent, Seven Group.
There have been signs his son Ryan is being groomed for elevation beyond chief operating officer to the chief executive role.
While this is not surprising the timing of this move is now coming into question. Media speculation that long-term Stokes lieutenant Peter Gammell could be ready to move on is gaining momentum. A recent, strategically placed profile of Ryan in a national magazine points to attempts by Seven Group to ease his progression into a bigger role in the company.