David Parkin on a company that lacks vision, the Domino effect and becoming a dealmaker

YOU may have missed it, but there is currently a battle raging around the future direction of regional newspaper publisher Johnston Press.

The group, which owns the Yorkshire Post and the Scotsman, is the second largest publisher of local newspapers in the UK.

And it is valued on the stock market at less than £14m.

But should you be tempted to spend your Euromillions win on acquiring your own newspaper group then you will also be responsible for the £220m in debts that it currently owes.

They are a legacy of previous management teams whose ambition was undimmed by the oncoming cloud of the internet which saw newspapers’ traditional revenue streams from car, property, display and classified advertising disappear onto the worldwide web.

In response to this JP recruited Ashley Highfield as its chief executive six years ago. He was seen as something of a digital visionary having worked at the BBC and Microsoft.

But working for a publicly subsidised broadcaster and a multi-national computer corporation didn’t equip Highfield with the skills to tackle the challenges that a 200-year-old publisher faced and he has resorted to doing what every other UK newspaper group has done in the face of falling sales – cut costs to try to keep margins up.

Since 2013 Johnston Press has paid its board of directors £6.4m during a period when the company’s valuation has dropped from £100m to £14m.

You think it would be enough for shareholders to perhaps look for someone to take the business in a new direction.

But no, like a football team heading for relegation and its manager refusing to play a different way, JP has taken no clear action, paralysed by its enormous debt pile.

Why do I know all this?

Well, I’m a shareholder in Johnston Press.

Given that the several thousand pounds I saved in an employee share scheme during my time at the Yorkshire Post is now worth barely 200 quid, perhaps calling myself a shareholder is a bit fanciful.

The shares were worth over £5 each during my time with the firm. After I left they collapsed to 5p, although I don’t think my departure in 2007 had anything to do with that.

In 2014 the company launched a share reorganisation, consolidating every 10 shares into one, worth at that time, well over £1 each.

They currently stand at 13p each.

In anybody’s book, that is a shambles and would be fair to think the management of the company might carry the can for it.

But they haven’t and nobody appeared to raise an eyebrow.

Until this summer, when an activist shareholder called Christen Ager-Hanssen, a Norwegian investor who owns the Metro newspaper in Sweden, acquired a chunk of shares in Johnston Press.

He has since become the group’s second largest shareholder with a 12.6% stake and wants to oust the group’s chairman Camilla Rhodes and install newspaper industry veteran Steve Auckland on the group’s board in a bid to take it in a new direction.

The move has caused much comment in press circles and JP shares which have been going south quicker than a swallow come September, have shown a flicker of response – I think I could buy a quarter of a pound of mint imperials on the back of the rise in my shareholding – for the first time in years.

You might think the board of Johnston Press would see all this activity as positive.

In Christen Ager-Hanssen, here is a man who has new ideas for the future of newspapers.

God knows, the old ones don’t work.

Instead JP is using a “poison pill” defence, making use of a “dead hand proxy put” in the agreement with its bondholders to whom it owes £220m which means that if shareholders attempt to appoint new directors then the company is liable to repay its debts immediately, something that it can’t afford.

I’ve never met Christen Ager-Hanssen but his favoured candidate for a possible future CEO of JP is the aforementioned Steve Auckland, who was managing director of the Yorkshire Post for some of the time that I worked there.

Auckland was a great boss to work for: tough but fair, he had vision but respected other opinions and he let managers’ manage.

He went on from there to become CEO of the Metro free newspaper then ran the Daily Mail group’s Northcliffe local newspaper business and engineered the creation of the Local World newspaper group before leaving to become chief executive of the parent group of the Evening Standard and Independent.

Who knows whether Ager-Hanssen can get his way with Johnston Press.

But I sense my meagre shareholding would have less chance of completely evaporating if him and Auckland were guiding the future of Johnston Press, rather than the current set of visionless clowns sitting around the boardroom table.


FAREWELL then Fats Domino.

Only Elvis Presley beat the big man from New Orleans when it came to record sales from the mid 1950s to the early 1960s, but even he deferred to Fats when asked who was the King of Rock n’ Roll.

In all the coverage of the death of rock pioneer Antoine “Fats” Domino Jr at the age of 89 this week, I was struck by a photograph from the front of a theatre in late 1950s America where the disc jockey Alan Freed was appearing with a “holiday of stars”.

Top of a bill which included the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Paul Anka, the Crickets and Danny and the Juniors was Fats Domino.

He scored more hit records than legends Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Buddy Holly put together.

He co-wrote many of his hits with Dave Bartholomew, a fellow Louisiana native who was a bandleader, musician and record producer who is still going at the age of 96 and also wrote the novelty song My Ding-a-ling which was later recorded by Chuck Berry and, somewhat surprisingly, was his only number one hit in the United States.

Fats Domino is perhaps best known for the hits Blueberry Hill and Ain’t That a Shame but one of my favourites is Walking to New Orleans for the sheer simplicity of its rhythm, beat and lyrics.

Standing at 5ft 5in and weighing in at 220lbs, Domino was perhaps an unlikely rock star, but with his pomaded hair, sharp suits and big diamond rings he led the way for future generations of performers, becoming one of the first black artists whose records sold to blacks and whites alike in an America scarred by segregation.

Now he’s gone and Ain’t That A Shame but he’s gone to his Blue Heaven.


WITH the hugely successful Great Yorkshire Show running for three days every summer, the Yorkshire Agricultural Society could easily sit back on its laurels.

But the organisation hasn’t done that and last weekend held Countryside Live, a two-day celebration of outdoor life, on the Great Yorkshire Showground.

This year the event partnered with Channel 5, brining in the stars of the TV show The Yorkshire Vet and a children’s area featuring the channel’s kids TV programme Milkshake!

I don’t really watch The Yorkshire Vet but seeing the two main vets on the show, Peter Wright and Julian Norton, interviewed on an outdoor stage by presenter Georgey Spanswick, I warmed quickly to their ego-less down-to-earth Yorkshire approach to the world.

It makes a refreshing change to the legions of talentless wannabes who queue up to try to make their name on reality TV shows.

WE’VE just launched the Big Ticket, an event that celebrates the corporate finance community in Yorkshire and raises a lot of money for cancer charity Maggie’s.

I have to say I never really appreciated the talents of dealmakers until last weekend.

Having taken delivery of a fantastic new Mercedes from Harrogate-based leasing company Synergy, the only downside was that I had to sell my own car privately.

I put an advert in Autotrader and on Saturday evening received a phone call from a man in the Republic of Ireland who, after asking me a few questions about the vehicle, said he would fly into Leeds Bradford Airport the following morning and buy the car with cash.

Boom! Kerching! I immediately thought, before spending a sleepless night wondering if this was too good to be true and searching how to spot counterfeit money on the Bank of England website.

The following morning I parked up in the short stay car park at Leeds Bradford Airport then leaned nonchalantly on the side of my car, affecting a pose I remember that Ray Liotta and Joe Pesci did when waiting for a big deal in the film Goodfellas.

The only difference is that given the wind and rain lashing the airport car park, the hood of my Peter Storm cagoule kept blowing in my face.

But I sold the car and the cash was “clean” (as we say in big business).

I then went back home, got a good night’s sleep and concluded that perhaps the world of high stakes dealmaking isn’t quite for me.

Have a great weekend.


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