Meeting misses the big picture

WA’S major media company, WA Newspapers Holdings, is set to announce the appointment of a new managing director before the end of the year, ending more than 12 months of speculation.

Not that shareholders seemed to care when told the news by chairman Trevor Eastwood at the company’s annual meeting last week.

While a few gasps were emitted at Mr Eastwood’s revelation that advertising columns were the lowest the company had endured since listing, the question time routine at the company’s AGM continued to fixate on the minutiae of concerns about flagship masthead The West Australian.

Issues such as the size of the typeface and whether or not the newspaper folded well were revived at the meeting.

Shareholder Leo Croll reeled off a list of story ideas he believed the newspaper had missed, including a recommendation by the Bulletin magazine a year ago that failed retailer Harris Scarfe was a top buy for the year.

“Now there’s a story,” Mr Croll said.

Meanwhile the $1 million bonus to outgoing managing director Denis Thompson prompted comment from just one shareholder, a bit of criticism from civil libertarian Brian Tennant.

“I take your point,” Mr Eastwood said.

“I hope I am long gone before the next chief executive retires.”

While Mr Eastwood qualified his statement to assure the audience he meant “gone” from the board, the tenure of Mr Thompson’s leadership has certainly set a precedent for longevity.

Mr Thompson retires in January after 10 years in the job and after giving 14 months’ notice.

After the meeting, Mr Eastwood was reluctant to talk about how wide the company’s search for a chief was or what brief was given.

While it was unfortunate that none of the shareholders asked what the company was looking for in a new leader, or what direction the media group might take, Mr Eastwood provided a hint in answering a question on the scale of dividends and the possibility of smoothing them.

The WAN chairman said the board saw the company as “having some sort of likeness to a utility” with earnings, which were unlikely to be wiped out through competition.

“In the absence of investment opportunities to spend our earnings in a manner which would give you the shareholders a satisfactory return on investment, we have decided to return the money to the share-holders,” Mr Eastwood said.

“That could change significantly if we find something that we thought would be a very good investment.”

Perhaps Mr Eastwood is giving the green light to the new blood coming into the company to do something that hasn’t been done in any significant way – make an acquisition?

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