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New CEO fights conservative tag

INCOMING WA Newspapers Holdings chief executive officer Ian Law believes he has more to offer than just the cost cutting credentials with which he was labelled following his unexpected appointment last week.

Speaking to Business News from his holiday retreat in rural Victoria, Mr Law said his recent experience as the head of Rural Press’s regional publications had involved him both in significant acquisition work and revenue growth at major titles.

With the market long critical of WAN’s performance in both these fields, the company’s board has faced considerable criticism for the appointment, which was seen by many as unimaginative.

Outgoing CEO Denis Thompson reportedly considered the appointment as an indicator that the WAN board would continue to tread the conservative path by employing someone without mergers and acquisitions ability.

But Mr Law rejects these tags, claiming to have played a big role overseeing hundreds of millions of dollars of acquisitions and their integration into Rural Press, including that of the Canberra Times, which is one of the many assets WAN failed to buy during the past decade.

Mr Law said Rural Press had grown earnings for the Canberra Times through a mixture of revenue growth and cost controls without reducing the numbers of sales staff and journalists.

“I am making the point that cost savings are in other areas,” he said.

“As a result we have circulation gains in Canberra when other papers are going the other way.

“I am very strong on benchmarking of performances in the manufacturing process – we are manufacturing at the end of the day.”

But many observers of the Canberra Times and other Rural Press operations, including the agricultural publications division Mr Law used to head, have found the cost cutting culture to be severe.

This concerns analysts such as Paterson Ord Minnett’s Robert Gee, who believes there is not much fat to cut out of WAN, which publishes The West Australian, after years of focus on making the company lean.

“Realistically, that is what the business has been about for the past five years,” Mr Gee said.

“What is the new guy going to do?

“I think everyone was thinking the new managing director would be a corporate type well known to other media operators and who will wheel and deal and come up with a translation in 2003 on the back of changes to media laws.”

Mr Law was not prepared to talk in detail about what he might have planned for WAN or what was discussed during the interview process, but he did offer the possibility of acquisition moves in the future.

“The West is a very profitable business and we are hoping to make it more profitable,” he said.

“Everyone goes on about cost control, what we talk about is detail.

“The drive is not about costs, it’s about getting extra revenue. You have to drive both.

“The next stage is what new opportunities we can pursue to grow the business using the very strong balance sheet of WAN.

“The first rule must be to make the business you have today perform to its maximum capacity, then explore with all vigour growth opportunities through all means.

“My experience is the end result is an outcome from a lot of small issues.

“The devil is in the detail. If I have a strength it is in managing the detail.

“At the same time I can show broader initiatives.

“The evidence is in Canberra, where we drove that business to significantly higher levels.”

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