The outgoing chief executive of Fairfax Media Greg Hywood did look like a relieved man after shareholders voted in favour of the merger with Nine on Monday this week. It was a result that surprised no one, yet it was another step in the process to complete the media deal.
At the AGM, which followed the shareholder vote, Hywood delivered a speech that highlighted the success of the various divisions and their key executives. He received a warm round of applause, which is about as sentimental as AGMs usually get.
At the end of the AGM, Hywood lingered on stage talking to people who wanted to shake his hand and engage in a few moments with the man who guided the media company for eight years, critically shaping its future.
When Hywood finally exited the meeting room, he headed for the Domain café area and grabbed a couple of the chicken sandwiches on offer, again chatting to shareholders and interested observers.
It was here that Fairfax spoke for a few minutes with Mediaweek. He has been a key feature of our print and virtual pages over his journey. Hopefully this won’t be the final time.
What does the future hold for you? Do you have any appetite left for business?
I like business and this has been an incredible eight years. This would have to be one of the most fascinating business opportunities and challenges you could ever have.
There was a systemic threat to the [Fairfax] business and we as a group had to think our way through it.
That is probably what I am most proud of – the fact we did think our way through and we took some pretty unconventional decisions. We confronted the circulation myth. We were able to turn around the business by revealing how many people actually buy and read the paper, not focusing on how many we produce. We didn’t want to try to pretend we had a circulation number that we didn’t. That enabled us to get out of the big [printing] plants and save a lot of cost.
Our Google partnership is important, thinking how we can work with them instead of denying their existence.
We also had to think our way through the level of backend resource we needed in the business as distinct from focusing on our front end reporting.
Moving from print to digital is obviously really important.
Creating Domain, which was almost lost in the business and was not getting the love and attention it deserved, was also important.
It was not just about cutting costs. A lot of people have focused on Fairfax as big cost cutters. We didn’t get to where we are by cutting costs. That was an important part of giving us time and making the business more efficient.
It was the growth of businesses like Domain and Stan that really came through for us.
Nine sees a real opportunity in better monetising the Fairfax Media assets. Can it make the assets more attractive to advertisers?
There are several dimensions to this. Scale does matter. The ability to provide solutions right across the board is important. Using what Fairfax has done and extending that to Nine and the big FTA audience are really critical.
The radio business and the synergies with Nine in terms of talent and backend make sense and Stan will benefit from having a single shareholder. Put all those together and you will get a very robust media business.
We identified some years ago the best outcome for our business and our shareholders was to be part of a bigger merged group. We were early in lobbying and pushing really hard for media law reform to make it possible. We saw that as a strategic decision for our business to get that up. Other businesses saw it as perhaps a short-term benefit here or there.
Did you ever get close on any other mergers?
We always said we would talk to anybody at any time. Ultimately it is who puts the deal on the table.
We had serious discussions with a range of partners over the years. This was the one that came to fruition.
Is it right to report you look a little more relieved today?
There are always mixed emotions. In a sense it feels like a job well done, but you are leaving a team of people who have done a wonderful job. It’s also a business that has been part of my life since I was 21.
It is time to hand the baton to the new generation and when we got Chris Janz [MD Australian metro publishing] and James Chessell [group executive editor] into their current jobs we said, “This is your generation’s opportunity now. Grab it and run with it.”
I have been lucky enough to be part of it, but it is their turn. I am really pleased that these guys are taking Fairfax from here.
Some staff seem to have a love-hate relationship with the person who was a former colleague, now CEO, who made some pretty tough decisions.
We carefully always thought through decisions and looked at the options. The big issue was always maintaining the viability of the mastheads.
It is a public company and we created shareholder value, but we knew we had to maintain masthead viability and we have.
Not only that – if you look at them now they are a global phenomenon The Age, The SMH and The Australian Financial Review. They are getting revenue growth. We are past the point of getting earnings growth through cost out, the mastheads are now getting revenue growth and that is extraordinary. There are not many mastheads around the world, in markets this size, that are achieving that.
There is speculation Nine might sell some of the assets. Would you like to see the group remain intact?
There are options for the new business. I think it appropriate that Nine reviews the mix of the assets and then makes a call about what it should do.
What would you like to do next?
I am just going to have a break. There are lots of things I can do and I’ll make a call later. I have grandchildren I would like to see more of, family I would like to see more of and I would like to do a bit of travel – the sort of things people do after a long career.
I will engage with something, but I haven’t made any decisions yet.
Could we ever see a Greg Hywood byline again?
Anything is possible.