A CEO gone, a new one gained, a new director and a new deputy chairman.
Big changes in the Packer empire at PBL as Terry Television reports.
Years ago in a Hollywood classic Jimmy Stewart had as a friend, a white
rabbit called Harvey that no one else could see. ‘Harvey’ was also the
name of the movie. Plenty of people have seen the movie. Not many have
seen Peter Yates, especially at PBL.

And from today he’s been even lower-profiled. He’s gone, out the door,
no doubt with a nice payment based on his salary last year of more than
$2 million. Yates was a CEO who had no profile, certainly lower
than his nominal deputy, John Alexander.

Now ‘Harvey’ Yates is gone, Alexander is king. Kerry Packer becomes
deputy chairman of the company, ostensibly to be guided by his son,
James who is executive chairman.

Chris ‘Hans Christian’ Anderson from Optus, joins the board , reunited
once again with his editor and fellow journalist from Fairfax days, the
new CEO of PBL, JA.

Alexander remains CEO of ACP, but relinquishes that role at Nine
Network to David Gyngell, just as the network is losing serious ground
in the vital six to seven pm news and current affairs slot to the Seven
Network and former Nine managers, David Leckie and Peter Meakin.
The ambitious David Gardiner will be deputy CEO of ACP, and in reality
the CEO, with Alexander’s time absorbed by being CEO of the parent
company, and having to get up to speed on the gaming business.

All in all the biggest changes at the top of PBL since 1994 when ACP
and Nine were combined to from a company called Publishing and
Broadcasting.

And they raise the question, what else is to come? What does Kerry
Packer taking the deputy’s role really mean? Who else will follow Yates
out the door?

‘Harvey’ Yates becomes the second PBL CEO to be marched in three years,
the last being Nick Falloon, now executive chairman of the Ten
Network. Falloon was sacked by James Packer because he was tired of
Nick’s conservatism and reluctance to go any deeper into OneTel.
Falloon was right, James Packer was wrong to the tune of $400 million
of the company’s money.

So why has Yates walked? Nothing to do with Alexander running the two
‘sexy’ businesses of TV and Magazines. Rowan Craigie was running Crown
very well and making it more than pay its way. Yates had meetings to
chair, internal processes to streamline and some minor investment
decisions to make – all ‘rats and mice’ compared to the main games at
PBL. Last year’s purchase of a third stake in Seek.com – the online
employment agency, a few other small deals, the company’s cash position
was his to fret over, but not use. And then recently he got to bid for
Burswood Casino in WA.

It was widely expected, made at a slim premium, and has gone nowhere.

TabCorp from Melbourne also had trouble with its bid for TAB of NSW,
winning out in the end, but it was a more strategic play. The PBL offer for
Burswood, while an interesting offer, doesn’t have the obvious sense
that Tabcorp’s move on TAB did.

That showed up Yates’s thinking to the Packers.

The question now must be, was this a serious bid and will PBL persist?
Without Yates and his gaming experience, that’s doubtful now that the
Perth-based company is proving difficult to catch.

James Packer had a lot to say about future strategy in that now famous
interview with the West Australian where he outlined a future in which
gaming played a big, big part.

Peter Yates was part of his education in gaming and in corporate
management. Little mention was made of the media, and
Fairfax and newspapers were mentioned only in passing. Obviously something’s changed since then.

What else? Well Yates has driven, with Alexander’s support, a radical
streamlining of PBL’s internal processes, especially the use of
Peoplesoft platforms in differing areas of the business. That has been
a time consuming and problematic experience for the group and its
employees.

The revamp of the payroll system and its replacementment with ‘Kiosk’, a one
size fits all approach to employee benefits and the like, has been a
disaster.

In March, Yates hosted a function at PBL to celebrate the successful
integration of the Nine and ACP payroll systems. A week later a
high-level management meeting called in consultants to try and sort out
the problems. These included wrong payments, no notification of
employee departures, not answering the many queries from staff and part
time employees about missing payments, pay gone into wrong bank
accounts.The list goes on and on.

Kiosk was not operating today.

Some people have been threatening legal action, such has been the
confusion and pain the botched integration has caused. James
Packer said in his farewell comment about Yates. “He has brought
the PBL group businesses together which has allowed us to capitalise on
the scale of the company”.

Well, judging from the stories about the integration of the pay system
and the headaches and extra work caused by Peoplesoft and related
systems, that’s a bit of nonsense so far as ordinary employees are
concerned. Kerry Packer, the new Deputy chairman, thanked Yates for
what he called “his leadership”.

Well if having a profile like ‘Harvey’ means leadership, then John
Alexander, another executive notorious for his unwillingness to expose
himself to public scrutiny, must be “the Invisible Man” to quote
another Hollywood classic.

That’s in public. In private Alexander is an assiduous networker,
emailer and micro-manager, but careful to delegate and insists on
responsibility while still driving the process. That way, he can avoid
blame for any problems and bask in the glory of success. ACP is one of
the latter where he’s done good work and reaped huge gains in
efficiencies and earnings.

Nine is one of the former where Alexander pushed change into the
network, but has avoided any responsibility for the problems in News
and ACA for example, where he was a prime driver of new people, such as
Paul Barry and Ray Martin, new looks and new executives, such as news
and current affairs head, Jim Rudder, who is also seen by many at Nine
as a Gyngell responsibility.

Becoming CEO means he will have fulfilled an ambition and in reality
it’s no wonder as Kerry Packer was heard to say a few years ago that
Alexander was the best media executive he (Packer) had seen.

High praise from a man regarded as probably the best and most
instinctive TV owner in this country. Certainly better than his son.

So why has Kerry Packer become Deputy chairman? Is there another move,
with his son disappearing overseas like Kerry’s brother Clyde did back
in the 70’s to avoid the pressure and presence from his more aggressive
sibling?

Some observers of Packerdom have seen a similarity in the situation
between James and his father and Kerry and Clyde. Probably fanciful but
nothing at PBL is done without a reason for it to happen,
especially on the board.

Kerry Packer made James executive chairman and withdrew to become an
ordinary director (well, in his eyes ). Then he got ill, which left the
company more in James’ hands. Then OneTel happened and Kerry was forced
back into the limelight and into taking responsibility for the
rebuilding of the company’s reputation as a steady, reliable,
earnings-driven media group.

Peter Yates was found and Kerry famously hosted lunches for big
investors with the message ‘I am here, I may be ill, but I am here and
the company will go on.’

Then he pulled back again as Yates and Alexander took control, only to
flex his power at New Year in 2002 when he called David Leckie back
from his holidays and fired him, setting in train a big re-organisation
of the media side. Alexander rose, David Gyngell was promoted and after
several months of peace, people started following Leckie out the door.

And Kerry Packer continued to drive the changes, especially at Nine,
expressing sorrow at losing Peter Meakin (the plan was to make him a
consultant after sacking him, just like they have done with Paul Fenn,
the former Sydney news boss).

Now Nine is facing its biggest challenge for years from a suddenly
stronger Seven in the news and current affairs area. It’s not something
the Packers are used to dealing with. Lots of yelling and phone
slamming is the way the situation has been dealt with in the past, with
some pointed remarks to executives about performance, including plenty of
expletives.

With Yates gone, you’d have to say the Burswood offer won’t be lifted
and won’t be extended, leaving PBL to mull over the next move.
And yet in that West Australian interview, that’s all James Packer
could talk about was the future of gaming and the importance of
Burswood.

Fairfax could be back on the cards. With Alexander, an editor twice
over, and Chris Anderson, a former senior editorial executive and CEO,
the punters will be piling into Fairfax, convinced that it’s back on the
Packers’ shopping list. Anderson will also bring telco experience to the board after his successes
at Optus.

Certainly staff at Fairfax widely believe that Alexander is returning
to buy and run them (and sack a few). So why haven’t more than a
couple of people signed up for the current, curious redundancy
scheme at Fairfax?

Peter Fray

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