Good Weekend’s profile of PBL CEO John Alexander was tough but could have been ever tougher.

I Just loved the profile of PBL bad boy, John Alexander in Saturday’s Good Weekend magazine in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

Some will say that all that was missing was the rose petals scattered down the path to the Fairfax headquarters in Sydney from PBL up in Park Street. Others will argue that it was perhaps a little too harsh, too indulgent. A little too Sydney with lifestyle anecdotes rather than more substantive issues.

And that’s Alexander’s biggest selling point in the media: the polarisation of views about himself personally and workwise.

Fair the article was, but it didn’t bring out the way Alexander has networked himself in the Sydney business community, with people like Roger Corbett of Woolworths, Fairfax director Julia King, Geoff Dixon at Qantas, union buster Chris Corrigan at Patrick and a host of other movers and shakers in the Emerald City.

There were enough stories, good, bad and indifferent for it to be judged ‘fair’ and one Alexander won’t object to. Curious too was the joint byline between Jane Cadzow and John Huxley, the latter a journalist whose career flourished when Alexander was running the SMH.

But what I liked were the stories of his taste and style, which are legendary. There was the interior decorator who keeps working at Alexander’s inner Eastern suburbs top floor apartment, describing it as a ‘work in progress’ seeking the right white leather (a shade particularly loved by JA) for a particular lounge. That sounds like the house painter character from Murphy Brown.

Alexander was portrayed as a collector with “eclectic tastes” in music, art and books, clothes. A man who could tell a dining companion the breeding and manufacturing history of the other’s tie!

“He can tell you where to get the best pair of cashmere socks, or the best cheese grater. In fact he wants you to go there and get it immediately,” was one quote. (or get a staffer, especially a personal assistant, to get it if he hasn’t got it or experienced it).

There’s a particularly illuminating story told of an argument over lunch between Alexander and magazine publisher Pat Dasey, over whether Italian or Spanish anchovies were superior!

But nothing about how the staff at the SMH and ACP have to make do with cheap tea, coffee and biscuits, while Alexander (at the SMH at least), had his pricey herbal and other teas, off expenses.

Former Nine and now Seven News and Current Affairs boss, Peter Meakin repeated a nice line that “he (Alexander) impressed me as being extremely intelligent, meticulous – and very small. He looked like he’d spent the first half of his life on a charm bracelet.”

Former Nine Finance Editor, Michael Pascoe’s (sacked by Alexander in 2003) comment in a Sunday Sunrise broadcast earlier this year that for Alexander to go any further at PBL than CEO, he “would have to get Kerry (Packer) to adopt him. I wonder if he’s working on it”.

Nice line, along with one from former SMH journalist, David Dale that at the end of an hour discussion with Alexander you were never certain if Alexander was “thinking of promoting you or plotting to have you eliminated. Nobody has ever seen him drunk.”

A comment from publisher, Craig Osment sort of sums him up (he’s the person whose tie Alexander had identified!): “He’s extraordinarily observant in that respect”. As for shoes – “he can pick a pair of J.P.Tods from 50 paces”.

Tods, the writers explain, are very expensive Italian loafers, apparently.

Sydney radio star Alan Jones says “he (Alexander) is up to speed on everything” A lovely gush from the Parrot.

Former 60 Minutes Executive Producer, Gerald Stone, now a board member at SBS, was tougher. Thankfully. He said a decision to leave Mike Munro hanging for months and then letting him find about his replacement with Ray Martin (whom Alexander recruited) by reading it in the newspapers. “That’s about as cruel as you can get in this industry. And I think that appears to be Alexander’s style.”

And that was probably the most direct criticism in the entire article.

The piece quite rightly mentions the turnaround he’s engineered at ACP, the magazines part of the Packer empire. But there his capacity for ruthlessness and favouritism is well-known.

There’s a saying in Packerdom that Alexander can as easily fall out of love with you as he can fall in love with you. His playing of the ins and outs among his reports and staff is now PBL folklore.

But as David Marr from Media Watch and a former good Fairfax journalist (at the SMH and National Times) quite rightly pointed out that Alexander was a very good editor with some good skills (and some mordant wit and capacity for some black observations on some news subjects). Just poor people skills, which puts him in a long list of media managers. A strange, strange thing considering how important people and their creativity and talents are to the media.

But what does come through in the article is how totally unsuited he was to television. Television is a great leveller when it comes to managers and talent. Identifying men’s ties or the right cashmere sock or firewood, or cost cut does not make you a good manager in television.

It does in magazines, especially in some of the upmarket lifestyle areas. But there is a huge difference between Gourmet Traveller, Men’s Style or cost cuts and the success of The Block, or ACA or the 6pm News.

There was no mention of Alexander’s fastidious approach to writing, especially memos and emails and stories. Nor was there any contemplation or discussion about whether Alexander, for all his cultured approach to life, is suited to running a company whose major growth area is now gaming and gambling in as many forms as possible.

Crown Casino and its Lloyd Williams view of high Melbourne culture, doesn’t sit easily with Alexander’s almost prissy approach to living.
It’s one thing to clip the westies of Melbourne and others who gamble at Crown, its a different matter entirely to admit they keep him and his Packer mentors in the style they have been accustomed to.