Mark Day has an interesting piece in the media section of The Australian
today about Fairfax’s failure to find a new chief executive – almost a
year after incumbent CEO Fred Hilmer announced he was “stepping down”.

“A worldwide search for a successor has failed,” writes Day, “and it is
increasingly likely that Hilmer will now stay on until at least the end
of the year”. And this knife-twister: “The Fairfax board’s failure to
execute a succession plan is embarrassing and remarkable; embarrassing
because the board has clearly not met its stated goals and remarkable
because, after a year of searching hither and yon, no-one suitable or
willing can be found inside or outside the company to take on one of
the top jobs in Australian publishing”.

But Day buried the lead. The real nub of the story is towards the end
when he refers to the appointment on 30 March of long-time Fairfax
manager Brian Evans as the company’s chief operating officer – and
quotes an unnamed observer who says that the appointment is “consistent
with a strategy Dean Wills [the Fairfax chairman] has used before: to
bring someone in very close so that he can have a good look at him for
six months or so before confirming him in a job. It’s only a short hop
from COO to CEO and, if Hilmer is prepared to stay until the end of the
year, that looks like being the most likely outcome.”

And that confirms the scenario Crikey has been hearing since Evans’s
appointment as COO. He’ll be the next Fairfax CEO, but the board didn’t
have the confidence (or knowledge or guts) to give him the job straight
out. Which only goes to prove that if there’s a right way and a wrong
way to do something, Fairfax will almost always choose the wrong way –
especially when it involves a minor decision like appointing the next
CEO to steer the company through what is likely to be the most
difficult passage in its 170+ year history.

Peter Fray

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