The
Westfield faction on the John Fairfax board is finally going, going,
gone and it’s not before time. The faction comprises CEO Fred Hilmer,
chairman Dean Wills and recently departed director David Gonski, three
close mates who have sat on the Westfield board together for almost a
decade and have also known each through the Fairfax and Coca Cola
Amatil boards for many years.

Gonski, a long-time Packer mate,
finally left the Fairfax board last Friday after failing to complete
the task of finding a new CEO. Wills replaced former PBL executive
chairman Brian Powers as Fairfax chairman three years ago but he turns
72 on 10 July and has clearly failed in his main task over the past
year – to find a CEO to replace Fred Hilmer.

Former News Ltd head-kicker Doug Flynn launched an unprecedented attack on Fairfax and Wills in particular through The Australian in February when negotiations over his five-year salary package to be CEO broke down. Try these damning quotes for size:

“The process was too slow. It was inadequate. They had
basically asked me to come but it was just taking forever to conclude
it. It just felt a bit unwelcoming and a bit begrudging, the whole
thing.”

“I had accepted the money, which was about half what I am getting over here, (but) the problem was the process.”

“Dean is not a young guy and he’s been ill”.

“They
had intermediaries involved in the process and I think that is where it
fell down. I think if it had just been Dean we could have concluded it
in about a day.”

As Mark Day pointed out in The Australian
yesterday, we’re almost at the anniversary since Fred Hilmer was rolled
by the non-Westfield faction on the Fairfax board and his departure
announced. Given that Wills is a Hilmer man who was believed to have
opposed his ousting, you have to ask just how hard he’s really been
trying to find a new CEO.

When the decision was taken to go with
Flynn, why was it only Fred’s Westfield mates Gonski and Wills who
dealt with the man who is now chasing cockroaches as CEO of Rentokil in
London.

A chairman’s job is quite diverse these days, but
finding a CEO and handling succession is still the single most
important task. Wills has failed miserably and after ten years on the
board and three mixed years as chairman, he really should be
considering his position, especially after the missed Seek opportunity.

However,
this then raises the question of who will succeed him? Deputy chairman
and colourful gaming identity Ron Walker is clearly unacceptable and
the man who most wants the job, Roger Corbett, has committed to another
two years at Woolworths.

All of this points to a very
interesting Fairfax AGM in November when the great media mergers of
2005 will probably be underway and our most venerable media company
will be rudderless. Anyone fancy putting together a ticket to inject
some energy, independence and media experience into the Fairfax
boardroom? Suggestions to [email protected]

Peter Fray

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