If there’s any distinguishing trait of Fred Hilmer’s six year reign at John Fairfax, it would be the ability to let good deals and people slip through his fingers. And the defection of Brian Evans to PMP is the latest in what be the most amazing collection of missed opportunities.

The most celebrated was saying no to seek.com.au and allowing the Packers to pick up a 25% stake and turn it into real money. Another was carsales.com.au, where despite an 11.5% shareholding, the Packers have snatched control.

Doug Flynn, the former News Ltd executive was lined up to be Fred’s replacement, but he too disappeared off the radar when a better job appeared in Britain and now Evans has gone.

Evans had a strong claim to the top job at Fairfax after making the biggest deal of Hilmer’s time at Fairfax – the billion dollar plunge into New Zealand newspapers. It was his patient and sound approach to uniting the unwieldy and disparate newspaper assets bought from News Ltd, that has helped Fairfax develop another major profit centre to the Australian newspapers.

He was brought back to Australia earlier this year and installed as Chief Operating Officer and many felt he was being groomed for the top job.

Fred Hilmer is being paid a retirement bonus or golden goodbye of $4.5 million: I don’t think he has earned it, especially after this latest announcement.

With Fairfax revenues hurting in NSW from the collapse in property and the sluggish state economy (the Sydney Morning Herald has experienced a very sharp drop in ad revenues from all sources) to have two inexperienced executives at the helm over the next few months will be quite a risk.

David Kirk has little if any understanding of the business model that is Fairfax, especially content and whoever replaces Brian Evans will have to prove themselves at this higher level. Presumably the ambitious James Hooke, the head of operations in NSW, will fancy himself for Evans’ job.

Over at PMP, Evans has a few problems of his own: he has to get to understand the “jobbing” nature of commercial printing, PMP’s strengths and its continuing weaknesses in magazine distribution. They will be just as big a task as running the financial side of the business.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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