No
matter what the board of John Fairfax does, it just can’t get it
right.

From
hiring the wrong executives, to overpaying them, to not understanding the
markets the company operates in, rationalising assets
and failing to make the key strategic decisions, the board of Fairfax has been one of the more incompetent ones in
Australia in recent
years.

They’ve
been aided and abetted by former CEO Fred Hilmer, now
bound for the University of NSW where students and staff should be
nervous and trembling at what is to burst upon their lives next year.

But he
looks the part, presents great and says all the right clichés for the modern
business person with a management consulting background and
education.

But as
dopey as Fred was, he was only allowed to be so by the Fairfax
board.

Its two
greatest and silliest decisions were not to bid for the interest in seek.com and
to allow the Packers to grab control of carsales.com.au from it, along with failing to hop into bed
with realestate.com.au and help the management fight
off News Ltd.

The
board is now engaged in a silly fight with major shareholders over the grossly
inadequate disclosure of the performance hurdles for the $1.2 million ‘Golden
Hullo” for the new CEO, David Kirk (who has already signed off on 55
redundancies).

That
should not have happened and on Friday the board moved someway to trying to
settle the row.

But
shareholders and others can do nothing about the bigger disaster, the $4.5
million ‘Golden Goodbye’ paid to Fred Hilmer.

That
should have gone to a vote by shareholders, but won’t.

But
that’s somehow not surprising. After all, Roger Corbett, the Woolies CEO, has
got a multi million dollar ‘Golden Goodbye” from the retailer when he leaves in
10 months time. You
can’t take one to a vote at Fairfax without threatening your own, more
generous goodbye package, can you?

The
best thing that could happen to Fairfax is for major shareholders to revolt and
drive some board members into retirement, but with the deeply conflicted Ron
Walker as chairman, don’t bet on that happening.

Fairfax is spending
vital time fighting with major shareholders over issues of transparency that
should be second nature to a media company that demands it from others.

And
while this is going on, the company’s financial and market position doesn’t
improve and ‘content producers’ to use Fred Hilmer’s
grossly insulting description, are being sacked to improve the bottom
line.

What
about the bureaucracy that Fred and his fellow bean counters
built?