The Australian’s media attack dog John Lehmann ripped into Fred Hilmer’s legacy in today’s Media section and it was quite a good read as he clearly spoke to plenty of former Fairfax executives. But there there was one fundamental piece of hypocrisy with all of the bile. In financial terms, Fred actually did far better in Australasia than his News Ltd counterparts.
The two companies did one major deal together, Fairfax’s $1.09 billion purchase of News Corp’s New Zealand publishing assets 30 months ago, which was largely driven by the Murdoch mate on the Fairfax board, Mark Burrows.
At the time everyone thought Fairfax had gone over the top, but when you considered the redundancy bill that News Corp had to help pay, a $60 million currency gain before settlement and then the synergies, cost savings and revenue growth that Fairfax have delivered, it’s clear that Fairfax made the right move in what has been its only major strategic takeover in the past 22 years.
Fairfax shares fell 16c to $2.87 the day after the deal was announced in April 2003. The company then sold 110 million new shares to institutions at $2.77 a pop and then sat back and watched as the stock soared to a high of $4.70 in February this year as the New Zealand acquisition came good.
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For all the criticism of Fred, and certainly he’s missed the boat with online classifieds and allowed the key metropolitan newspapers to decline, the financial performance has out-stripped News Ltd when you consider the estimated $1 billion that has been dropped on One-Tel and Super League.
In fact, you can’t help but wonder if News Corp’s chronic underperformance over the past decade hasn’t been partly because Rupert has been too focused on simultaneously over-promoting his children and building a dominant empire they can one day inherit.
The final paragraph of Lehmann’s attack on the front of Media today was very telling:”Earnings under Hilmer have increased from $116 million in 1997-98 to $252.6 million last financial year, while earnings per share lifted from 13.9c to 25.5c.”
News Corp’s profits have certainly ballooned in recent years, but only because Rupert has regularly gone over the top issuing $25 billion worth of non-voting scrip to expand the empire. He hasn’t lifted earnings per share at all since 1987 as Mike Mangan’s swansong report for Deutsche Bank pointed out earlier this year.
It would be a hard admission for any News Corp loyalist to make, but Fred Hilmer has been far better for shareholders than Rupert Murdoch over the past seven years.