Fairfax chairman Ron Walker seems to be developing a bit of a Citizen Kane swagger — almost as though he were a proprietor, rather than the chairman of the board. Witness the cars, the drivers, the lunches, the connections, the general display of grace under pressure.
Indeed, I hear he fancies himself as, at the very least, an active chairman and a dominant personality, and therefore a substitute for the media emperors of old. This puts the battle between him and the remnants of the old proprietary family of Fairfax into some perspective.
It seems Walker now accepts that he is on his way out. Yet I hear that the conversation surrounding him could be summarised as follows: yes, Ron, you have to go. But you owe it to Melbourne not to let the Rural Press Barbarians from the north take over the joint.
Witness Citizen Walker’s edifice complex at a time when media companies need to become nimble, not collections of infrastructure and assets. According a story in The Australian Financial Review this morning, the man has no regrets:
“I have achieved everything I set out to achieve, in terms of total reform of the business,” said Walker.
In the same article he is quoted as saying the following about the soon-to-be-opened new Age building at the Docklands end of Collins Street:
“The board felt it was time to get all our operations together in Melbourne and it decided to build a brand new, landmark building on the railway yards at the end of Collins Street, which was significant to us because that was where David Syme, the original owner of The Age, started.”
Then there’s Walker’s comments about how he viewed his role — as a proprietor no less:
“The first day that I was elected chairman I told the board, I told the board that I had to act as a proprietor because we didn’t have a proprietor and we had to settle the bile and the hatred between the Fairfaxes, the Murdochs and the Packers.
“And I was able to stand up to the competition — whatever they gave to us, we gave back. We were vulnerable, and it needed strong and determined leadership.”
And for those who doubt that the Sydney-Melbourne thing features in this battle, consider the following, also from the Fin Review:
“Mr Walker said his other great achievement was to give VIctoria a strong voice in the Fairfax Media boardroom, highlighted by the board’s decision to build a new basis for the company in Melbourne.”
Interesting. One wonders what the boardroom debates were like over that one. Most media companies rent their office space these days. The game is, after all, about content, service and platform rather than real estate.
Well, the board room imbroglio continues, with a thousand phone calls from a dozen journalists yielding not much more than the insight that the people who will really decide the result — the institutional investors — are saying very little.