“The problem is you are an Ian Law man.” So said David Gyngell to me a few days after his ascension as Ian’s replacement as chief executive of what was then PBL Media.
Back then I took the comment as a compliment, like a badge of honour, although that was obviously not Gyngell’s intention. It’s one of many highlights and lowlights I reflected upon with the passing of Ian Francis Law, the man’s man who, for a period, strode the stage of the corporate media world of Australia. He died on Monday after a long battle with cancer.
Ian and I worked together for more than 25 years. We were close, we were mates who shared many adventures together, forged in the white hot fires of Australian media businesses. He was in my view among a limited few of the “old school” media leaders who moulded, nurtured, re-built and nurtured again and then again the media assets they controlled.
There are the usual suspects such as the Murdochs, Packers and Fairfaxs, but there was another strata of these people who were in many respects much closer and more attuned to their markets than those goliaths. They were hands-on operators who could write a story or sell an ad just as easily as sealing multimillion-dollar deals. Men like John Armati, John Parker, Brian McCarthy and, of course, Ian Law. They remain high achievers who knew their businesses and their customers. They knew how to create, nurture and even re-invent something lasting and meaningful.
Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox
Ian cut his teeth on Rural Press, which emerged as a significant media business when John B Fairfax had his own Alan Bond moment (aka Warwick Fairfax) in 1987, sold his shares in the family Fairfax conglomerate and bought a majority holding in what was at the time a smallish publisher of country and agricultural publications. Ian was responsible for the agricultural publications of Rural Press, iconic publications such as The Land in New South Wales, Stock and Land in Victoria, Stock Journal in South Australia, Farm Weekly in Western Australia and Country Life in Queensland. It was a national network of publications which focused on one of his other loves in life, farming.
His drive and the goodwill he engendered among all those who worked for him were key factors in the agricultural division of Rural Press becoming the cash cow of the company. That was no coincidence and it was due to no stroke of luck. Ian always had an incredible work ethic and he drove those businesses. He always believed the publications would win the hearts and minds of their readers and advertisers while they remained relevant. He turned each of those publications into the “bible” for their respective rural and farming communities around Australia and consequently the money kept rolling in for Rural Press.
Readers and advertisers wanted to be a part of those publications because they knew they could trust and rely upon what was published. Ian always believed in trust. You could always count on Ian once he gave his word and that remained his mantra wherever he was and whoever he dealt with.
Rural Press of course kept growing and it became evident there was much more Ian could offer; as Rural Press continued to expand its regional newspaper and radio interests Ian took on a greater role. When John Parker retired as chief executive the successor came down to a choice between either Law or McCarthy. John B Fairfax actually shed a tear when he walked into Ian’s office to tell him the job had gone to McCarthy.
It was meant to be. The board of West Australian Newspapers swooped to offer Ian the chief executive post. The company was also a cash cow but, unlike Rural Press, no darling of the sharemarket. Ian did what he always does: inheriting a business which required re-inventing to win back the trust of its constituents, its readers, advertisers and shareholders. He built a much leaner, more profitable business; the share price went north and annual dividends became reliable.
“He was as comfortable with billionaires as he was with farm hands and that to me was among his greatest gifts.”
James Packer had become an admirer of Ian’s way of doing business when West Australian Newspapers invested in Hoyts, then owned by Packer’s Consolidated Media. Packer was impressed by the way Ian addressed the operating structure of Hoyts and how that business started achieving much improved returns. It was also opportune for Packer because at that time he was considering private equity suitors for his media interests, primarily ACP Magazines and the Nine Network. Ian was to enter the world of private equity — and debt.
Packer achieved a fantastic outcome thanks to private equity group CVC, which paid $4.5 billion for the Packer media assets, but it came at the price of debt. Along came the global financial crisis and Ian was in a perfect business storm — huge debt that had to be serviced and a market which was bleeding revenues.
Ian and I often talked about those days, both while we were there and since. They were the best and the worst of times.
Throughout it all, as Ian was forced to visit and re-visit the cost base of the businesses to try and extract more savings so CVC’s debt repayments could be met, he remained incredibly positive and focused. One of the many attributes Ian possessed was an unfailing trust and belief in himself and those working with him. He engendered a loyalty and faith that everything would be right in the end. Those who worked for him and with him throughout his life know exactly what I mean.
PBL Media did come through the struggles of those years and it was thanks to the drive and fortitude of Ian Law. Lesser men would have wilted but Ian just kept going; he focused on the fundamentals and when the revenues for media businesses started to stabilise PBL Media started showing a much stronger outlook.
I think Ian always knew that. I think he believed we could survive the downturn, we could continue to meet CVC’s debt repayments and PBL Media would ultimately emerge a much leaner and stronger business.
Ian was summarily dumped in 2010 when CVC decided Gyngell was the man to take PBL forward. Ian and I were talking on the phone on that fateful day discussing the next steps in building the PBL Media business when he said he could see a CVC delegation heading to his office. “Perhaps they are coming to sack me,” Ian said to me with a laugh.
Prophetic words. Ian wasn’t even afforded the dignity of farewelling staff or a notice period. He was escorted from the building never to be seen again. It was a sad and unprofessional way to treat a man who had given everything and more in saving CVC’s bacon.
Ian spent most of his remaining time back with his first love — his farm at Mortlake in Victoria “talking to his cows”, he often visited the farm when he was running PBL Media and simply needed time out. He loved that farm as much as he loved the media businesses he operated. Only his family and those who were lucky enough to be regarded as his close friends were more important.
Ian had many achievements. Most of them are buried within the financial results of the business he always operated with aplomb and panache. He was as comfortable with billionaires as he was with farm hands and that to me was among his greatest gifts. He has left this world with many, many more admirers than detractors.
Vale my friend. I will miss our conversations, that twinkle in your eye as you sized up an opportunity or a challenge and that honesty and trust you gave with the charm and openness of a true gentleman.