The reverse takeover of Fairfax’s high-value classifieds business Domain by glossy real estate upstart Metro Media Publishing is complete after Antony Catalano was appointed Domain’s CEO this morning.

Crikey can reveal that Catalano, a former Fairfax executive, will seize the reins of the Domain group following Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood’s decision in March to spin the booming business unit out as a standalone entity.

There is now frenzied speculation that Hywood and Fairfax will end up floating Domain to prop up shaky revenues elsewhere in the business. Alternatively, Hywood could sell all of Fairfax’s flailing publishing and broadcast assets and retain Domain with Catalano at the helm.

Catalano told Crikey that he “wouldn’t be taking on this role if I didn’t see a huge opportunity to grow Domain … Domain is great business with a whole bunch of assets. It’s got print assets, it’s got mobile assets, regional assets, and it’s got an editorial as well as a commercial arm. If you capitalise on those assets then you can really grow the business by talking to many people across many platforms. It’s a very successful commercial operation, and that’s what excites me about it.”

He will continue to oversee MMP’s operations from his role as a MMP director and the largest individual shareholder. MMP, half-owned by Fairfax, currently runs the sales functions of Domain, which appears as a bulging liftout in The Saturday Age, the Friday edition of the Financial Review and online at Domain.com.au. MMP stalwart and the co-founder of flagship real estate glossy Weekly Review, Trent Casson, has been appointed MMP chief operating officer. In a letter to shareholders, MMP chairman Charbel Nader said he was “confident MMP is in very safe hands”.

Catalano, a part-time hotel mogul nicknamed “the Cat” who once hosted Prince Harry’s likely wife Cressida Bonas at his Byron Bay pad, said MMP was “in great shape, it’s now a proper multimedia business with gloss magazines, stunning digital assets and a joint selling agreement with Fairfax … We’ve transformed the business since the merger [completed in mid-2012].” He came under sustained fire in July after closing seven loss-making newspapers previously owned by the Fairfax Community Network, leaving 30 staff out of a job.

At an investor briefing in June, Fairfax revealed Domain had recorded revenue of $141 million in 2012-13 and earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation of $45 million. MMP contributed a massive $81 million to the company’s real estate advertising and services business. In a letter to staff, obtained by Crikey, Catlano said MMP had increased Domain sales year-on-year by 37%. Catalano and Hywood are close friends, and Hywood’s son Tom works for MMP smashing deals in the real estate department. Catalano will continue to work out of MMP’s Park Street, South Melbourne, offices.

In a statement Hywood lauded his new co-worker:

“We are delighted Antony will lead our Domain business and retain oversight of MMP. Having put MMP on the road to sustained success Antony is now in a position to lead Domain and take it to its full potential. Antony is innovative, entrepreneurial, highly competitive and his knowledge of the Australian real estate market is second to none. His appointment is clearly a significant industry development.”

In a separate message to staff Hywood described Catalano as “competitive”.

The Cat’s re-embrace by Fairfax has bemused some insiders, who recall former FCN chief Colin Moss branding him “a turncoat” and “no friend of Fairfax” when he launched the Weekly Review in April 2010.

Catalano is not the only high-profile departure from MMP. Crack Weekly Review subeditor (and former Crikey subeditor) Mick Vaughan will retire next month and told Crikey that after a glittering career he “will become a full-time fucking nomad with no fixed address!” He is believed to have registered the website mickeypedia.com.au for fans to keep tabs on his travels.

Peter Fray

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