Friday 15 December 2017

Blood on the floor at Indo AGM

Nick Webb Business Editor

THE movement of tectonic plates doesn't make much of a sound. The merest rustle of a thin slip of paper. But last Friday's AGM of Independent News & Media (INM) had an utterly transformational effect on the company.

The drama unfolded in an upstairs conference room of the Citywest hotel in front of around 200 shareholders, at the listed media firm's annual general meeting. After early good-tempered exchanges with some retail shareholders, the main event kicked off. It was just like the Eurovision. While the songs are nice, people only tune in for the voting.

INM's chairman James Osborne and finance chief Donal Buggy were voted off the board. Combined with the decision to step down taken by board members Lothar Lanz, Baroness Jay and Bengt Braun, it meant that five of the 10 directors who had started the day as board members were heading for the exit by late afternoon.

Just CEO Vincent Crowley and non-executive directors Lucy Gaffney, Paul Connolly, Frank Murray and Reid Scott remained as the dust settled.

Heavy share-buying by INM's biggest shareholder Denis O'Brien and billionaire dealmaker Dermot Desmond in recent weeks had amassed the necessary effective majority of votes needed to change the boardroom make-up. But only if they both voted against the re-election of certain existing directors, which they did.

INM's debt levels are a key issue for the company and it will be a priority for the incoming board. "I believe it is of the utmost importance for the company -- its shareholders, employees and its assets -- that urgent radical restructuring is undertaken immediately," according to a statement from Denis O'Brien read out to shareholders.

"For the company to return to fiscal strength, it must display the leadership, commitment and take the necessary decisions to convince its lenders and the investment community that it has a future rooted in reality -- including honouring its obligations and meeting its targets," Mr O'Brien added.

The mass exodus of INM board members now means that a raft of new directors will need to be elected by shareholders. The new board will face a number of key issues in coming months.

While INM's newspaper titles -- including the flagship Sunday Independent -- are all profitable, the industry is facing massive change in coming years. New developments in the technology sector, including the mushrooming of smartphones and tablets, are changing habits for media consumption.

"Digital growth, and an appropriate level of investment, is a key area of focus for your group," said Mr Crowley.

Sunday Indo Business

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