Sunday 25 March 2018

Uncertain future lies ahead for the 'Post'

Major upheaval needed to bring the country's only dedicated business paper back from the brink, writes Tom Lyons

Cliff Taylor, the editor of the Sunday Business Post, sat alone at the back of the courtroom last Thursday. In just an hour in the High Court, the internal finances of his newspaper were tipped out for public perusal.

The grim trading environment faced by the Post was familiar to all the newspaper journalists scribbling down what was said. Even still, Ireland's only dedicated business paper had been harder hit than most.

Post Publications Ltd (PPL), the company behind the paper, saw its revenues halve from €15.6m in 2007 to €7.4m in 2012. Advertising revenue was down 68 per cent, ahead of the market, which is down 51.5 per cent.

Weekly circulation of the newspaper has fallen from 55,482 copies in 2008 to under 40,000 today as consumers switch to buying fewer newspaper titles, go online or emigrate.

Gavin Corkery, senior counsel for PPL, said the Post had submitted an independent accountants' report from Deloitte, setting out a roadmap of what had gone wrong and what needed to be fixed to return to profit.

Essentially, Corkery said the Post wanted to switch to cheaper printing, saving €367,000 per annum; halve its office lease costs to €220,000 a year; and introduce a voluntary redundancy scheme to reduce headcount by 25 from 76 people.

If all these things, combined with an advertising uplift of 2.5 per cent, could be achieved, Deloitte concluded the Post would be back in profit by 2014. Mr Justice Peter Kelly concluded he was "satisfied" the paper had a "reasonable prospect of survival", and should be granted court protection long enough for the paper to come up with new investment and restructure itself. Grant Thornton was appointed as interim examiner to manage this process.

It was a further twist in a dramatic week for newspapers. Behind the scenes, however, trouble had been brewing since the summer of 2012.

Back then, the Post's parent, Thomas Crosbie Holdings, which also owns the Irish Examiner and regional newspaper and radio interests, began intense talks with its banks, led by AIB. The 99 per cent State-owned bank is owed over €20m by the group, with Ulster Bank its other significant lender.

"It was delicate," a source close to the talks said. "On the one hand, AIB did not want to write off any debt. On the other, it knew TCH employed 600 people. The bank wanted to get its money back but protect as many jobs as it could."

TCH appointed Grant Thornton to advise it as AIB appointed KPMG to pick through its business model. With the bank not budging on a write-down, the focus moved to printing costs.

TCH, which is owned by the Crosbie family, had struck a 15-year, €44m deal with a company called Webprint Concept Limited in 2005 to print all its titles. The deal made sense to the Crosbies during the boom, but with the bust, the family felt it was a crippling burden despite being just 12 per cent of costs.

One way out was to do what is known in the restructuring trade as a "pre-pack", an aggressive way of turning a business around.

The first step happened on Wednesday, when a receiver was appointed to TCH with the agreement of AIB.

Immediately, this receiver sold the Irish Examiner and the group's other media assets, with the exception of the Post, on to a new company called Landmark Media Investments.

Landmark is owned by Tom Crosbie and his father Ted, two stalwarts of the family that for decades has controlled TCH.

The enterprise value of TCH was well below the value of its debts so all Crosbie father and son stumped up was a nominal sum. They then wrote a seven-figure cheque, which went into the new company for working capital. They are likely to have to stump up, too, down the line for redundancies in the group, which employs over 500 people.

Next, a liquidator was appointed to Thomas Crosbie Printers Ltd, the company that managed its printing. The restructuring put Webprint out of the picture as printer of the group's various titles, which are now due to be produced by the Irish Times.

Mahon-based Webprint, which is owned by Cork businesspeople led by Donagh O'Doherty, was furious and announced plans to sue in order to be reinstated as printers. "Webprint, a well-run company with 50 employees, has been cut out in a secret deal that nobody knows the real details of," O'Doherty said.

"It's a joke to say that this was done to save jobs. The TCH business will support the number of jobs that the business supports." He said that if the bank and the receiver had wanted to, "they would have traded the business and invited offers from purchasers for the titles. There would have been plenty of interest. Indeed, Webprint may have been one of them".

Webprint is understood to have offered TCH a 25 per cent reduction in recent months as well as to write off some of the €2.7m it is owed.

After the restructuring, the Sunday Business Post was put into examinership.

The Crosbie family will be among the bidders for the newspaper, which by Friday had attracted four bids with even more circling.

"Media is a funny game," a corporate finance source said. "People find it fascinating and it can attract big egos, so it's not surprising there are a lot of tyre-kickers early on, but there is also real interest there."

A new owner, Frank FitzGibbon, editor of the Sunday Times Ireland, believes, will lead to big changes at the Post, which he co-founded in 1989. "It needs to go back to being a purely business paper. It can't compete with its one magazine against the Sunday Times and the Sunday Independent's full service offerings. Any new owner may close the magazine," he said.

Orlaith Blaney, chief executive of advertising agency McCann Dublin, described the paper as "excellent," but reliant on Ireland's banks and tech firms increasing their ad spend to increase revenues.

"The banks are not spending now but they are coming under pressure to lend and communicate so this could pick up, which would be good for the Post," she said. A turnaround at the Post is reliant on Ireland's economic recovery.

The Post, in its early days, was described as a "journalistic success, but a financial basket-case". In the boom, it became both a profitable and credible paper. It now finds itself back where it began, a good product in search of the right partner.

The Crosbies, as they prepare to face off against their old printers, also face serious challenges, which, like the Post's, will be decided in the courts.

Irish Independent

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business