Monday 21 January 2019

Leslie Buckley to stand down as INM ready to ring board changes

Donal O'Donovan Buisness Editor

The Chairman of Independent News & Media (INM) Leslie Buckley is to stand down from the board on March 1, ending a tumultuous period at the helm of the country's biggest media company.

Mr Buckley took on the chairmanship of the then dangerously indebted Irish media giant in 2012 after directors linked to former CEO Tony O'Reilly were swept from the board.

His departure follows the exit late last year of former INM chief executive Robert Pitt.

The two men had been embroiled in a long-running and high-profile dispute that broke-out over a move by INM two years ago to buy radio station Newstalk.

The radio station is owned by Denis O'Brien, INM's biggest single shareholder and Mr Buckley's long-time business associate. The fallout from that row continues.

Yesterday, INM announced Mr Buckley (pictured inset) had informed the company he will step down at an extraordinary general meeting (EGM) to be held on March 1.

Four new non-executive directors, John Bateson, Fionnuala Duggan, Murdoch MacLennan and Seamus Taaffe, have been nominated to the board.

Given the sweeping scale of the changes, those appointments will be subject to ratification at the March EGM.

Mr Bateson is a nominee of Dermot Desmond, who owns 15pc of INM, the second biggest stake. Each of the other three newcomers will serve as independent non-executive directors.

Mr Buckley said: "I have taken the decision to retire from the board in March after five-and-a-half years as chairman. I would like to thank my board colleagues, the INM management team and all the great people who work for the company for their support during what has been an eventful and challenging time for both the company and for the Irish newspaper industry as a whole."

The INM board thanked Mr Buckley for his leadership and his contribution to the company since his appointment in 2012, noting the strength of the group's finances following his term as chairman.

Under the Cork-born executive's chairmanship, INM emerged from under debts of more than €430m built up during a debt fuelled pre-crash expansion. Since 2013 that position has been turned around and the business now has a cash surplus in excess of €90m.

But Mr Buckley's tenure was also controversial, in particular his relationship with Mr Pitt, who he appointed to the role. The two were at loggerheads for more than a year until Mr Pitt stepped down, dating back to the potential bid for Newstalk.

They disagreed over the price INM might pay for the radio business after receiving conflicting valuations from corporate finance advisers, with the chairman reportedly happy to pay significantly more than his CEO.

While no offer was ever made by INM, Robert Pitt complained at board level and to the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE), the State's corporate affairs watchdog in 2016, about the situation.

An uneasy truce as those complaints were investigated flared into open hostility last summer when Mr Pitt publicly failed to endorse the chairman at INM's annual general meeting.

That unprecedented impasse crippled decision making at board level, sapped investor appetite and racked up huge legal and administrative costs.

A legal effort by the ODCE to access files held by Mr Buckley as part of its subsequent INM investigations is due back in the High Court on Monday. Mr Buckley has opposed that move on the basis the files are protected by legal privilege.

Non-executive director Allan Marshall will also retire from the board.

Shares in INM were up by 6.25pc at the end of the session.

Irish Independent

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