Cleaning out AVUSA's Augean stable

David Bullard's advice to CEO designate Colin Cary on how to save the Sunday Times

It had to happen eventually. The only surprise is that it took so long for AVUSA (nee Johnnic Communications) shareholders to realise that the people running their company were running it into the ground. I refer of course to the proposed takeover of AVUSA by Mvelaphanda Group, subject to their getting 75% shareholder approval.

Last year AVUSA was being stalked by an outfit called Capitau but the deal didn't happen, some suggest because Capitau's due diligence left some important questions unanswered. This time around the Mvela offer of R24 a share is being touted as a "done deal" even though, at the time of writing, the PIC (who hold 17%) have raised objections. But it aint over until the fat lady sings.

Andrew Bonamour, the brains behind the deal and now Mvela's interim CEO has made the usual comforting noises about building up the company, unlocking shareholder value (who locked it up?) and not putting jobs at risk but he has also hinted that one of the major problems has been a sluggish and top heavy management.

This suggests that some major changes need to be made and the decision to appoint Hirt and Carter (now a subsidiary of AVUSA) founder Colin Cary as CEO of AVUSA over acting CEO Mike Robertson means that AVUSA will finally have a businessman with proven skills at the helm for the first time in most employees' living memory.

The succession of clowns who have led the company over the past two decades beggars belief with the last, Prakash Desai, collecting tens of millions of rands as a reward for destroying shareholder value. Desai, previously the company's senior bean counter, was himself a "default" appointment when executive head-hunters couldn't attract a candidate after Connie Malusi's sudden departure. Much the same happened after Desai was kicked out last year and AVUSA MD Mike Robertson was the unlikely candidate for acting CEO.

Word on the street is that the head-hunters met with little success touting what many executives must regard as a poison chalice position, albeit a well remunerated one. Some wags suggested that the reason it was impossible to find a new CEO for AVUSA over an eight month period was that previous CEO's had already emptied the coffers and there wasn't much left to plunder.

Obviously the ill health of the AVUSA newspapers will be of great concern to the new owners. So, having worked for ten years in The Sunday Times newsroom I feel supremely qualified to offer incoming CEO Colin Cary some unasked for advice.

The first thing that needs to be tackled is the large marzipan layer of management in the newspaper division of AVUSA. When Mike Robertson decided to elevate himself from the position of editor to the position of publisher of the Sunday Times he dropped down a rope ladder and encouraged all sorts of odd creatures to clamber up and take up management positions that had never previously existed or been thought necessary. These were mostly failed journalists whose little eyes sparkled at the prospect of never having to meet a deadline again. The real attraction though was that management remuneration was far higher than a journalist's remuneration. The net effect of this was that a rift was created between those who did the work on the newspapers and those who now managed them.

Robertson's management style (if it can be called that) is to gather around him people who will make him look good. This has led to the appointment of a large number of cronies from the old days who really don't have anything to do but get paid handsomely nonetheless.

Furthermore, in 2007 Robertson's sister Heather was appointed to the lucrative position of deputy editor of the Sunday Times despite her lack of obvious qualifications for the job. The position was never advertised as far as I know. This, of course, is the paper that shouts loudest about government nepotism.

So Colin a clear out of "management" within the newspaper division is long overdue and will reduce your running costs considerably.

The second problem is the positioning of the papers. In the days when The Sunday Times appealed to the LSM 10 market and, more particularly, to its traditional white readership it did well. The decision to take the newspaper downmarket resulted in content being dumbed down with the result that the paper has nowhere near the influence it used to enjoy, despite the somewhat inflated claims of readership.

If The Sunday Times is to stand any chance of regaining some credibility changes need to be made. Ray Hartley was brought in as editor when it became apparent that his predecessor Mondli Makhanya wasn't up to the job. Makhanya was "promoted" to editor of all the editors but that was only because Robertson needed him inside the tent pissing out rather than the other way round. Since mistakes have continued to occur with Makhanya in the super editor position one must assume that this is just a title and not a real job.

Hartley is an affable enough bloke but he's not very bright and lacks the gravitas necessary for the editor of South Africa's largest English language Sunday newspaper. Think back to the days of Joel Mervis and Tertius Myburgh for an indication of what an editor should be. The obvious candidate for ST editor would be Peter Bruce but that would leave Business Day without an editor. Since Business Day's revenue is about to be squeezed even more with the disappearance of JSE company notices (estimated to be worth R200 million p.a. to the business papers) it makes sense to roll Business Day into the now anorexic The Times and produce a daily that satisfies a variety of reader demands.

Ray Hartley was the founding editor of The Times and would be an ideal candidate for editor. Nobody is particularly interested in what the editor of a tabloid paper thinks and, providing he appoints a decent business editor (hint: poach Quentin Wray) the revamped daily might have a chance of survival.

To produce a commercially successful newspaper all you need is good content. The Daily Telegraph proved that during the expenses scandal in the UK and newspapers like The Financial Times (FT) retain their readers because of the quality of their content. I doubt whether the FT appoints its writers based on a demographic quota system.

The problem with The Sunday Times is that the content is mostly crap. Fill the paper with the sort of things that people will want to read and they will buy it. It's that simple. The Out to Lunch column in its heyday had 1.7mln readers and I've lost count of the number of people who have told me they only bought the paper to read the column. I have absolutely no interest in reviving it at my age but I do want to read the next generation's version of Out to Lunch rather than the semi literate, politically correct, turgid offerings the Sunday Times currently carry.

My third tip concerns the internet and my advice is dump it or do it completely differently. The brilliant plan to offer the same content you charge for in the newspaper for free on the internet has to rank as one of the dumbest business decisions of all time. Why did you do it? Because everyone else was doing it and that seemed a good enough reason. But hardly any newspaper has made money out of the internet and you'll be no different.

The Sunday Times is now restricting access but most people will shrug and move to another website that isn't charging. Remember, we don't need to read you to find out the news any more. Just reproducing the newsprint version as a web offering simply won't do and it will cannibalise your print sales. So for heaven's sake produce a quality print edition (see above) and regard the web offering as a different product entirely. That way people may be prepared to pay for it. It needs to be designed completely differently from a newspaper and has to be complimentary to the print addition rather than a derivative of it.

Much as I love my Kindle and my laptop (I still can't justify an iPad) I still prefer turning the pages of a newspaper or a magazine. This isn't just some old fogey nostalgia. It's simply that I can peruse the paper and decide what I want to read far more easily with a print edition. And when I've finished with a newspaper at least I've got something to stuff into my damp hiking boots.

And finally, treat your employees with respect. Thank them on occasion and show them that you appreciate them. That hasn't happened for years. Treat them properly and when there is a disciplinary hearing make sure it's fair rather than the rigged sham affairs that became the norm over the last ten years. That way they will actually want to work for AVUSA and not regard it as the corrupt and toxic environment it has become. Good luck.

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