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INM chairman and chief executive split over acquisition plan

By Donal O'Donovan

Published 30/11/2016

Deal-maker: INM chairman Leslie Buckley
Deal-maker: INM chairman Leslie Buckley

Boardroom tensions at the top of Independent News & Media (INM) have boiled over and become public with the company confirming differences have arisen between chief executive and chairman over a planned acquisition.

The Irish stock market-listed company, which publishes the Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life, took the rare step of issuing a statement confirming an issue had arisen between the group’s chairman, Leslie Buckley, and chief executive Robert Pitt in relation to the terms of a possible acquisition by the company.

Speculation in the marketplace was that Dublin-based radio station Newstalk may have been the mooted acquisition that could have led to the split between chairman and CEO. INM declined to comment.

Newstalk is part of businessman Denis O’Brien’s Communicorp Group. Mr O’Brien is also the largest minority shareholder in INM. The company is known to be keen to expand in the digital space and, according to one source, is keen on acquiring digital TV assets as well as glossy magazine titles.

At the weekend it was reported tensions between former Tesco Czech Republic executive Mr Pitt and chairman Leslie Buckley had arisen over strategy at the publishing group.

The row comes as Mr Pitt approaches his third year in the group, which has a sizeable bank balance and is on the acquisition trail. Mr Buckley has previously said he wanted INM to be a digital company with print assets.

To date the company has not acquired any digital assets — at home or abroad. The only acquisition in the pipeline is Celtic Media Group, a small regional print group in the Republic, and that awaits the approval of the Republic’s Communications Minister, Denis Naughten.

In a statement released on Monday night after the market closed, INM said it noted recent press speculation and confirmed an issue had arisen at board level between the chairman and chief executive about a possible deal.

The matter was reviewed by a sub-committee of the group board, which found no issue of concern for the company, INM said. “Independent News & Media plc, noting recent media speculation, confirms that an issue arose between the chief executive officer and the chairman in relation to the terms of a possible acquisition by the company,”  a statement said. “Discussions on the possible acquisition ended at a preliminary stage and the acquisition was never considered by the board.

“The CEO raised the issue with the company’s senior independent director. The board established a sub-committee to review the issue and the sub-committee reported to the board that no issue of concern arose for the company.

“The board has, with the agreed absence of the CEO and chairman, unanimously adopted the committee’s report.

“The board and the company’s management remain fully focused on the business and in ensuring that day-to-day operations are conducted as normal.”

INM is the island of Ireland’s leading commercial media organisation, publishing market-leading titles including the Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, Irish Independent and Sunday Independent.

Mr Pitt has said acquisitions are central to his strategy to shift the future of the group away from print into the future, and he has flagged that there is a war chest of €62m (£52.8m) available for deals. At board level, it is thought there were tensions about the strategy around where to spend the cash.

Separately, INM is due to hold an emergency general meeting of shareholders next Monday to vote on a proposed capital reduction that could pave the way for the group to resume payment of a dividend.

Belfast Telegraph

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