Break-up as EMAP heads for the rocks

You do wonder about the people who run companies sometimes. Take Alun Cathcart, chairman and acting chief executive of EMAP, the media conglomerate that’s been heading for a break-up these past six months.

Cathcart, who presided over a rather dismal 16% decline in pre-tax profits according to EMAP’s half-way figures this week, has encountered some further awkwardness, this time of a strategic nature. There are plenty of people, primarily ex-EMAP grandee David Arculus backed by an allegedly sizeable number of militant shareholders, who think Cathcart’s break-up strategy is misconceived. They’re living in the past, but never mind. They’ve got a lever, because Cathcart’s break-up plan – not surprisingly in view of its complexity – has run into trouble. Officially, it’s been put back to January – for which read “some time next year”.

Now here’s the corker. Cathcart is clearly so worried the break-up won’t happen that he’s been forced to comment on an alternative management regime should EMAP remain intact. He won’t be around, of course (who can blame him?). But don’t worry, he’s got a number of candidates lined up for the chief executive’s job (minded by himself since Tom Moloney’s precipitate exit last May). If I were a shareholder, or an EMAP staffer for that matter, I’d be really impressed with that choice bit of news.

Let’s unpack it a little more. It’s like the captain of an oil-tanker, irreparably damaged below the waterline, announcing that, since the promised salvage vessels are nowhere in sight, he’s going to abandon ship. Don’t be frightened, though: some jobbing first mate or other is being helicoptered in to take over.

What calibre of candidate (having explicitly excluded, as Cathcart has, David Arculus) are we going to get in these circumstances, and what might he possibly do to save the stricken vessel that his predecessor could not? Then there’s the share price to consider: this, despite current market turbulence, has been buoyed by fevered bid speculation. It would be dead in the water, just like the company’s strategy, if the break-up miscarried.

No, any alternative to a break-up is now too awful to contemplate. But Cathcart’s options are narrowing, no doubt about it. The nasty economic conditions into which we seem to be heading have already hammered the media sector, making a trade sale less likely. Indeed, only this week United Business Media, the City’s current publishing pin-up, ruled itself out of contention for EMAP’s coveted £1.2bn business-to-business arm.

Fortunately for Cathcart, despite the fact that money is increasingly tight, potential buyers are showing plenty of interest. Providence, Apax and Guardian Media Group are eyeing the B2B division; Hearst likes the look of Zoo, FHM and Heat; and GCap and Charles Allen’s Global Radio are vying for Kiss and Magic.

He should take what money he can and run.

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