Head office heads roll

There would not have been many senior people in Trinity Mirror’s regional operation who would have been surprised by Sly Bailey’s message her press conference last week.

Apparently, the new chief executive had already called together about 50 the company’s most senior staff to tell them that Trinity Mirror was not a place for the faint-hearted.

All staff would have been expecting hear that more jobs would go, and it was well touted in advance that she would off-load the Irish papers.

No, the shock for the regionals came some weeks earlier when they learned that their head office was to lose about half if its 42-strong workforce.

Although this went out out for consultation, it soon emerged that big names were in the frame – not just back-office staff.

In fact, regionals managing director Stephen Parker was having some excruciating conversations with members of his senior team, pointing out that their jobs were deemed no longer relevant to the future plans for the company.

Bailey’s review had come to the conclusion that integrating the regional and national businesses more would deliver better performance and shareholder value.

She may well have considered the successful Associated/Northcliffe model where the two sides run very separately, but she would also be acutely aware that as a plc she operates in a different arena.

The company statement makes that clear when it describes the objective of her review as being to “identify the actions required to deliver significantly enhanced shareholder review”.

The fact that Trinity Mirror also announced that it was increasing the interim dividend by 3.8 per cent – the first increase since 2000 – and was pledging to progressively increase dividends shows how strongly the company wants to impress the City and ward off any potential takeovers.

So the decision was made to de-layer” the structure at the regional HQ – abandoning roles such as marketing director, advertising director and communications director, and getting functions such as finance and human resources to report to London.

This meant that names such as John Ecclestone, a long-term Trinity heavyweight on the ad side, Leo Coligan, a previous managing director of the Liverpool business, and Robin Fletcher, previously editor of the South Wales Echo, were to get their cards.

Even highly regarded marketing director Jane Nugent learned her regional role had been scrapped, although the company pulled out all the stops to persuade her to remain as marketing director in Birmingham.

The shake-up means that highlycapable and popular Liverpool managing director Sara Wilde moves to head office to take up a directorship which encompasses many areas including advertising and marketing, Editorial director Neil Benson stays on in the new regime, along with Brian Aitken, but Benson will also have been mortified to learn that the rest of his newly acquired team were to be made redundant.

This included Jeremy Clifford, who recently left the deputy editor’s post at the Leicester Mercury to take up a head office job in Liverpool looking after the Connecting Communities programme.

It will have been even worse news for Darren Thwaites, who left the No.2 job on the Aberdeen Evening Express to relocate to Liverpool. He had just sold his house north of the border when he discovered his fate.

News of these job losses would have sparked mixed feelings in the centres.

They have been shedding staff for the past 18 months (according to the latest figures, £3.5m worth of incremental cost savings were made in the past six months).

THEREFORE, QUESTIONS were being asked at centres how the head office had not only seemingly avoided job losses, but appeared to be adding staff on a fairly regular basis.

One of the reasons for that may have been the company’s desire to prove to the sceptics that the Biggest to Best programme was not just the cost-cutting exercise many believed it to be. By adding staff to look after new projects at head office, they hoped to prove that the programme was also about innovation and quality.

Unfortunately, this coincided with a downturn in ad revenue, hitting particularly hard in the south, and a new chief executive taking a long, hard look at the company and its strategy.

So, although the centres may have felt vindicated when the axe also fell at head office, they would not have relished seeing former colleagues discarded.

There have always been tensions between centres and head office in any organisation. In editorial terms its is much like the relationship between news desk and the district offices – often based on a lack of trust and a “what the hell do the other lot think they are up to?” attitude.

Having worked for Thomson Regional Newspapers head office myself in the early Nineties, I was interested to see the difference when Trinity took the company over.

It was frugal as far as head office costs were concerned and it took management years to feel able to appoint an editorial director – such was there concern over head office interference.

It was also interesting to see Newsquest boss Jim Brown, in his recent interview with Press Gazette, describe how impressed analysts were when they saw the small, pokey office over a supermarket they inhabited.

“It was also good for the centres, because they could see HQ wasn’t throwing money around,” he said.

No one could accuse Trinity Mirror’s regional head office of throwing money around, but if more cost cuts were to be made, it appeared inevitably they would be hit.

The centres may also now feel uncomfortable that their regionals division, which is a very successful and well-run part of the business, seems to have been diminished in the power stakes. Last week’s report pulls no punches when it states that the corporate centre (London) will adopt a “much more interventionist stance in the setting of strategies and budgets for business units”.

No one at the corporate centre can deny that the regionals division, under the experienced eye of Parker, is not performing.

Taking out the Metro newspapers and Digital Media, it has increased its operating profit by 9 per cent and its operating margin improved from 21.8 per cent to 23.4 per cent. With the Metros and Digital Media back in, this margin increases to 24.3 per cent – a figure not to be sniffed at unless you are continually being compared with regional rival Johnston Press.

Circulation revenue declined marginally by 1 per cent and most of the larger titles showed circulation losses in line with the rest of the market.

But chairman Victor Blank’s report stated: “The review also highlighted that the division has significant scope for further improvement… These will be pursued with more vigour and focus than has been the case to date in order that the division will achieve its full potential.

And Sly Bailey told the press conference last week: “It is possible to do more without ripping the heart out of these businesses.”

For the sake of all the staff there, and the readers they serve, let’s hope that’s the case.  Alison Hastings is a media consultant and trainer and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle. E-mail her at ajh@alisonhastings.demon.co.uk. She’ll be back in four weeks.

by Alison Hastings

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