Why has Malaysian billionaire Ananda Krishnan bought a stake in Johnston Press?

Tatparanandam Ananda Krishnan, the reclusive 71-year-old Malaysian billionaire who will shortly own a 20 per cent stake in Johnston Press, is an intriguing addition to the ranks of British media investors.

For the most part, the outside world’s knowledge of the tycoon is summarised on the web in a 1,000-word Wikipedia entry and a 100-word Forbes biography.

The latter names Krishnan as south-east Asia’s third richest man. Both sources make sketchy references to an early career in oil and gambling followed by successful ventures in mobile telecoms and pay TV in Malaysia, Indonesia and Hong Kong.

Recently, it has been suggested that the Malaysian tycoon with an MBA from Harvard might be interested in starting to build a global media empire. After the purchase of a small holding in Trinity Mirror, Johnston Press is his first large-scale media investment in the UK.

Beyond this, the secrecy surrounding Tak – as he is known informally – makes the Barclay brothers look like Lily Allen impersonators. Photographs of him are scarce. And Krishnan’s expensive London-based PRs sound nervous about the idea of anyone writing about their man.

A liking for personal privacy is understandable. But if you were expecting corporate transparency from a man who has just taken a strategic bet on the future of the British newspaper industry, you can forget about that, too.

Usaha Tegas, the corporate front for Krishnan’s investments, is privately held. The company appears to have no web presence, but is described by advisers as being controlled by a discretionary trust set up for Krishnan, his family and associated charitable foundations.

Even the management team at Johnston Press seems mildly perplexed by the man whose representative on Earth – probably Ralph Marshall, a Malaysian businessman – will soon grace their meetings. At last week’s conference call with

analysts, Johnston’s chairman Roger Parry was asked whether Usaha Tegas might start to demand that the company make digital acquisitions. In what seemed to be an admission that exchanges so far had been cursory, Parry responded: ‘We haven’t had discussions in that level of detail.’He went on to add Usaha Tegas is ‘supportive’of Johnston’s strategy.

Anyone watching the acrimony generated by Denis O’Brien’s share-buying at Independent News & Media might be forgiven for wondering how Johnston Press can be so relaxed about the arrival of a new shareholder whose reputation back home has been framed by buccaneering exploits on the public markets.

But perhaps that’s not so surprising. If Ananda Krishnan really is bent on assembling a global media empire, most would consider a takeover bid for the publisher of the Yorkshire Post as a slightly unusual starting point.

More likely, his investment in Johnston Press is all about making a quick-ish return from the bombed-out UK media sector.

Usaha Tegas followed a similar route as part of the consortium that rescued the ExCeL conference centre in Docklands in 2003. The company is said to have banked a £120m profit after the venue’s recent sale to an exhibitions group backed by the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

By any standards, Johnston Press must look like another bargain in the making. Usaha Tegas is spending £80m for a 20 per cent stake. A year ago, the price tag would have been £240m. More broadly, where does Johnston’s recent £212m rights issue leave the regional newspaper industry?

Crowded into its respective territories across the UK with the hatches battened down as revenues decline by 10 per cent plus on an annualised basis. That’s where.

Johnston Press chief executive Tim Bowdler plans to press ahead with the steady ‘digitisation’of its existing operations, which he believes needn’t cost ‘an arm and a leg”.

Beyond that, last week’s announcement could come to be seen as the start of the transformation of a company that has become synonymous with industry consolidation.

Much will depend on the new chief executive who will succeed Bowdler when he retires in 2009. By then, much of Johnston’s debts will be up for refinancing – and the company will embark on a new chapter in its history.

Two months ago, Stuart Paterson, Johnston’s chief financial officer, publicly ruled out ‘significant acquisitions’during the next year.

Could this be hardening into a longer-term stance? During last week’s conference call, for example, the ‘hypothetical’talk was of returning free cash flow to investors, rather than embarking on more acquisitions when the economy recovers.

In more ways than one, the arrival of Tatparanandam Ananda Krishnan at Johnston Press signals the end of an era.

Peter Kirwan is editor of www.fullrun.com

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