I'm leaving on a jet plane: McCall's exit completes hat-trick of senior departures at GMG

Guardian Media Group isn’t known for losing bosses. Yet it’s been a busy 12 months at the top of the company.

In April of last year, GMG appointed the former investment banker Amelia Fawcett to replace Paul Myners as chairman. Six months later, finance director Nick Castro retired. Now it’s spring again, and Carolyn McCall is leaving to become the boss of Easyjet.

These are unstable times. Too much turnover at the top breeds a lack of focus. Clearly, this has happened at Easyjet, which – like GMG — has lost a chairman, a CEO and its finance director within the space of a year.

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At Easyjet, the departures were powered by a boardroom dispute. At GMG, all appears to be sweetness and light. But too much coming and going can cause, as well as reflect, problems.

McCall’s exit will raise eyebrows among those who are concerned about her ‘complete confidence’that the company’s finances are ‘secure”. At Guardian News & Media, NUJ chapel members are digging into the numbers in an attempt to figure out whether GMG’s ‘present plight could have been avoided”.

In the long term, I suspect GMG will be fine. Yet it felt premature for McCall to claim in early February that GMG is in “rude health” and the Guardian is “in good shape”. In response, the FT sounded sceptical.

Notably, GMG’s press release doesn’t wheel out the usual suggestion that it’s the ‘right time’for McCall to move on, a natural pause in the life of the company.

That’s because it isn’t. Most media businesses remain in intensive care, or near it, and GMG is no exception. In a year’s time, it might be different. In two years’ time, almost certainly, it would have been a lot easier for McCall to depart victoriously. (That’s when we’re likely to see GMG sell off its remaining stake in Trader Media for a handsome profit).

But now? Ad revenues are still declining. A double dip recession looms large. After last year’s big losses, it’s not even clear whether McCall will be around to publish GMG’s next set of financial results in early summer.

Plenty of strategic decisions need taking. As Rupert Murdoch readies his paywalls, and online display recovers, who will scoop up the resulting ad revenue? Should GNM emulate the digital ventures being developed by Will Lewis in Euston?

In addition, there’s EMAP, which remains vital to the long-term future of the Guardian and the Observer. Less than two months ago, presumably in the midst of her discussions with Easyjet, McCall suggested that GMG had “not decided what the solution is” to the trade publisher’s £700m debt pile.

If GMG has now decided upon its approach, who will oversee the forthcoming acquisitions? No-one makes deals during an interregnum.

Will there be an interregnum? GMG seems unsure. It isn’t saying that Amelia Fawcett will become an executive chairman. But neither does it know when McCall will depart. A quick-fix promotion from within may yet save everyone’s blushes.

Besides this, I’m assured that there’s plenty of M&A expertise in GMG’s boardroom. Yes, McCall’s departure might slow down the company down a bit. But it was an offer she couldn’t refuse.

The argument fails to convince. No publicly quoted company would be happy with the timing of Carolyn McCall’s departure. If GMG isn’t a company in turmoil, it’s doing its best to look like one.



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