The largest shareholder in Johnston Press, Norwegian entrepreneur Christen Ager-Hanssen, has said he has an “appetite” for the business after increasing his stake in the publisher to 25 per cent.
In an extraordinary statement last Friday attacking the publisher’s board, the Custos Group chief executive revealed he was upping his shareholding to block “insane” board actions around the sale of the company.
Scotsman and i publisher Johnston Press put itself up for sale on October 11 due to difficulties refinancing £220m of debt.
Asked by Press Gazette if he would be further increasing his stake in JP, Ager-Hanssen said: “We have an appetite for Johnston Press. What we will do in the future, I could not talk about.
“I know the underlying assets, and I want to see this company succeed. We are the biggest shareholder, and we will not let the board destroy all of Johnston Press, that’s for sure.”
Ager-Hanssen, who owns Sweden’s equivalent of the Metro newspaper, made a similar statement to BBC Good Morning Scotland this morning.
He said: “I would love to see the company, with its proud 250-year history, be able to keep together and see that they have a clear digital strategy – they have not.
“So it’s very simple. I see it as a clear opportunity to turn this company around. We are prepared to take risks, I think that we are able to do something with it and that’s the reason we invested.
Asked by the BBC if he had a management team ready, Ager-Hanssen said: “We have a management team ready, complete board and also a new CEO.”
‘I’m going… to remove the board’
The entrepreneur told Press Gazette he was not aware of any offers made for Johnston Press since its sale was announced and would not comment on whether he was backing anyone else to make an offer for the publisher.
Asked if he was speaking to JP’s board, he said: “I’m not interested in talking to the board at all.
“They have ignored the biggest shareholders, and I decided that if I’m going to do anything, it is to remove the board.”
In a series of tweets about Johnston Press this morning, he added: “Churchill said: ‘Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.’
“Bon Voyage to the board of Johnston Press.”
In his statement last week, Ager-Hanssen accused JP’s board of destroying shareholder value, never having a “credible strategy” and paying themselves “over £7m”, which he claimed was more than three times the market cap.
He went on to accuse the company of “corporate theft”, saying it had “deprived shareholders of their fundamental right and power to hold the board properly to account and to change the board as they see fit” through a “poison pill” in a bond agreement.
Johnston Press has yet to respond directly to the claims.
A spokesperson for the publisher said: “We launched the formal sale process last week so that interested parties could make offers for the Company. That process continues and remains our focus.”
The company has also previously welcomed Ager-Hanssen to offer a “workable proposal to refinance the business”.
He has previously backed former Scottish first minister Alex Salmond as JP chairman, owing to the group’s strong presence in Scotland, although this has since been dropped.
Asked if he thought his earlier statement about the board had been a little strong, Ager-Hanssen replied: “I think it was weak. I don’t think it was strong at all. It was a message someone should have said a long time ago.”
In an FAQ sent to JP staff, seen by Press Gazette, the company reiterated that it would consider selling off parts of the business. Ager-Hanssen has been reported as saying that he did not want JP to be broken up.
The Custos Group boss told Press Gazette he thought it was important that JP titles with “ brand authority in their local markets” were kept together in a society of fake news.
He also stressed his belief that JP was in need of an “equity story” – a picture of the company’s vision for both insiders and investors.
“A company that has no equity story can’t spend any money because they don’t know what to do,” he said.
“I think what is important is to invest in the business and develop it, because if you’re just cost-cutting there is only one way you can go, and that is to hell.”
JP is said to have a market value of £3m. Those interested in making an offer to buy the publisher are advised to contact Rothschild advisers.
Picture: Johan Annerfelt/Creative Commons