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Losing money on Ten a rite of passage for Aussie billionaires

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How many billionaires does it take to rescue a struggling, mid-sized broadcaster like Network Ten? 

We still don’t know after James PackerLachlan MurdochBruce Gordon and Gina Rinehart flushed their combined $1 billion investment in the broadcaster down the toilet on Wednesday with the decision to appoint administrators. 

Lachlan Murdoch at the 2013 Ten annual meeting when he was chairman. Lachlan Murdoch at the 2013 Ten annual meeting when he was chairman.  Photo: Rob Homer

Packer, Murdoch and Rinehart picked up $400 million of shares in a mad rush in 2010 alone.

The troika poured more money down the drain with subsequent share sales by the company to fund its increasingly fragile business. 

The biggest shareholder of Ten Network is Bruce Gordon, with 15 per cent of shares. He also owns regional broadcaster ... The biggest shareholder of Ten Network is Bruce Gordon, with 15 per cent of shares. He also owns regional broadcaster WIN, which prevents him from owning a controlling stake in Ten.  Photo: Sylvia Liber

Bermuda-based billionaire Gordon did even worse with his charge up the share register over the prior decade.

He invested more than the other billionaires combined, and – at times – paid more than double per share what they did: up to $3 a share.  

Those share are now worthless, but losing money on the Ten Network has become a rite of passage for Aussie billionaires. 

The rot began much earlier with Westfield founder, Frank Lowy‘s decision in the 1990s to diversify out of shopping centres and into media – with a young David Gonski testing out his skills as an investor on Lowy’s behalf. 

CPA Australia CEO, the ubiquitous Alex Malley. CPA Australia CEO, the ubiquitous Alex Malley. Photo: Louise Kennerley

Lowy paid Rupert Murdoch‘s News Corp $840 million for Ten’s east coast network in 1986, and lost most of it before the decade was out. Ten was in receivership by 1990. 

Lowy said that owning Ten was “like trying to hold a fish. The tighter we gripped it, the more it slipped out of our hands.”  

Illustration: John Shakespeare Illustration: John Shakespeare 

His fellow billionaires could say much the same thing all these decades later. 

They, along with Packer, gave the broadcaster a debt guarantee in 2013 in return for Ian Narev‘s Commonwealth Bank giving Ten a $200 million loan with no financial covenants. 

Gordon and Lachlan – in his capacity as guarantor and private investor – have joined forces to try to nut out a restructure proposal that would see the secured debt repaid and guarantee removed “over an appropriate period”.

The smart money says the appropriate period will end when media ownership laws change and the duo can take the broadcaster private. 

Ten degrees of separation at Lachlan’s network

The media industry is pretty incestuous at the best of times, but the tangle at Ten has taken this reputation to new heights. 

Bruce Gordon is Nine’s largest shareholder, owns Ten’s regional affiliate, WIN, and is closing in on Ten. 

But all roads at Ten seem to lead to Lachlan. Here’s a quick recap. 

Lachlan Murdoch owns 7.7 per cent via his private media group, Illyria, which is now in the driver’s seat as it attempts to broker the debt restructure with Gordon’s Birketu. 

Foxtel has a 13.8 per cent stake. Foxtel is 50 per cent owned by the Murdoch family’s News Corp, which also has managerial control of the pay TV provider. 

Lachlan’s day job includes his role as co-chair of News Corp. 

Siobhan McKenna, who runs Illyria for Lachlan, was named in the documents regarding the restructure proposal being cooked up by Illyria and Gordon’s Birketu. 

She resigned as Lachlan’s representative on the Ten board a few months back to take up an executive role at Foxtel.  

We did mention who ultimately controls Foxtel didn’t we? 

Lachlan’s other day job is as executive chairman of 21st Century Fox.

One of Ten’s big financial headaches is the content deals it signed with US studios all those years ago which reportedly cost it up to $100 million a year. 

One of those deals it has been trying to renegotiate is with CBS, the other is with – you guessed it – 21st Century Fox. 

No wonder the Australian Shareholders Association – on the eve of Ten’s collapse – was calling for the appointment of more independent directors to help explore other options for the broadcaster, “given the substantial conflicts of interest and potential related party transactions at play”.

This would have ensured independents had a majority and could “out-vote all of the conflicted directors if necessary to ensure the interests of minority shareholders are protected and conflicts of interest are appropriately managed”.

That ship has now sailed. 

High noon

CPA Australia’s rapidly dwindling board met on Tuesday to discuss the civil war brewing in its ranks over the organisation’s dubious corporate governance and monstrously paid CEO Alex Malley.

Not that the current chairman, Jim Dickson, would see it that way, of course. Despite three board resignations in less than a week he railed against the media pressure saying, “The toll it is taking on individuals and our organisation is unacceptable”.

But the bean-counting body posted an update on Wednesday promising that Dickson and Malley will “make significant announcements on Friday”.

Dickson said further details will be provided in due course, without any further clarification. 

Corporate zombies

Lots of woeful and bizarre things have happened in relation to MFS, now known as Octaviar, which collapsed in 2008 owing creditors $2.5 billion. But the latest announcement by ASIC takes some beating.   

The corporate regulator announced on Wednesday that it has applied to the Supreme Court of Queensland for an order that the now de-registered Octaviar IHH Pty Ltd (OIHH) be reinstated as a company. And then it wants to wind it up. 

It is one of four Octaviar subsidiaries that it wants wound up on “on just and equitable grounds”. 

ASIC said it is concerned that the three other subsidiaries “are contravening provisions of the act, including the requirement for a proprietary company to have at least one director”. 

Follow CBD on Twitter. Got a tip? ckruger@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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