THE prospect of the former Woolworths chief executive Roger Corbett becoming the new chairman of Fairfax received a setback yesterday after it emerged that influential investors consider him ”too close” to the current chairman, Ron Walker, and incapable of delivering ”genuine renewal” for the board.
Sources closely aligned to the Fairfax family and their Marinya Media company told the Herald last night that Mr Corbett, although talented, would represent ”more of the same” and not deliver the independent chairman the company needed.
”Roger can put his hat in the ring if he wants to, but he has tied himself too closely to Walker,” one source said. ”The company needs genuine renewal and you are not going to get that with Roger. We’ve got to get away from being grocers to be a media company.”
The issue will be debated by the warring parties this week in an attempt to reach a compromise, before the notice of meeting goes out for the annual general meeting on November 10.
The Walker camp is expected to push for Mr Corbett to succeed Mr Walker as chairman, while the John B. Fairfax camp is tipped to reiterate its calls for an independent search firm to scout for an external candidate.
Divisions in the Fairfax boardroom turned into an extraordinary public spat last Thursday after Mr Walker – who was celebrating his 70th birthday at a party in Melbourne last night – declared he would retire on August 10 next year.
Late that day, Mr Fairfax’s Marinya Media, which owns 9.7 per cent of the company, issued an explosive statement saying it would vote against the re-election of Mr Walker at the annual meeting.
The statement said that, under Mr Walker’s tenure as chairman, Fairfax Media had taken on ”an unacceptable degree of risk” and suffered balance sheet damage by making acquisitions ”at the top of the cycle”.
That night, the independent director David Evans and Mr Walker returned serve, accusing Mr Fairfax in the Herald of hypocrisy and of deceiving the board by not disclosing details of the leverage over his Fairfax shares.
The following day, Friday, the independent directors Mr Corbett, Mr Evans, Julia King, Peter Young and Robert Savage issued a statement saying they supported Mr Walker.
The Walker and Fairfax camps are expected to try to thrash out a compromise before the end of this month to avert a showdown at the annual meeting and instability in the boardroom.
Both say they have the numbers or expect to garner the support of institutional investors in a proxy battle should a compromise not be struck before the meeting.
It is understood that although the Marinya Media camp respects the ability of Mr Corbett as a potential chairman and has publicly praised the former Woolworths chief executive, it would prefer an external appointment because Mr Corbett is allied with the opposing board faction.