Wednesday, May 5, 2010

New Freedom CEO talks of "right-sizing" the organization, but also of being "platform agnostic" going forward

New Freedom Communications chairman James D. Dunning Jr. used some frightening words to describe his mission, but also expressed some views that may be encouraging at the same time.

In an interview with Freedom's own Orange County Register, Dunning said “Our first task is right-sizing the organization for the business of the future. I don’t mean lean and mean, but right-sized for the issues of running the business in the future. We are in a talent evaluation mode."

Having been involved in re-engineering, as well as right-sizing as a publisher, these are usually words that strike fear in the minds of staffers when voiced.

On the other hand, Dunning said he wants the company's products to be "platform agnostic" -- usually a good sign for those promoting web, mobile and tablet publishing.

“I want to focus on being the biggest, best local provider of what I call the three ‘Cs’ — content, community and circulation," Dunning said. "We’re going to capture the local share of the ad market and not just be victims of trends. We will be platform agnostic. Our leverage and advantage is that we have newspapers. I want us to be great and a winner in our space.”

Freedom Communications emerged from bankruptcy last week, shedding a large chunk of debt, but leaving the company in the hands of the private equity firms, ending the ownership of the Hoiles family.

Background: Freedom's new chairman is a leveraged buyout pro who has swung many media deals in the past. Dunning graduated from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 1970 with a B.S. in Economics, and was an investment banker at Thomson McKinnon Securities, Inc. from 1982 to 1985. After that his stays at any one place usually involve major acquisitions or sales. He was part of the management buyout at Peterson Publishing and later was involved in the Willis-Stein back purchase of Ziff Davis in December 1999. Dunning served as CEO at Ziff before being removed by Willis-Stein. He worked for a hedge fund for a while before serving as chairman of Doubledown Media, a company that was filed for Chapter 7 in 2009. Dunning made it into the gossip pages of the NY Post when it was revealed that he took a six figure payment described as "interest on loan." Dunning supposedly had invested up to $7 million in the company before it imploded.

Dunning's presence on the board is either a sign that the goal of the Freedom Communications' creditors is to fatten up the company for an eventual sale, the result of an investment, or else an attempt to find investment -- we'll know within a couple of years.

In the meantime, Burl Osborne who served as Interim President & CEO at Freedom during the period of the bankruptcy proceedings, will stay on until a new CEO is named. Osborne, 72, was previously president of the publishing division at A.H. Belo before retiring in 2001. He had served on the Freedom Communications board since May of 2004.