The biggest investor in up-for-sale Johnston Press has vowed to block what he called “insane actions” by the company’s board after increasing his shareholding to more than 25pc.
The regional publisher announced it was putting itself up for sale last week after failing to come up with a refinancing package to pay off its £220m debt.
Its biggest shareholder Christen Ager-Hanssen, left, has announced that his Custos Group has increased its shareholding from 20.1pc to more than 25pc, saying this will allow him to be “more active”.
His increased stake means that were any offers to come in for JP he could effectively block a sale of 100pc of the business – although he would not necessarily be able to prevent the sale of individual assets.
JP’s board has made clear that its ideal outcome from the current sale process would to find a buyer for the whole company, which employs 2,141 staff across the UK and publishes more than 200 regional and local newspaper brands.
But chief executive David King has said there is a “very strong likelihood” that bidders will move to break up the business by trying to buy particular assets.
In a statement announcing his increased shareholding, Mr Ager-Hanssen launched a wide-ranging and strongly-worded attack on the JP board, accusing it of “greed, selfishness and unaccountability.”
And he claimed the company’s current management “never had a credible strategy” for how to monetize its audience in the digital age.
He said: “The long and proud 250 year history of Johnston Press has now been replaced by a more recent and tragic history of rampant fee-sucking by its negligent board and incompetent advisers. And with the board’s new strategy to sell its crown-jewels, the fee-sucking will simply increase. Sadly, JP has become a textbook case of shareholder-value destruction.
“The chairwoman of JP, Camilla Rhodes, and her team literally have no clue as to how to relate shareholder value. They do not understand the concept of monetisation of audience in the digital age. They never had a credible strategy.
“Such cluelessness, coupled with the board’s greed, self-interest and unaccountability are the reasons that Johnston Press inevitably ended up in the mess they now are in.
“Custos is of the opinion that as major shareholder we have a responsibility to be active and vocal and to fight this sort of mismanagement, breach of fiduciary duty and the culture of greed and self-interest so clearly displayed by a few cozy fat cats interested more in themselves than their shareholders and hard-working employees.
“Custos is proud to be an activist shareholder fighting for all stakeholders’ benefit. With Custos increased shareholding of more than 25pc we are in a position to be more active and ensure some of the more insane board or adviser actions can be blocked.
“Custos obviously have no confidence in the board or its advisers but our increased holding prove that we continue to have confidence in the underlying business. Employees, at all levels, have been reaching out to me from within JP, excited by the prospect of change and offering Custos their support. They crave new leadership and a proper forward thinking strategy fit for the digital age.”
In his statement, Mr Ager-Hanssen went on to accuse the board of “corporate theft of power from all shareholders” over a “poison pill” clause established in the company’s bond agreement, which effectively prevented him from launching a takeover bid for the company last year.
The so-called “poison pill” means that the £220m bonds would immediately become repayable in the event of a change of ownership.
Mr Ager-Hanssen had previously demanded the removal of Ms Rhodes and non-executive director Mike Butterworth, and their replacement by former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond and former Local World boss Steve Auckland.
A Johnston Press spokesman 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.”