The last family member to head up the Fairfax media empire, Warwick Fairfax, says he’s sad that the company name is disappearing in the takeover by the Nine Network.
In a rare broadcast interview, he said Fairfax wasn’t the only company not to adapt well to the digital media business, and he’s also admitted to making dumb mistakes over his ill-fated privatisation bid for what was the family business.
Mr Fairfax is so far removed from the venerable print company, which he once ran and still bears his surname, that he had no knowledge of the deal to become part of the Nine Network, even initially after it was made public.
“I mean, nobody called me – you’re the first person to try,” he told the ABC’s AM.
He’s caught up with the news now and says he understands why the company that dates from 1841 finds itself in search of a corporate lifeline – even one that’s likely to extinguish the Fairfax family name.
“It’s different than it was 20, 30, 50 years ago,” he said.
Nevertheless, he says it’s sad that the Fairfax name is going from the business.
“I mean obviously I can’t be objective because it’s my family, but those who worked there probably feel like it stood for something – a sense of quality, independence,” he said.
‘It’s easy to throw rocks’
Mr Fairfax says he doesn’t think it would have necessarily gone any better for Fairfax under his leadership.
“I don’t view myself as particularly good at running a big company, so I can’t say if I’d been in charge it would have been better,” he said.
“It’s easy to throw rocks and say the Herald and Age should have really held onto the rivers of gold, classifieds, what have you.
“But if you look at some of the major papers around the world, a lot of them missed that boat – the Herald wasn’t the only one.”
Thirty years ago, the rivers of classified ad revenue gold didn’t help Mr Fairfax survive an ill-fated bid to privatise the company and resume full family ownership.
The move backfired – by December 1990, Fairfax was in receivership, the family in a civil war.
Mr Fairfax made himself scarce by moving to the United States and few people have ever heard this mea culpa.
“Probably naive, idealistic – you know, I was trying to do what I thought was the right thing, but probably in hindsight, it obviously wasn’t,” he said.
I made some dumb assumptions and dumb mistakes. You can be well intentioned and still do a lot of dumb things.”
Mr Fairfax said there were differences of opinion about how the company was being run.
“There was a lot of turmoil within the family, as there had been for a few decades before that,” he said.
“I wasn’t really cut out for that – I’m not a Rupert Murdoch, Kerry Packer – you know, this take-charge business person. I’m more of a reflective adviser type.”
Mr Fairfax earns a living now as a corporate adviser.
He’s been through a personal wilderness, he says, making sense of how he made a small fortune by starting out with a large one.
“In my case, it was losing a 150-year-old family business,” he says.