Pitt leaves INM as Michael Doorly set to become interim chief executive

Departure to resolve boardroom row over aborted Newstalk deal

INM chief executive Robert Pitt (left) walks past chairman Leslie Buckley at the media group’s annual meeting in August. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

INM chief executive Robert Pitt (left) walks past chairman Leslie Buckley at the media group’s annual meeting in August. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

It is understood that Michael Doorly, the company secretary and chief risk officer at Independent News & Media (INM), will take over as interim chief executive following the departure of Robert Pitt.

The departing chief executive will leave INM on Friday, following talks between the company, his representatives and those of Leslie Buckley, INM’s chairman, to resolve a boardroom row over an aborted deal for Newstalk that has dogged it for over a year.

His exit brings to an end to one of the most extraordinary director standoffs in Irish corporate history, which culminated in the outgoing chief executive making a protected disclosure about Mr Buckley to the Office of the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE).

It is unclear so far if Mr Pitt’s exit has any implications for the future of Ryan Preston, INM’s chief financial officer, who also made a similar protected disclosure about the Newstalk row internally under whistleblower rules.

INM’s statement about Mr Pitt’s exit made no mention of any other departures, and Mr Preston currently remains in situ. The company would not comment further on its chief financial officer, who also previously worked with Mr Pitt at the retailer Tesco.

It is understood that outgoing chief executive has agreed a sizeable exit package, although the company would not comment. Sources indicated that INM has made a provision of up to €2 million internally to pay for senior management departures.

Share options

Mr Pitt was paid a total of €566,000 last year and €693,000 the year before. He had also been granted share options with a “fair value” of more than €1 million, according to the most recent annual report. It is unclear if he got a payment as part of his exit deal to take account of those options.

Mr Pitt and Mr Buckley, who represents main shareholder Denis O’Brien on the INM board, fell out over an abandoned proposal for INM to buy Mr O’Brien’s radio station Newstalk.

Mr Pitt felt Newstalk was overvalued and he refused to pay the sum Mr O’Brien was asking. The chief executive commissioned a valuation for Newstalk from external advisers that was significantly below the price sought by Mr O’Brien.

Mr Pitt and Mr Buckley then had a major dispute about the price tag for the proposed deal, and a formal proposal to bid was never brought to INM’s board. The chief executive still complained about Mr Buckley to other members of INM’s board, who investigated but found “no issue of concern” for the company.

As the row intensified late last year, Mr Pitt then made his whistleblower complaint about his interactions with Mr Buckley to the ODCE, the State’s corporate watchdog.

Following a story by The Irish Times on Thursday that a deal to end the standoff was close, the company told the stock exchange on Thursday afternoon that Mr Pitt will leave the business with effect from Friday “to pursue other interests”.

The ODCE continues to investigate the row over the Newstalk price tag. A separate, independent inquiry commissioned by the board has failed to reach a conclusion to favour either of the conflicting accounts of Mr Pitt and Mr Buckley.

In August, Mr Pitt took an unprecedented step for an Irish listed company chief executive by publicly refusing to back the re-election to the board of his chairman at the annual general meeting.

Mr Pitt’s departure does not necessarily mean an end to the role of the ODCE. It is unclear, however, how the State investigation may be affected by his exit.

INM would not comment further.