Shareholders move in on Johnston Press CEO

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Investors in the publisher behind the i newspaper, The Scotsman and The Yorkshire Post are expected to call for Ashley Highfield to step down from the firm in a meeting this week.

The company’s biggest single shareholder, activist fund Crystal Amber, is believed to be meeting with Johnston’s interim chair, Camilla Rhodes to discuss ways to revive the fortunes of the heavily indebted publisher.

Johnston ran into trouble following a series of acquisitions made before the financial crisis, and has suffered from the decline in print advertising. It is now £205m in debt.

In 2014 Johnston’s current CEO, Ashley Highfield, was brought to oversee a restructuring of the Edinburgh-based publisher but is yet to bring about a turnaround in the company’s fortunes.

After a debt restructuring deal was brokered in 2014, Johnston’s share price plummeted by more than 90% and the firm is now worth around £20m, despite owning a considerable roster of local titles.

An anonymous shareholder told the Sunday Times this weekend “Highfield got a huge bonus following the restructure of the business two years ago. But since that restructure shareholders have lost 90% of their money.”

Highfield was awarded £1.65m in 2014, in salary and bonuses, but subsequently saw his total income from Johnston reduced by 65%.

The Crystal Amber fund also has stakes in Northgate van hire and the landlord Grainger. Led by Richard Bernstein, has a 20.6 per cent share the Johnson Press and has spear-headed management shake-ups at other companies in its portfolio.

Last year, the Johnston Press offloaded 13 holdings, including the East Anglian Daily Times and East Midlands to Ilffe News & Media for £17m. Under Ashley Highfield, the company acquired the i newspaper for £24m last year. Its stock declined further after the EU referendum result last summer and is now at 18p, down from 160p in January 2015.

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