Activist investor takes swipe at Johnston Press chief executive after building up 21 per cent stake

 
William Turvill
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Ashley Highfield has been chief executive of Johnston Press since 2011

The activist investor building up a stake in Johnston Press has taken a first public swipe at the newspaper group’s chief executive since becoming its biggest shareholder.

Richard Bernstein, who leads the Crystal Amber fund, has told City A.M. he lacks “confidence” in Johnston Press boss Ashley Highfield to lead the company out of trouble.

He was speaking after Crystal Amber built up its stake in the firm, which publishes the i newspaper, Scotsman and Yorkshire Post, to more than 21 per cent.

Read more: Boss of troubled Johnston Press set for meeting with activist investor

Earlier this month, in a trading update, Johnston Press reported improving fortunes in the last quarter of 2016. Highfield told City A.M. that he and the company’s chief financial officer would be arranging a meeting with Crystal Amber shortly afterwards.

However, Bernstein has now told City A.M.: “We’ve not met Ashley, nor has he offered a meeting.”

Asked about Crystal Amber’s views on the company, he added:

We’re most concerned that there must be no repeat of the negotiations in 2014, which Ashley oversaw and was ‘rewarded’ by his board with a substantial bonus.

Then Ashley signed off on fees to advisers of £21m, more than the company’s current stock market value!

We have neither the evidence nor the confidence in his ability to secure a better outcome for shareholders in the forthcoming inevitable restructure in 2019.

Read more: Watch your step: UK shareholder activism is on the rise

Crystal Amber increased its stake in Johnston Press from seven per cent to 19 per cent in January, and has built its shareholding further since.

Last year was a particularly tough for all newspaper publishers, and Johnston Press’ share price is down by more than 50 per cent in the last 12 months.

Highfield and Johnston Press have been asked for comment.

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