Seven West Media CEO Warburton announces shock exit amid industry challenges

Seven West Media CEO Warburton announces shock exit amid industry challenges

(L-R) Seven West Media CEO James Warburton and incoming CEO Jeff Howard

Seasoned media executive James Warburton is poised to wrap up five years at Seven West Media (ASX: SWM) next year after announcing his shock departure from the company as CEO.

Warburton, who has led Seven West Media since 2019, will stay on until the end of FY24 with CFO Jeff Howard announced as his replacement.

The former head of the Ten Network, who followed this up with a stint as CEO of V8 Supercars, oversaw a turnaround in Seven West’s fortunes following his appointment in 2019.

However, he leaves the company at a challenging time for the television industry.

While the Seven Network operates the most watched free to air network and digital platform in Australia, the company has been hit by falling ad revenues and a decline in the total television market, which the company says was down 7.9 per cent in FY23.

This is despite Seven retaining its position as the number one television network in Australia for the third year in a row, converting its ratings supremacy into a bigger share of the advertising market in FY23.

Warburton’s departure is set against a backdrop of takeovers and mergers that have dominated the media sector in recent years.

Seven West Media is currently monitoring a $225 million takeover offer by ARN Media for Triple M owner Southern Cross Media Group, with the company upping its stake in ARN Media to 19.9 per cent to secure a seat at the table. Southern Cross also has a separate merger proposal on the table from Antony Catalano's Australian Community Media.

Seven West Media says the board was advised by Warburton that he would be stepping down as CEO at the end of this financial year, but chairman Kerry Stokes says Howard’s transition as CEO may occur on or before 30 June 2024.

“Jeff has an immense depth of experience and exposure across the broad media industry and the right balance of skills to deal with a dynamic and evolving media landscape,” Stokes says.

“Having worked as SWM’s chief financial officer since January 2020, he is well positioned to continue the momentum created by James. His commercial knowledge, passion and commitment will ensure a strong performance focus at this critical time of change and innovation for the industry.”

Warburton describes Howard as ‘an extremely talented leader’, noting that his understanding of the business will make the transition seamless for the group.

“It has been an incredible journey at SWM and with an exceptionally talented team in place, the time is right for the company to take the next step,” Warburton says.

“I take great pride in the transformation of SWM in recent years and its position as the leader in total TV in both ratings and revenue.

“A significant improvement in the balance sheet and digital earnings, underpinned by long-term AFL and cricket TV and streaming rights, and the acquisition of Prime have given the company a very strong future.

“I’ve now spent more than 15 years of my professional life working for Seven (in two stints) and I’d like to thank Kerry and Ryan Stokes, the other directors and our major shareholders for the wonderful opportunity and their support. “

Warburton has not indicated his future plans other than to say he looks forward to the ‘next chapter’ of his career.

Howard says Warburton leaves SWM in ‘a strong position to take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead’.

“As we look to the next phase of growth in an ever-changing industry, our focus is on continuing to create great content to be the most connected news, sport and entertainment brand in Australia, while driving value for shareholders,” he says.

“Our strategy of premium audience generation and engagement across all of SWM’s platforms will remain at the forefront of everything we do.”

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