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New Torstar CEO: What we’re hearing so far

Report on Business writer Andy Willis.

The protracted search for a new chief executive at Torstar Corp. is complete. The company said Wednesday morning that it will make an announcement on a new boss "very soon" and current CEO David Holland will retire at the end of this week.

Rumours in the market have suggested that two top external candidates are people more notable for their abilities to work with family owners than for track records of turning around fading newspaper publishers. There is also an internal Torstar candidate well versed in digital media. It's entirely possible that none of these three executives will be named CEO, and a dark horse candidate will emerge with the job.

Mr. Holland had planned to retire last year after 30 years at Torstar, then delayed his departure as the search for a new boss took longer than anticipated. This has been a rocky process – the search was briefly halted last year as the company discreetly discussed its future with major shareholder Fairfax Financial Holdings Ltd.

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Top outside contenders for the job, according to sources familiar with a search that is being run by Caldwell Partners, were John Cassaday, former CEO of Corus Entertainment Inc., Jonathan Goodman, global managing partner at consulting firm Monitor Deloitte and Wayne Parrish, former chief operating officer at Postmedia Network Inc., the country's largest newspaper chain.

Mr. Cassaday spent 16 years running Corus, a television-focused media company controlled by Calgary's Shaw family, before retiring in 2015. Mr. Parrish spent the early part of his career as a journalist before becoming a print and digital media executive; he left Postmedia two years ago. Mr. Cassaday and Mr. Parrish could not be reached for comment on the Torstar CEO search.

Mr. Goodman is a Harvard Business School graduate who has spent three decades in management consulting, but he has deep connections to Torstar. He worked as a reporter at the flagship Toronto Star prior to doing his MBA and is the son of the late Martin Goodman, a widely-respected journalist who became president of the Star before his death in 1981.

However, when contacted by The Globe and Mail this week, he said he is out. "I have had a long personal and professional relationship with Torstar and care deeply about the future of the company and the future of journalism in this country," he said in an e-mail. "That said, I am not currently in the running for the CEO of Torstar."

An internal CEO candidate is Chris Goodridge, who currently runs Torstar's digital media operations. He is a former lawyer at Blake Cassels and Graydon LLP who joined Torstar in 2004. He has the most direct knowledge of the challenges facing the company, but to date, Torstar has had more strikeouts than home runs on its digital plays.

Several of these executives are well-versed in the sometimes Byzantine politics of a family-run public company. That's a necessary skill; whoever takes the top job inherits a company navigating the new world of media with an old-fashioned ownership structure.

Torstar is controlled by five families and has a mandate to be a progressive social force along with a money-making enterprise. That dual mission used to be easy to fulfill. For decades, the business delivered reliable cash flow by selling page after page of advertising, cash that was used to build a stable of more than 100 city and community papers and pay out significant dividends to the founders' heirs.

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The good times ended as readers went digital. Double-digit annual declines in print advertising revenues in recent years hammered Torstar's share price and the fortunes of the founding families. Stock that changed hands for $30 in 2004 now trades for less than $2, after the board cut the dividend twice last year.

On Mr. Holland's watch, Torstar invested in digital properties, including dropping $200-million on a majority stake in website operator VerticalScope Inc. The former chief financial officer also cleaned up the company's finances, cutting costs through measures that included layoffs and paying off Torstar's debt by selling romance publisher Harlequin for $455-million.

But Mr. Holland was no revolutionary and one could argue that Torstar's next CEO needs to move more aggressively toward a better digital strategy, even if the shift comes at the expense of legacy newspapers.

Mr. Cassaday is a proven manager, but at the age of 62, his tenure would seem to be a bridge to the next generation of leaders at a time when radical change is required. Money may also be an object. Torstar paid Mr. Holland $2.5-million in 2015, with half that compensation coming in the form of stock and options. With Torstar's share price in free fall, this stock-based compensation has little value. And it's far less than Mr. Cassaday made at Corus, where his compensation was more than $4-million annually.

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About the Author
Business Columnist

Andrew Willis is a business columnist for the Report on Business at The Globe and Mail, based in Toronto.He has been in business communications and journalism for three decades. More

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