Dear Mark: Nine CEO Hugh Marks is about to get a higher profile

If media executives are usually best known for their egos, perhaps it’s no surprise that Hugh Marks isn’t widely known.

So much so, that on Thursday, when news of the proposed Nine and Fairfax Media merger broke, the union wrote to the anointed chief of the new $4.2 billion company. 

It started like this: “Dear Mark …”

It says plenty about the union, and perhaps a little about Marks, that this slip-up is already doing the rounds of the market.

Fairfax and Nine to merge

Those that have followed the career of this 52-year-old, who has worked under outsized media personalities including Kerry Packer, David Leckie and David Gyngell, say he’s a different breed to the traditional media executive.

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Understated and quietly effective are frequent descriptions.

Marks was born in Sydney, studied commerce and law, and chose not to go into the family business, jeweller Percy Marks.

But he was closely involved. According to one source, it wasn’t unusual for Marks, who helped do books for the jeweller, to bring the accounts to the office when he worked in Nine’s legal department under Leckie, perhaps giving him an early insight into business.

Leckie, who hired Marks in 1995 as legal counsel, told the Sydney Morning Herald this week: “He’s a good man, very fair – but not to be messed with.”

After Nine, Marks ran production house Southern Star Group,which was owned by Fairfax before being sold to Endemol in 2009. He also co-owned talent agency RGM Artist Group with Southern Cross Austereo CEO Grant Blackley. From his time at Fairfax, he may have picked up some lessons about the culture.

There’s a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a joke he made when addressing Fairfax staff. No one laughed, except then chief executive Brian McCarthy.

While at Nine, and then later at Southern Cross, Marks honed his commercial nous through involvement with programs like Hi-5, a children’s series, and later Love My Way, the widely acclaimed made-for-Foxtel drama starring Claudia Karvan. Along the way, he was given the moniker “Hollywood Hugh”, though others say it’s not widely known and must be tongue-in-cheek.

He kept in touch with his former legal colleagues, even roping the now head of KPMG Law Stuart Fuller onto an episode of cooking program Ready, Steady Cook! on Nine.

The unassuming CEO of NIne is about to have a much higher profile in media.
The unassuming CEO of NIne is about to have a much higher profile in media.

David Rowe

 Marks has been a director of Nine since it listed, chaired the audit committee and was appointed to succeed Nine chief executive Gyngell in February 2013.

“He’s 180 degrees different from Gyng [Gyngell],” says Nine’s director of news and current affairs Darren Wick.

“Their management styles couldn’t be further apart. They have both been very effective where they’ve taken the company. The difference between Gyng and Hugh is that Gyng is so hands-on, and Hugh’s view is you go and manage the team.”

Wick says Marks also has a strong understanding of television.

“He’s quite a link to the heritage of Channel 9, he worked directly under Kerry Packer. He tells stories about when everyone when out to lunch every day. Hugh likes a drink and a party and likes us to enjoy ourselves. We don’t do it every day, but when we do it, he says: don’t bother bringing your car in.”

Peter Meakin, Network Ten’s head of news and current affairs, says Marks shouldn’t be underestimated. He recalled when he was sent to Mumbai with Marks – along with a clutch of other Nine operatives – to consider setting up a television station, a foray he said didn’t last long. 

“He’s always impressed me as extremely intelligent, honest and straightforward … he’s basically, in my view, a very capable guy and quite likable,” he says. “There’s none of the bombast that comes with a  [Sam] Chisholm or a Leckie, he’s very restrained in my experience … I think he’ll do a brilliant job and I don’t think anyone should underestimate him.” 

Just weeks ago, the Herald reported Marks had bought a house on 40 hectares near Berry, in southern NSW for $4 million. Marks has long been based in Artarmon where he bought his Californian bungalow for $765,000 in 1998, the paper said.

An excellent golfer (his handicap is 8), a keen skier and a West Tigers fan, Marks will have a big job bringing together the two media companies, which investors are being asked to support via a scheme of arrangement.

Marks will continue to do the rounds of investors next week, selling the benefits of scale, how he will pull out the $50 million in annualised costs in two years, and more importantly, delivering the revenue benefits. He’s also expected to hive off lower growth businesses, which are likely to be the regional newspapers and perhaps New Zealand assets.

Investors who have watched his performance so far at Nine, say he’s done well –  cut costs, grown revenues, market share and focused on digital content, though there is more to do. And most significantly, he’s using the run-up in Nine’s scrip to underwrite the proposed transaction with Fairfax Media. Analysts expect Nine to report a rise in earnings of 26 per cent for 2017-18, compared to the prior year, and revenue growth of 9 per cent. 

But if this deal is successful, having the role of chief executive is just half of the picture. The other key role is the chairman – and the relationship between the CEO and his chair. Peter Costello, the anointed chair of the merged group, has chaired Nine since Marks was appointed chief executive.

Already, the speculation has begun about whether Fairfax chairman Nick Falloon, who also chairs Domain, has ambitions to chair the merged group. In part, this is because Marks and Falloon have worked together before, but investors said they would not want Falloon to chair both Domain and Nine. 

However this ends, it’s safe to say Marks is unlikely to receive another Dear Mark letter any time soon. ​

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