From flipping burgers to media mogul

David White/StuffSinead Boucher used to flip burgers at McDonald’s. Now she owns a media company.She’s the woman who bought a media company for $1, so what’s next for Stuff and instant media mogul Sinead Boucher? Tony Wall reports. New Zealand’s newest media mogul was sporting rabbit ears and whiskers just before she broke the momentous news to her family that she’d bought the country’s biggest news operation. Stuff chief executive Sinead Boucher was at home in Wellington on a FaceTime call with her sisters and parents in Christchurch and her brother and his family in London last Sunday night. The kids were goofing around with silly face filters – Boucher was a rabbit. Everyone was cackling with laughter so it was pretty hard to make a serious point. READ MORE: * Stuff’s CEO buyout cause for optimism * Stuff boss Sinead Boucher: ‘I asked myself what I wanted for the business’ * Stuff CEO Sinead Boucher buys the company, announces ‘great new era’ “She just really casually dropped it in, that there would be some news coming in the next couple of days that ‘I’m buying Stuff’,” says younger sister Colleen O’Hanlon, who is editor of Stuff’s Homed section. “She was modest about it. She instantly went, ‘but I’m not going to keep it, I’m going to move to a staff ownership share model . . . that’s my plan,” says O’Hanlon, who’s a well known chatterbox. “I’m not one who is often lost for words, but I honestly felt like a stunned mullet.” It’s fair to say much of the media industry had a similar reaction the following morning when it was made public that Boucher had, in fact, bought Stuff from Australia’s Nine Entertainment for the nominal sum of $1, ending years of uncertainty about the company’s fate. Speaking to many of Stuff’s 900 staff by Zoom that morning, Boucher was at pains to say that the purchase was not a silver bullet, and she wasn’t some kind of “mini Rupert Murdoch”. But with ties to the Aussie overlords finally severed, and a staff share scheme promised, at least Stuff had control of its own destiny. Staff reacted to the news with a mixture of relief and jubilation, after a stressful few weeks where the prospect of Stuff closing altogether had been raised by rival news outlets. “The past few months have been rather white-knuckled,” says Alison Mau, who has led Stuff’s #metoo coverage. “When I heard the news on Monday I let out a bit of a scream and then laughed for quite a long time, which I think was a release of pent-up tension. “I realise the future is still largely an unknown, but at its core this is a great move for New Zealand journalism.” Being portrayed as a white knight riding to the rescue – “Saint Sinead” screamed the headline in a Newsroom article on the purchase – is not something the 49-year-old executive wants to encourage. “I’m thrilled with the positive reaction, but I’m uncomfortable with this idea that it’s somehow saving Stuff – we still have to keep going hard,” Boucher says. “There’s still a really tough road ahead for media.” Indeed, there were many unanswered questions at the staff meeting. Did she have a financial backer? Would there be redundancies? Would papers close? How would the staff share scheme work? Boucher admits that a lot of the nitty-gritty of how the company will be structured is yet to be sorted out. Her priority was getting the deal done as quickly as possible “so we could move on and do things rather than being in a holding pattern”. Remarkably, the deal was pulled off within three weeks of her picking up the phone to Nine chief executive Hugh Marks and asking if he’d entertain the idea of a management buyout, or MBO in corporate-speak. It was early May and Nine had been in talks with NZME over that company’s offer to also buy Stuff for $1. But Marks had made it clear to Boucher that he couldn’t see that deal going anywhere – Nine wasn’t interested in another protracted Commerce Commission process and it didn’t look like the Government would change the law to allow the merger. “I rang Hugh and said … ‘would you consider an MBO’, he said ‘yes we would, let’s do it’. And then we agreed we’d get it done quickly. “He said if he was in my shoes he’d be doing the same thing.”Monique Ford/StuffNine chief executive Hugh Marks There had been reports that Nine had threatened to close Stuff by the end of May if it couldn’t get a deal done with the Government and NZME. It’s understood there was no threat to close the business as such, but Nine had made it clear that an urgent deal was needed or it would not commit to providing cash and support to Stuff during the Covid-19 crisis, which may have been a death sentence anyway. “There was a danger that if we had needed financial support, post-Covid, . . . that might not have been forthcoming,” Boucher admits. But she says in the end, measures such as voluntary pay cuts and other cost reductions, as well as a new reader donation scheme, meant the company never needed a cash injection from Nine to survive the early part of the crisis. “It never came to that point.” Across the ditch, Nine executives are effusive in their praise of Boucher. “I think it’s a great result . . . because it provides certainty that will allow the business to navigate the current economic crisis and grow on the other side,” says Chris Janz, Nine’s chief digital and publishing officer and Boucher’s direct boss. “Sinead is the perfect person to steer the ship, she’s got all the qualities of a great leader, she’s decisive while being consultative, she’s transparent, she takes counsel and she’s shown that she can remain calm during an incredibly unsettling time for the industry.” Greg Hywood, Boucher’s boss at Fairfax Media before it was bought by Nine, says she’s an “exceptional leader” and the right person at the right time. “What’s really important, I think, is that everyone gets behind Sinead and supports her – everybody in the company. “There’s going to be a need for some tough decisions over the next few years but Sinead is the sort of person who I think will make the right decisions.” Boucher’s convoluted path to media company owner began in Christchurch, where she grew up after moving to New Zealand from Belfast with her Irish Catholic parents, Mary and Sean, when she was about three. Sister Colleen, six years Sinead’s junior, remembers her as a shy teenager. “I don’t want to say ugly duckling, but she was just an ordinary girl . . . I remember when she got to 16 her hair had always been short and she grew it long and it grew into this curly, auburn mane that nobody knew she had. It was beautiful.” After leaving Villa Maria College, a state-integrated Catholic girls’ school, Boucher did a law paper at Canterbury University, but it wasn’t for her and she dropped out, working at McDonald’s. “To this day the kids in the family think it’s the dream job she gave up,” O’Hanlon laughs. (Boucher says she still remembers how to make a Big Mac). She went to Ireland for a while, returned to New Zealand in 1992 and enrolled in a six-month journalism course at Aoraki Polytechnic in Timaru. “My mum famously said ‘who have you ever heard of who got a job as a journalist?’,” O’Hanlon says. “My parents’ dream job for their daughters was something like a bank teller.” She worked as the north Canterbury branch reporter for The Press for several years, but got itchy feet so in 1999 moved with her future husband Mark Boucher – whom she’d met on the journalism course – to London. He worked on obscure trade magazines and The Times’ breaking news desk; she made a name at the Financial Times and as a Reuters correspondent. The arrival of their first child, Harriette, in 2003 prompted them to return to New Zealand – they married on the beach in Fiji on the way home. Back in Christchurch, The Press editor Paul Thompson created an assistant editor’s role for Boucher and she set about revitalising the paper’s website. In those days, websites were very much the poor relation in the newspaper game – the place where you dumped the previous day’s articles – but Boucher was a visionary in this area and saw them as the future. “Within a couple of years she was the editor of Stuff and now, not only is that the name and focus of the company, she owns it outright. It’s quite a story,” says Thompson, now chief executive at RNZ.StuffSinead Boucher in 2004, during her days as a reporter for The Press in Christchurch. Boucher kept climbing up the executive ladder – made group digital editor, then group executive editor and finally, in 2017, chief executive officer. It was quite a trajectory for someone who never finished university and had learned all her business skills on the job. Boucher admits her lack of a degree made her a bit “self-conscious” as she climbed the corporate ladder. But she took development opportunities when they came – including a stint studying at Cambridge when she won a scholarship – and soon learned that being a journalist has its advantages when it comes to analysing information and asking the right questions. “You realise you are the leader of a team of people who are the experts. My job is to set the vision and strategy and bring people along with me.” Her sister, O’Hanlon, admires her willingness to step up to the plate. “Most people have some kind of self-doubt and Sinead certainly has that, but she seems to be able to sequester it and to have faith in her own ability – ‘if not her, then who?’ That’s kind of how it is.” And she says Boucher has a modern leadership style. “We’ve got a Prime Minister who campaigned on kindness and . . . I don’t feel that Sinead is far off the same mark. “She does genuinely care for people in this business.” Paula Penfold, from the award-winning Stuff Circuit documentary team, says she has worked for some “eye-wateringly awful” media company executives but Boucher stands out as a phenomenal leader with a knack for making quick decisions. “On the day MediaWorks put out a statement saying our programme, 3D Investigates, was ‘under review’ … Sinead messaged to say, ‘good luck for the consultation period, but can we talk if it doesn’t work out?’ That’s how we came to be an investigative unit at Stuff – she believes in journalism, and she’s decisive.” Penfold was once asked in a job interview if she was too nice to be a good journalist. “But you can see Sinead’s niceness in her leadership and it’s an entirely good thing. In editorial meetings, she would listen, ask pertinent questions, listen some more, and then make a decision. She’s respectful but also very assured.” And it was Boucher’s ability to form relationships – including with Nine boss Marks – that eventually got the Stuff deal done.ROSA WOODS/STUFFSinead Boucher explains her decision to buy Stuff. Mark Boucher, whose decision to be a stay-home dad to Harriette and son Ben, 12, has allowed his wife to travel around the country at the drop of a hat, says the purchase of Stuff feels “a bit weird, a bit exciting and a bit scary”. “[Photographer] David White sent me a message saying what a ballsy move – certainly on Sinead’s part it was. “She did it really with staff in mind. That’s what drove it and that’s where the courage for her to do it came from, really.” The move has been applauded within the media industry, but some sound a note of caution. Tim Murphy, former NZ Herald editor and co-founder of media start-up Newsroom, describes the buyout as “heroic”, but was a little surprised that financial backers weren’t announced. “The absence of revenue [because of Covid] is going to be huge,” he says. “You might have done a budget for the current low revenues you’re seeing but if that gets worse or goes for longer, then each month getting enough in the door to pay staff will be a real challenge. “I think [the buyout] is the right option, but she probably needs to move quite quickly to get some capital to back it up.”Alden Williams/StuffSinead Boucher at the Journalism Education Association of New Zealand conference in 2019, with Newsroom co-editor Mark Jennings, left, and RNZ chief executive Paul Thompson. Dr Gavin Ellis, a media commentator and another former Herald editor, expects to see investors step up. “I think we may be surprised who comes out of the woodwork – I think there will be high net-worth New Zealanders who want to see Stuff continue and to prosper.” Stuff stands its best chance of survival under New Zealand ownership, he says, and is now in a position to try new things, such as appointing a staff representative to the board. “Then you have not only a symbolic sense of control, but an actual hand in the control of the decision-making processes of the company.” Why not?, says Boucher. She’s open to all ideas. She admits she has no idea how to set up a staff shareholding structure. She’ll call on her advisers for that. She used people from KPMG and commercial lawyer Nick Bragg from Buddle Findlay when pulling together the buyout deal. A lot of the work to get Stuff ready for sale had already been done and Boucher’s deep knowledge of the business meant she didn’t have to go through the same due diligence process other buyers would have. When the deal was signed around midnight last Sunday, it was a bit of an anti-climax. “I expected it to be a heart in the mouth moment, but in the end it’s an exchange of electronic signatures. Everyone in the house had gone to bed and I was sitting at the kitchen table. “I didn’t [wake Mark] – I told him in the morning.” She plans to drop off the $1 to Nine’s Wellington lawyers. “At least it will feel like the one physically real part of what’s quite a momentous process.” Boucher named the holding company that will own Stuff Kenepuru Holdings, after Kenepuru Sound where the family has a bach.Warwick Rasmussen/StuffStuff’s editor-in-chief newsrooms Bernadette Courtney, left, and Boucher at the Petone printing plant in 2018 on the first night Stuff’s daily papers shifted to a compact format. The O’Hanlon clan is gathering there this weekend and will raise a toast on Sunday, the day the ownership changes hands. Then it will be full bore into Stuff’s brave new future. “We still need to do transformation and become more digitally focused,” Boucher says. “That doesn’t mean we’re letting go of print, but we have to drive more out of the digital properties that we have. “There’s been a tendency over recent years to write Stuff off, that it’s somehow teetering on oblivion. “That’s always bemused me because that’s not what we’ve seen. We’ve got the biggest digital site, we’ve grown all these other businesses like Neighbourly and Stuff Fibre. “Now we’ve drawn a line under the uncertainty and we can just make decisions and seize opportunities for ourselves in a totally new context, not in a bigger corporate structure on the fringes of someone else’s plan.” She will try to keep out of the editorial side of the business, but admits that will be hard as she’s a journalist at heart. “I probably always will be. That’s because I love journalism and it’s at the heart of what we do and the most important thing to protect. “I still send in news tips, pictures of burning houses and things.”Stuff
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