His departure was announced in a statement this morning, with the publisher indicating that Highfield was stepping down due to “family reasons”. He will not be up for re-election at Johnston’s AGM on 5 June and he will be replaced by chief financial officer David King.
Highfield, whose career took in executive positions at Microsoft and the BBC before joining Johnston in 2011, oversaw the high-profile acquisition of the i newspaper from ESI Media in 2016 – the publisher’s first national title, joining a stable of more than 200 local and regional newspapers including the Yorkshire Post and the Scotsman.
“I have been privileged to lead Johnston Press during a period of unprecedented turbulence in our industry,” he said. “Since 2011 we have grown our overall audience in particular our digital business, created an industry leading tele-sales operation and maintained margins.
“The acquisition of the i newspaper has been a particular highlight. I am proud of what the board and my colleagues have achieved and would like to thank them all for their support. I wish David every success in his new role.”
Highfield will officially step down as chief executive on the date of the AGM and elected to defer his £249,000 bonus.
Shares in Johnston were up 9.2% in early trading following the news this morning.
Former Time Out Group chief executive David King, his replacement, joined Johnston as chief financial officer in 2013. He previously worked for the BBC from 1994 to 2008.
King will step into the top role with effect on 5 June and his replacement as CFO is set to be announced “in due course”.
Chair of Johnston Press Camilla Rhodes said: “I am pleased to announce that David King will step up to become chief executive. David has worked closely with the board on our strategic review of financing options.
“I am confident that David will prove to be a strong leader and his transition to the chief executive role provides stability to the business at this important time.”
Last month, Johnston recorded a 9.5% drop in revenue in its full-year results, warning it would need to cut costs against a “difficult backdrop”. Sales from continuing operations were recorded at £201.6m, down from £222.7m in 2016. The drop was partially attributed to the sale of its Midlands and East Anglia titles to Illiffe Media in January 2017.
At the end of 2017, i was reported to now be trading in line with the publisher’s plans – recording an average EBITDA of £1m in the last three months of the year.
Johnston Press is currently going through a strategic review, launched last March, to find a solution to the repayment of £220m in high-yield bonds, which are due to be repaid in June 2019. Discussions with shareholders remain in progress.