Through Belize Telemedia Limited (BTL), British billionaire Michael Ashcroft is taking control of Channel 5 TV as of Tuesday, and Amalia Mai, former Belize Times editor and close friend of People’s United Party leader Johnny Briceño, is replacing Stewart Krohn as the company’s Chief Executive Officer and news director.
Mai has been out of a job since February, when she departed her Belmopan posting as Chief Executive Officer in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs after her party, the PUP, lost the February 7 general elections. Most recently, she has been in the news as the person who signed the housing grant agreement with the Government of Venezuela for the US$20 million – half of which was diverted under the former PUP administration to BTL’s sister company, the Belize Bank.
Krohn, who has been the CEO of Great Belize Productions, Channel 5’s parent company, told Amandala in an interview tonight that he is moving on to another business venture – CoCoPlum, a 224-acre resort in Placencia.
“The biggest mistake BTL could ever make is to try to influence the news output of this station, because a station is only as strong as its credibility in the public,” he told Amandala.
“I realize that this purchase, both by the nature of the purchaser, and by the background of the CEO [Mai] – if that was going to be your next question – the public has very strong feelings about BTL and Michael Ashcroft, the public has very strong feelings about Amalia Mai – I would ask the public, as someone who no longer works for the company, to have an open mind. See what the television station puts out there. If you like to watch it, watch it. If you don’t like to watch it, don’t watch it. It won’t survive if it doesn’t serve the public.”
Stewart Krohn, 58, held 36% of the company along with his wife, Lita Krohn. (The couple is now separated.) At the time of the sale, a Michael Ashcroft affiliate, Johnston International Construction, held 35% of Great Belize Productions, Krohn said. He claimed that for almost two years, he has been seriously looking for a buyer. BTL made the offer, and they had been negotiating since last September, he added.
(Minority shareholders include Johnny Searle, Anthony Flynn, Laura and Jim Currie, and the Stang family.)
The deal was reportedly sealed last week. Krohn told us that he received his cheque for his shares on Friday, June 13, and tonight, he was clearing his desk to make way for Mai, who was at Channel 5 familiarizing herself this evening with her new job post. The transaction is 71% complete, informed Krohn, as he and the other major shareholder, Ashcroft affiliate Johnston International Construction, completed the sale of their shares. However, the transactions with minority shareholders were being finalized.
He declined to say what was the price tag for the sale, citing contractual obligations.
We asked: Why would somebody who has been so successful over the years sell out to Mr. Ashcroft – a man who already owns and controls so much?
“I am not going to try and defend and big up Mr. Ashcroft. All I can say I have respect for Mr. Ashcroft. When nobody would finance the founding of this company, Mr. Ashcroft would, without taking the majority control,” he replied.
Krohn told us that he had a hard time getting others to invest the $1 million or so required to start the business, and other potential investors only wanted to do it if they would get a majority stake.
“Have I had my differences with Mr. Ashcroft over the years as a figure in our society? Absolutely! Do I agree with many of the things his companies have done in the past and continue to do today? Absolutely I have disagreements with them,” said Krohn.
He said, however, that Mr. Ashcroft has been a good business partner to him over the 18 years or so.
All over the world, telecommunications companies which are pipeline for content are buying up content providers (such as Channel 5), “because the synergy is tremendous,” Krohn said, calling the strategy “vertical integration.”
Krohn recounted that Great Belize Productions started as a video production company in 1983, and Channel 5 came on air in 1991, when it got its first broadcast license for the Belize City area. It became national in 1993.
But in 2002, Great Belize Productions (GBP) was expanded to include CoCoPlum – a real estate and land development venture in Placencia, he added.
Krohn said that GBP has retained the television operations, while he, Krohn, has retained the real estate venture as a separate entity.
He said that BTL has deep pockets and will expend resources to transform the company. All current employees would be retained, and new ones may come on-board.
Krohn said that he will miss the news business, but he’s paid his dues. Still, he told us that there is nothing to say that 4/5 years from now, he might not return to the news business.
On Tuesday, May 13, 2008, when the Sagis/Radio KREM ruling came out, Channel 5 noted, in their evening newscast, that Ashcroft had bought into Channel 5 much the same way that it tried to buy 10% of KREM.
“A company controlled by Michael Ashcroft purchased a 20% stake in Great Belize Productions Limited and a loan facility was provided by the Ashcroft-owned Belize Bank. That arrangement has run smoothly over the last seventeen years, with all loans being repaid and the minority shareholder has not sought to exert any influence over broadcasting operations,” Channel 5 had said.
That day, the Chief Justice had ruled that because KREM’s shareholders did not agree to sell 10% of KREM to Ashcroft, KREM’s offer for a refund of the $25,000 (plus interest) should be accepted to bring things to a closure.
Lita Krohn and Amalia Mai are very close friends, but Mrs. Krohn says she had nothing to do with the choice of Mai becoming Stewart Krohn’s successor.
Mai recently turned down an offer to become the PUP’s secretary general, Channel 5 had reported a week ago.
(Michael Ashcroft, 62, is also known as Baron Ashcroft of Chichester, KCMG.)