Johnston Press PLC surges as new major shareholder unveils ambitious plans

() shares surged for the second day in a row after a new major shareholder outlined his plans to revitalise the 250-year-old publisher.

Norwegian Christen Ager-Hanssen, whose private equity firm Custos owns the Swedish version of the Metro, bought a 5.14% stake in the debt-laden group on Wednesday.

In an interview with the Daily Telegraph yesterday evening, he unveiled his ambitious plans to turn Johnston’s fortunes around and added that he plans to up his stake over time.

Agger-Hanssen wants the company to start using its 30mln-plus online audience as a Launchpad for digital start-ups.

He added that he intends to refinance the £220mln bond debt which is currently hanging over Johnston Press, and he has lined up investors to take on the sizeable debt.

Credit agencies have previously said the company – which is also behind dozens of local UK publications – would not be able to refinance its debts when they mature in 2019.

The new investor takes a different view though and reckons Johnston’s cash generation is “strong enough” to refinance the debt at an interest rate of only 3%, almost two-thirds less than its current rate of 8.6%.

Need to act quickly

US hedge funds have been positioning themselves for a takeover in recent months by snapping up the company’s bonds at a discount.

As a result, the 55-year-old said he was looking to “take the initiative” and get the ball rolling as as soon as possible.

“I believe in the company and I think that they will be able to sort out the bond issue and that we can help them do that,” he told the Daily Telegraph.

“I think we need to move quite quickly. This is something that will happen over the next six months.”

No synergies from Metro Sweden

Custos bought the Swedish freesheet Metro and its associated websites earlier this year and has started to use the digital assets to trade exposure online for equity in start-ups.

It wants to do the same with Johnston Press, but Agger-Hanssen told the Telegraph that there would be no direct link between the two companies.

“I don’t think we see any strategic synergies. Where we are focused is actually building audience and we want to invest heavily into UK media. And we will do that. We will increase our stake in Johnston.

“You can take Johnston’s audience, which is 32 million, or 34 million, and kick-start new companies like we did in Sweden.”

A spokesman for Johnston Press said: “As a major new shareholder, and with his experience, we of course welcome a conversation with Christen and a meeting has been set up.”

Investors liked the sound of his grand plans, with shares adding 19.6% to 16.15p.

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