IT'S only 10am but Southern Cross Broadcasting boss Tony Bell has been awake for hours.

At 5.30am he was on his bike, riding the 15km round trip from his home north-west of Melbourne to pick up the morning paper.
"It's a good way to keep fit," says 54-year-old Bell.

It's also another example of the stamina he has shown over the past 15 years.

That's how long he's been managing director of Southern Cross, which owns and runs television and radio stations.

Bell is clearly proud of his achievements at the Melbourne-based media group and reads from a page of prepared notes about the state of the company when he took over in 1992.

Back then Southern Cross had a market capitalisation of $7 million. Today it's $1.2 billion.

Revenue was about $45 million compared with $540 million-plus today, and earnings before interest and tax were about $2 million, compared with more than $100 million now.

With a debt-to-equity ratio of around 360 per cent in 1992 compared with roughly 30 per cent today, there's no doubt that Bell has succeeded in knocking the business back into shape.

Not that he takes all the credit.

Chairman John Dahlsen and director "Sandy" (Charles) Clark have stuck with Southern Cross through the tougher times, Bell says, and been fully supportive of his leadership.

As boss of one of the country's fastest growing media companies, Bell says he's never been bored.

"Most CEOs move on to bigger and better positions if they are in growth mode, but I haven't had to move because we've had high growth within this company," he says.

"The role has changed every couple of years because of the large numbers of acquisitions and that's why I've been able to enjoy staying in this role for this length of time."

Indeed, Southern Cross has acquired its way to becoming a diverse network of radio and television businesses that reach 94 per cent of the Australian population.

It owns Channel Nine in Adelaide and regional affiliates of Channel 10, as well as program affiliations with the Seven Network.

Sydney's 2UE and Melbourne's 3AW radio stations, plus two other talk radio stations, three music radio stations, and a film and television production business round out the mix.

Bell describes the media industry as something he "fell into".

"I got into radio at around 20 -- in sales and marketing -- and I grew with the industry," he explains.

By the time Bell was 26 he was managing a South Australian radio station.

He moved on to running radio stations in Gippsland and Bendigo before becoming general manager of 3AW and then boss of Southern Cross.

That's as much detail as Bell is willing to give about his CV.

He becomes visibly annoyed when asked if his first job was as a mechanic, as has been reported.

"That's somebody's old trash," he says.

Born in Colac, the gateway to the Western District, Bell grew up "around Cobram" on the Murray River.

He was the third eldest of five brothers and two sisters.

This is as personal as Bell gets.

Apart from admitting to liking golf and fishing, he declares bluntly that personal questions are off-limits.

He even refuses to describe himself, preferring to "leave that for others".

"The personalities of our business are our on-air performers, not our managers," he says.

He later relents slightly, admitting that he is "business focused", "private" and "maybe even shy".

Bell is a lot more comfortable talking about his company, in particular its achievements.

He points to how Southern Cross reached its potential by restructuring its television and radio operations.

ON THE flipside, this revamp led to redundancies of around 400 people, something he describes as one of the most difficult tasks he has had.

"It's been pretty tough determining people's livelihoods," he says.

"We had to, for the good of the business, restructure almost all of our business units -- and through the course of that we've said goodbye to a lot of very good people who are simply victims of the synergies that we extracted out of the merging businesses.

"It's most uncomfortable thinking about those people."

But for Bell, the positives of building the company far outweigh the regrets.

"With every business there is some risk in acquisitions, and with some acquisitions they don't pay off immediately.

"But you don't buy businesses necessarily with a guarantee that they are going to pay off immediately.

"All in all our acquisitions have been stunning. Some of them have been a disappointment in the short term."

Not that Bell will go into those.

"I'm not concentrating on the negatives," he says.

"If we're not going to talk about the mass of positives I'm not going to talk about anything."

Bell's wariness of the media may be explained by his experiences a few years ago.

When Southern Cross bought 2UE for $90 million in 2001 there was quite a bit of fuss as the company set out to target a Sydney audience.

The station's big name at the time, Alan Jones, quit and ratings fell.

The "Sydney-centric" media, as Bell calls it, seized on the situation.

"While some journalists have fun with one particular business unit, from a business point of view 2UE is valuable to Southern Cross and will remain a very important part of the news-talk radio network that we've created," he says.

"2UE represents well less than 10 per cent of our total business . . . it's profitable and rating well."

These days the questions Bell is asked revolve around his expectations for Southern Cross once the government's new media laws are proclaimed.

SOUTHERN Cross is widely seen as a takeover target, although Bell refuses to speculate.

"It is business as usual, and commentators have every right to speculate, and their speculation in many ways is sensible -- their thinking is not flawed," he says.

"But it is still speculation."

Like many media bosses, Bell is looking forward to Communications Minister Helen Coonan ending the limbo and proclaiming the laws which passed through the Senate last October.

"To be waiting for six months in business for the government to identify a date for future action is probably as long as you'd want to wait," he says.

Bell doesn't concern himself with the possibility his 15-year stint at the helm of Southern Cross could end if the media company is bought out, saying he is "quite comfortable with it all."

Instead, he focuses on where he'd like to see Southern Cross be in the next decade.

"I'd like to see its growth continuing at the same rapid rate that it has over the past years," he says.

"Identifying potential media acquisition targets within Australia is becoming more and more difficult.

"But we still have options for growth and we explore them all the time."

Bell adds that media opportunities offshore, or non-TV or radio assets, are also options.

"Our last acquisition was of a television production company in Southern Star -- and it was a spectacular investment," he says.

"So we're not locked into radio and television."

Entire Article sourced from Herald Sun Imaged sourced from file