Liddell (pictured) was recruited during the past month after Peter Klein, a former CFO of Microsoft, abruptly exited the CFO post earlier this month, reportedly for personal reasons. Coincidentally, Liddell was once Klein’s boss at Microsoft. He also served a brief stint on IMG’s board of directors following Forstmann Little’s acquisition of the sports marketing agency in 2004.
“Chris is a seasoned professional with a great track record and we’re excited to welcome him to the team,” said Patrick Whitesell and Ariel Emanuel, co-CEOs of WME/IMG in a statement.
The CFO shuffle comes at a time when WME/IMG is adjusting to far more public scrutiny of its operations than the Hollywood side of the tenpercentery has ever experienced. The $2.4 billion acquisition of IMG that WME and private equity partner Silver Lake orchestrated in December has set Hollywood tongues wagging that the co-CEOs are distracted from WME’s core Hollywood biz. And the transformation of IMG, after more than a year in limbo while the sale process unfolded, has been closely watched in the clubby world of sports and event marketing arena.
Liddell brings high-wattage corporate finance credentials to the enlarged operation, skills that will be vital as WME/IMG is now exposed in the corporate debt markets through the financing arranged for the acquisition. And there are persistent rumors that an IPO may be on the long-term horizon after the IMG integration is complete.
Liddell previously served as CFO and senior VP of Microsoft from 2005-2009 and as vice chairman and CFO of General Motors from 2010-2011. In the 1990s he was a top exec, rising to CEO, of Australian forest products company Carter Holt Harvey. He went on to be CFO of International Paper Co. from 2003-2005.
“Joining Patrick, Ari and the WME/IMG team is a unique opportunity,” said Liddell. “The newly combined company occupies an outstanding position in the global sports and entertainment industries, and I’m looking forward to helping build and grow the business.”
According to a July 23 report on the Debtwire news service, WME/IMG on July 15 disclosed first-quarter earnings of about $57 million, on revenue of about $486 million, up 11% from the comparable year-ago quarter. Because of the debt financing arranged for the IMG purchase, the agency now has to report some quarterly financial info to its major lenders.
Klein’s departure as CFO spurred rumors that the enlarged agency was having trouble meeting its post-merger cost-cutting target of $150 million. That in turn caused a momentary sell-off of the loans, according to Debtwire. But the earnings report and indications that the company is on target to meet its 2014 budget projections eased the situation, Debtwire reported. The hiring of Liddell, who recently served on a Securities and Exchange Commission committee tasked with improving financial reporting standards, should also go a long way in the investment community.
Within IMG, the immediate focus of has been to restructure a far-flung company known for operating in distinct silos. Emanuel has spent much of the summer in London familiarizing himself with execs and setting up a new division that merges its events and federations division, which mounts various sporting and fashion events, with its media rights division. The goal is to foster a more collaborative culture among previously distinct sales groups for tennis, golf and fashion-related activities.
Earlier this month, IMG veteran Michel Masquelier was appointed chairman of the enlarged Media and Events division, with Ioris Francini as president. Both were previously top execs in the media rights division. The new unit will generate more than $900 million in annual revenue, according to a July 11 report by U.K.-based TV Sports Markets. Now that the restructuring is set, Emanuel will end his extended stay in London soon.
IMG’s cash-cow business of college sports rights and marketing has taken a hit with the recent loss of University of Kentucky, a top NCAA school, after a 40-year run. But the ebb and flow of client comings and goings is nothing new to either WME or IMG execs.
Eastern Michigan University, a Division 1 school in the NCAA’s Mid-American Conference, set a five-year pact with IMG College on Tuesday. And IMG recently prevailed in signing French tennis star Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in a competitive situation with other percenteries.
Part of the promise of the WME-IMG tieup is greater collaboration among the sports and entertainment sides of the agency. That process is slowly but surely happening as some of IMG’s star football and tennis players have been making the rounds at WME’s Beverly Hills offices to brainstorm showbiz opportunities.
But the first priority is on getting IMG’s core businesses revved up again after two years of uncertainty following the death of Forstmann Little topper Ted Forstmann in November 2011. Insiders say despite the loss of U. of Kentucky, the volume of business for the college division is growing compared to last year. IMG College generated $487 million in revenue in 2013, according to TV Sports Markets. Over the past few months the agency has set new or extended deals with dozens of colleges, events and rights-licensing partners in the U.S. and abroad.
For sure, the enlarged percentery is under pressure to prove to clients new and old — in sports and entertainment — that it hasn’t lost any of its mojo. And there will be continued scrutiny from investors looking for evidence of gains realized from the combination of WME’s undisputed muscle in Hollywood with IMG’s broader international base of operations.
Back home in Hollywood, WME has had had high-profile signings of late, including James L. Brooks on Tuesday. Kathy Griffin returned to the WME roster this week after four months at CAA. Selena Gomez, LeBron James and Robert Zemeckis are among other recent recruits. Even as Whitesell and Emanuel immerse themselves in IMG, the entertainment side of the agency is bolstered by a deep bench of partners and execs who have worked together for years. Indeed, the all-for-one culture that Endeavor brought to its 2009 union with William Morris Agency is what the co-CEOs aim to export to IMG.
The cost-cutting targets promised to debtholders are substantial but at present there are no plans for widespread staff layoffs along the lines of the hundreds let go immediately after the Endeavor-WMA union.