Jewel takes shine to ICA

Aussie biz man looks to unseat board

SYDNEY — Australian entrepreneur Kerry Jewel is attempting to stage an aggressive comeback.

After several aborted stabs at producing the Peter Pan musical “Pan” in Oz through the 1990s, Jewel has set his sights on control of Australia’s only listed live entertainment company, Intl. Concert Attractions. He’s using the recent failure of its production of “The Hobbit” in the prime Tolkien territory of New Zealand for leverage.

“I’m a theater producer, I’ve got a nose for product and I believe there’s something I could add to ICA’s mix,” Jewel tells Variety.

One of Australia’s leading theatrical production companies, ICA accounts for a quarter of the commercial productions staged at major arts venues in the country and significant others throughout Asia.

ICA’s higher-profile shows include “Saturday Night Fever,” the “Hi-5” live kiddie show, “Soweto Gospel Choir” and David Hare’s “The Blue Room,” which starred Sigrid Thornton.

Last November, Jewel, who amassed more than A$10 million ($7.7 million) in debt during his nine-year odyssey to produce “Pan,” acquired 15 million shares, or 13.7%, of ICA from retiring company founder Jim McPherson. The stake established him as the company’s second-largest share-holder.

Jewel’s ambitions have now grown. He wants to drive the 9-year-old company’s share price above 4¢, and he believes the way to achieve that is by diversifying interests.

“It needs to be a media company; they are attractive to the market,” he says.

Despite having succeeded in obtaining a seat on the four-member board for his associate David McDonald, who replaced McPherson, Jewel’s subsequent request for a seat for himself was rejected on the grounds that it would constitute an overrepresentation of his shareholding. That refusal has prompted Jewel to ramp up his campaign for control.

Jewel called a general meeting of ICA shareholders for May 25, at which they will be asked to vote to maintain the current board or replace chairman Ian Roberts and two others with Jewel and his associates.

Jewel believes the exit of McPherson and co-founder Andrew Kay, whose personal company co-produces many ICA shows including “The Hobbit,” has stripped the board of theatrical expertise.

“Every time McPherson went away, that’s when the train fell off the tracks,” Jewel says, referring to McPherson’s previous retirement attempts in 2003 and 2004.

Indicating a drop in share prices to 5¢ from a high above 30¢ five years ago, Jewel’s statement to the Australian Stock Exchange accuses the board of not fulfilling profit promises and of a lack of personal shareholdings in ICA.

Roberts cites his five years running the Geelong Performing Arts Center as industry experience and says Jewel “has no understanding of the role of independent directors or the difference between a private and a public enterprise.”

ICA recorded its first modest profit under the current board, $2,700 in the six months to December 2004 following losses of $1.3 million incurred under previous management during the last financial year.

ICA is confident “The Hobbit” tour to Australia can be salvaged, but Jewel is adamant the failure of the show’s New Zealand tour adds weight to his bid.

“What I’ve stated has been validated,” he says. “I’d suggest four weeks out producers should know (the show) is unhealthy and cut your losses.”

The final performance of “The Hobbit’s” Wellington season was canceled with little notice, and the 10-day Auckland season was canned at the same time, but co-producer Kay rejects the charge of irresponsible behavior and remains confident the show’s planned Aussie tour will go ahead.

“The losses are completely containable. This is not a financial firestorm,” Kay says.

“We suspect this is a New Zealand-specific problem,” he says, referring to poor ticket sales for last month’s AK05 Auckland arts festival.