James Warburton, the chief executive (CEO) and managing director of Australian commercial broadcaster Seven West Media (SWM), will step down from his role next year year and be succeeded by the company’s chief financial officer (CFO) Jeff Howard.

The shock move was announced by Kerry Stokes, Seven’s major shareholder and chairman, via a statement filed with the Australian Securities Exchange today. He added the transition from Warburton to Howard will be effective on or before June 30, 2024.

Warburton became CEO of Seven in August 2019, replacing Tim Worner, who resigned after six years in the role. Before that, he spent eight years at Seven, including as chief digital and sales officer, before leaving in 2011 to become CEO of rival commercial broadcaster Network Ten.

During his tenure leading Seven, he is credited with improving its finances, hammering down the company’s debt from AU$565 million ($370.67 million) in 2019 to AU$249 million by ending onerous contracts, and steering it through the pandemic.

He recently negotiated new long-term media rights deals with Australian football’s AFL and the Cricket Australia governing body, as well as a content deal with US studio NBCUniversal. He also oversaw the company’s acquisition of regional media company Prime Media and its asses in a deal worth AU$132 million.

Last month, Seven also acquired a 20% stake in radio network ARN Media worth up to AU$50 million.

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Seven unveiled the renewal of its domestic rights deal covering international cricket in Australia in early January. It will air all home men’s test matches and women’s internationals between 2024 and 2031, alongside Cricket Australia’s other main domestic rights partner, pay-TV network Foxtel. It will also cover several games from the country’s premier Twenty20 competitions – the Big Bash League and the women’s BBL – each season.

Seven, meanwhile, struck a new seven-year deal with the AFL that will span the 2025 to 2030 seasons alongside Foxtel last year. Under the deal, Seven and its 7Plus streaming platform provide live and free-to-air coverage of the AFL on Thursday nights, Friday nights, selected Saturday nights, and Sunday afternoons, as well as ‘marquee’ matches, the Brownlow Medal, all AFL Finals, and the AFL Grand Final.

In addition, at least 30 home and away games from the women’s AFL (AFLW), the AFLW finals, and the AFLW Grand Final will be aired on Seven and 7Plus.

In a statement, Warburton said: “It has been an incredible journey at SWM and with an exceptionally talented team in place, the time is right for the company to take the next step. I take great pride in the transformation of SWM in recent years and its position as the leader in total TV in both ratings and revenue.

“I’ve now spent more than 15 years of my professional life working for Seven (in two stints) and I’d like to thank Kerry and Ryan Stokes, the other directors, and our major shareholders for the wonderful opportunity and their support.

“Jeff [Howard] is an extremely talented leader and the transition to him will be seamless. While I look forward to the next chapter in my career, I am confident I am leaving SWM in excellent hands.”

Howard, meanwhile, has served as SWM’s CFO since January 2020 and will take over as both CEO and managing director of the company.

The search for a new CFO to replace Howard has commenced and will be announced in due course.

Howard said: “James is leaving SWM in a strong position to take advantage of the opportunities that lie ahead.

“As we look to the next phase of growth in an ever-changing industry, our focus is on continuing to create great content to be the most connected news, sport, and entertainment brand in Australia, while driving value for shareholders.

“Our strategy of premium audience generation and engagement across all of SWM’s platforms will remain at the forefront of everything we do.”