Sky's the limit as Ball collects £9m bonanza

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Tony Ball has celebrated BSkyB's return to profit by cashing in shares worth £9.3m.

Mr Ball, the pay-TV company's chief executive, sold the shares on Tuesday, the day the company announced that it had returned to the black after four years of losses.

Sky's finance director, Martin Stewart, also joined the shares bonanza. He sold 200,000 free shares given to him under the company's Long Term Incentive Plan [LTIP], at 710.5p a share on Tuesday, netting £1.4m.

Mr Ball, chief executive since 1999, has already made millions by selling Sky shares over the years, and is one of the best paid directors in the UK. Mr Ball is probably also the most highly regarded television executive in the country, and an apparent favourite of the company's chairman, Rupert Murdoch. He sold 400,000 shares on Tuesday that had vested under the LTIP scheme, at 710.5p a share, making £8.5m.

In addition, Mr Ball sold 594,855 shares under an executive share option scheme. He exercised his right to buy these shares at 583p a share and sold them on Tuesday at 710.5p, making a profit of £758,440.

Sky immediately moved to top up the share options of Mr Ball and Mr Stewart. Mr Ball, was yesterday awarded 500,000 shares under the LTIP, which vest in 2006. Mr Stewart got 275,000 shares.

Following the awards, Mr Ball is sitting on options over 1.5 million Sky shares under the company's LTIP and equity bonus plans, and a further 600,000 shares under the executive share option scheme. Mr Stewart still has 792,576 LTIP and equity bonus share options.

There has been speculation that Mr Ball may leave the high-pressure job at Sky, possibly for another position within the Murdoch media empire. Analysts said that the scale of the financial rewards available to him at Sky helped to explain why Mr Ball says he has no plans to change jobs.

In response to questions at a press conference on Tuesday about whether he was looking for new challenges, Mr Ball simply quipped: "I've got a two-year-old and a five-year-old, so I've got plenty of challenges."

On Tuesday, the company announced its first profit since 1998, when it launched a massive investment programme to convert its satellite network to digital technology. Mr Ball inherited that decision when he took over in 1999, but under him, Sky initiated the masterstroke that saw off all competition - giving away the decoder boxes that customers previously had to buy.

Between 1998 and today, Sky has doubled its subscriber base to nearly 7 million homes, and it has more than doubled annual revenues to £3.2bn. Over that time, ITV Digital, a competitor, has gone bust and Sky's cable rivals, NTL and Telewest, have had to go through complete financial restructuring programmes to stay afloat.

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