Hogsback on a looming Aussie train wreck

ATTACK is the best form of defence – an old saying Hogsback suspects contains the reason for the latest moves by Nathan Tinkler to either get full control of Whitehaven Coal, or a fatter sale price for his 19.4% stake in the troubled business.

Staff Reporter

To sit still and watch Whitehaven’s financial performance continue to melt under the heat of lower coal prices is not an option for Tinkler because the longer its share price stays down the greater the pressure from his bankers.

That is why Tinkler initiated a collision with Whitehaven’s management that will make the next week a make-or-break time for everyone involved.

The first clap of thunder in what should turn out to be a titanic struggle will be heard on Friday morning, just as The Hog posts these latest thoughts on the remarkable life and times of country-town electrical contractor turned coal baron Tinkler.

Whitehaven’s market update in its September quarter report is what might give Tinkler the ammunition to ratchet up his assault on the company – an assault that is heading towards a full blown showdown at the annual meeting next Thursday.

If, as expected, Whitehaven says in today’s update that weak coal prices have cut its profit outlook for the year ahead, Tinkler will be heard to say soon after that it’s time for change.

What sort of change is in his mind is the interesting bit, given that a number of the directors are effectively his appointees.

Will Tinkler simply seek to elect new directors – a demand already made by announcing his decision to vote against five current Whitehaven directors, including the chairman, Mark Vaile, a man he has long-regarded as a mentor?

If successful in shaking incumbent directors out of the Whitehaven tree, perhaps he will push on for something bigger, such as Whitehaven putting itself up for sale again, only this time with a board committed to accepting the highest bid.

A fresh cash bid for Whitehaven is what Tinkler might be after as it could be the quickest and easiest way to generate cash to keep his bankers happy.

However, in order to see such a bid made and then accepted, Whitehaven needs to have a board of directors amenable to such a deal.

Guessing what Tinkler might do is part of the game he is playing because the greater the instability at board level in Whitehaven, the greater the chance of his success.

Previous generations of entrepreneurs have followed a similar rule book of unsettling a target by first acquiring a substantial stake in the business, which entitles them to a hefty say in its management, then behaving in an unpredictable manner – while all the time working towards a goal of maximising the value of the original investment.

Tinkler is no different in seeking to boost the value of his Whitehaven shares, a goal that other shareholders would applaud, even if it means selling the business to the highest bidder.

The people most likely to oppose Tinkler’s plan for achieving a sharp increase in the Whitehaven share price are the current directors.

They can point to a previous failed attempt to sell the business and probably see the best course of action being to knuckle down to mining coal, leaving the stock market to take care of itself.

All this might sound awfully complicated but it is not. It is just messy. And everyone involved is likely to suffer a few bruises over the next few weeks.

One man who can see just how bruising it is going to be is Tony Haggarty, Whitehaven’s managing director who has signalled to his fellow board members that he would prefer to be elsewhere when the shouting starts.

Having made several fortunes from the coal industry, Haggarty does not need a full frontal confrontation with Tinkler, which is why he has said it’s time to move on, leaving Whitehaven to find another chief executive.

What interests The Hog in Haggarty’s decision to go is how it plays into the greater dynamic affecting the company and whether his departure clears the way for Tinkler to take the top job, if he wants it.

More will become clear today and over the next week as Whitehaven heads towards its November 1 annual meeting showdown in Sydney’s Sofitel Wentworth hotel.

For everyone in the coal industry that event will not only make for wonderful theatre, it will take their minds off the coal price – and that has to be a good thing.