Hogsback watches one coal door open as another closes

THE public fascination with Australian coal boy wonder Nathan Tinkler will hit fresh highs in coming weeks as a number of legal actions come to a head. But Hogsback will also be looking at an equally interesting trend, the entry of the bottom feeders.

Staff Reporter

Seemingly disconnected, but very much part of the same story, the situation could be described in theatrical language as the equivalent of one door closing and another opening.

What this means is that low coal prices, which have caused trouble for producers, are luring in the next generation of investors, led by nickel-mining millionaire Terry Streeter.

As a man who knows the secret of business is to buy low and sell high, Streeter used a secondary company in his stable, Fox Resources, to snap up a parcel of Queensland coal tenements from Cliff Natural Resources and partners.

Not a big name among the mining entrepreneurs in his adopted home town of Perth, Streeter started in business as a fruit and vegetable merchant, a trade where it is essential to buy low and sell high – or go broke.

In one conversation Streeter had with The Hog a decade or so ago, he described his low-key arrival in Australia in the 1960s as that of “a ten-pound Pom with 40 pounds from my mum”

His first job in Australia was laying vinyl floor tiles in the Australian Mint vault in Canberra. This humble start blossomed when he switched to selling carrots, spuds and leeks.

His shift into mining started with a big win in the original Poseidon nickel boom of the late 1960s, when he bought a parcel of shares in a company called Great Boulder. One share deal led to another and by the 1990s, Streeter had emerged alongside Kerry Harmanis as a major shareholder in another nickel company, Jubilee Mines.

Like Harmanis, Streeter trousered a pile of cash when Jubilee was bought by Xstrata for $3 billion in 2007, a few months before the global financial crisis rocked the world.

Nickel remains the primary focus of Streeter, who has the bulk of his fortune tied up in a 20% stake in Western Areas, valued at about $200 million.

Fox, which has struggled with its own nickel venture at the Radio Hill mine in WA’s iron ore rich Pilbara region, is a secondary Streeter asset, but the one chosen to enter the Queensland coal industry at a time when asset prices are low.

A man who can spot a bargain that others cannot, Streeter’s entry into coal can only be interpreted in one way, as a sign that bargain hunters have realised coal prices have only one way to go – up.

Tinkler certainly hopes so. He has been hit hard by the falling coal price, with his problems magnified by what can be called an incomplete deal, the attempted $5.25 billion privatisation of Whitehaven Coal.

His failure to finalise the bid for Whitehaven was widely reported to have been a result of limited support from his banks, and a reluctance on the part of independent Whitehaven directors to give their full support.

In any event, the move to buy all of Whitehaven collapsed, leaving Tinkler to reconsider his options and attempt a clean-up of a number of other deals that also fall into the incomplete category, including a coal loader project, a Brisbane office development, and sporting deals that include money owing on a stadium and costs associated with an extensive horse stud.

Boiled down, and reasonably well understood in the coal community, Tinkler is suffering from what a corporate doctor might describe as “pincer-pain”, a condition caused by falling coal prices hitting debt-servicing requirements.

Monday is said to be bring the first serious squeeze of the pincers, with an action launched by the engineering consultancy, Sedgman. It wants payment of a bill associated with work on the proposed coal loader, with lawyers seeking wind-up action against three Tinkler companies.

In the following week, according to the Australian Financial Review , another action is scheduled for the NSW Supreme Court involving a Tinkler company called Buildev Group.

No one knows precisely what happens next. Perhaps Tinkler is waiting to see how events pan out because while there might be pressure in a number of areas, he is still sitting on a handy pile of Whitehaven shares worth an estimated $700 million – and perhaps more in a takeover situation.

The big question then becomes who might launch a fresh bid for Whitehaven? Probably not Streeter, but his bottom-feeding acquisition of coal exploration tenements is a sign that people with spare cash are looking at coal as a sector ripe for bargain hunting.

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