tip off

The good and the greedy from business in ’12

There were the executives who won big and the shareholders who lost out — and none of them did it quietly. Our business commentator hands out his annual awards for 2012 …

There was the artist who lost a Facebook bet, the public company that threw a party on taxpayers, the surfer who badly misjudged his wave, the bogan who lost it all (nearly) and the departing CEO who branded his colleagues “muppets”. The real stories from the business world happened behind the markets — and deserve some recognition …

Artist of the Year

Move over Jeff Koons — this year’s award goes to 35-year-old British graffiti artist David Choe. You may not have heard of Choe, but he proved fine art and business are not mutually exclusive back in 2005 when he decided to accept shares in a fledgling client instead of $60,000 in cash for painting their head office. That head office happened to belong to a little a company called Facebook. When Facebook finally floated earlier this year, Choe was suddenly worth US$200 million, making him one of the world’s richest artists ever.

Shareholder Rights Activist of the Year

To Macquarie Group, which showed its commitment to corporate governance when it was proposing a spill of the board of Coalworks in early 2012. Macquarie issued a statement which noted “the overall benefits and payments paid to directs and key management of Coalworks were excessive when compared to similarly sized ASX-listed resource companies”. The comment wasn’t without irony, given Macquarie has created more executive millionaires than any other company in Australia — ever.

Award of the Year

To The Australian Financial Review’s Capital magazine which in September awarded its esteemed “Finance Team of the Year” honour in its CFO Awards to Fortescue Metals. On the very same day that award was announced, the newspaper’s esteemed Chanticleer columnist, Tony Boyd, observed “there is clearly something wrong when a resources company ends up with a credit facility that has three features which amounted to a ticking time bomb”. Boyd then noted that: “[Fortescue founder Andrew] Forrest should be asking chief executive Nev Power, chief financial officer Stephen Pearce and treasurer Ian Wells how Fortescue ended up in that sticky situation.” It appears the CFO Awards don’t pay a huge amount of attention to a company’s financial predicament, or its share price.

Sponsorship of the Year

To taxpayer-owned Australia Post, which shrugged off its staid public image to match it with the big spending private sector companies. CEO Ahmed “Armaguard” Fahour led the charge, entertaining clients and a few good mates (like millionaire AFL boss Andrew Demetriou) at the London Olympics. Australia Post generously forked out for five-star accommodation (upwards of $700 per night), business class airfares and the best tickets our money can buy at the Games to entertain wealthy entrepreneurs. While refusing to disclose the actual cost of the shindig, Fahour noted it was less than $8 million, being the revenue raised by Australia Post selling Olympic stamps, even though the two appeared completely unrelated. Fortunately, working for the government didn’t mean the former NAB Australia boss was slumming it — the cost for Fahour and nine staff was a lazy $280,000 — equivalent to 466,667 stamps.

Rose Coloured Glasses Valuation of the Year

To Billabong boss and soon to be former BRW Rich Lister Gordon Merchant, who appeared to have a slightly more optimistic view than pretty much everyone else about the value of the surf-ware company he founded in 1973 from his Gold Coast garage. In March, Merchant steadfastly rejected a $3.30 per share offer from private equity house TPG, noting “even if the price TPG Capital offered was $4.00 per share” it would “still represent a discount on the true value of Billabong shares”. Sadly for Merchant, and other Billabong shareholders, the $3.30 offer didn’t appear to represent the true value of Billabong — eight months later the share price had slumped to only 85 cents, a fall of some 75%.

CEO Cage Match of the Year

To the respective heads of media businesses, Seven West and Nine, Don “High Voltage” Voelte and David Gyngell. Not long after Gyngell managed to pull off what many media watchers dubbed one of the best saves in living memory (brokering a truce between warring hedge funds and investment bank Goldman Sachs), he was pilloried by Voelte. The feisty Nebraskan advised Gyngell he wouldn’t ever work for private equity or hedge funds because they were “too restrictive”.

Channel Nine’s Golden Boy wasn’t about to accept advice from the oil and gas man, firing back: “I thank Don for his advice and I also have worked for hedge funds and private equity for five years so I know what they are like. But I understand media and he doesn’t, so I think I have got a bit of an advantage over him. Instead of giving me advice, I’d be learning how television and media works.” Gyngell had a fair point — the day Voelte was announced CEO of Seven West, its shares slumped by 10% — and they have fallen a further 15% since.

Options Package of the Year

To Cochlear  — one of Australia’s best performed companies over the past two decades — which got a little carried away in awarding an options grant to long-serving CEO Chris Roberts. Despite already owning $50 million in Cochlear shares, the board, led by the aptly named Rick Holliday-Smith, decided to award Roberts 231,161 options at the bargain basement price of only $62.78 each. By the time it came around for shareholders to vote for the package Cochlear shares had jumped to $72.32 — that meant shareholders were handing Roberts more than $2 million for doing absolutely nothing.

Of course, if the option has strict hurdles attached it may have been more palatable, but Cochlear had a terrible year in 2011/12 (due to a product recall) which meant it would be almost impossible for the earnings per share hurdle not to be met. Shareholders vented their fury at the bumbling board by voting down the company’s remuneration report. Holliday-Smith, the chairman responsible for the fiasco, didn’t fare too badly though — he walked away with $453,775 in director fees for the year, along with $326,694 he was paid to chair the ASX — which is ironically the market’s regulator.

Resignation Letter of the Year

To former Goldman Sachs asset manager Greg Smith, who resigned from his London-based role with the investment bank in March. Smith’s letter, which found its way into The New York Times, noted “over the last 12 months [he witnessed] five different managing directors refer to their own clients as ‘muppets’, sometimes over internal e-mail” and the most common question he heard from junior analysts was: “How much money did we make off the client?”

The resignation letter had a slightly more material effect than most — on the day after it was released, more than US$2 billion was wiped from the value of Goldman Sachs market capitalisation.

Realist of the Year

To former billionaire, now millionaire (or according to some people, completely broke) Singapore resident Nathan Tinkler. Tinkler’s wealth, which was last year believed to be upwards of $1.1 billion, slumped during 2012 as the coal price dropped precipitously and his racing empire crumbled. But that didn’t stop Australia’s wealthiest bogan from keeping his expectations high. At Whitehaven’s AGM in November (where Tinkler unsuccessfully tried to have the board removed) he claimed he was a “seller [of his Whitehaven stake] at $4 per share”.

Tinkler’s ambitious may have been slightly inflated — at the time, Whitehaven shares were trading at $2.98, which would mean Tinkler would be one of the world’s first desperate vendors to extract a 33% premium to the current price.

Executive Restraint of the Year

To Penrice Soda (which is a company that sells ash, not soda water). After the company’s shareholders delivered a stinging 38% rebuke to its remuneration report, chairman David Trebeck bemoaned the ruthlessness, pointing out that senior executives had not had a pay rise for two whole years. While you could congratulate the Penrice board for its remarkable restraint in executive remuneration, it should be noted the company’s share price had fallen by 97.1% during that time.

Act of Kindness of the Year

To the board of Zurizon (formerly QR National), led by former BHP boss John Prescott, which believes CEO Lance Hockridge is now six times as good an executive as was when the company happened to be owned by Queensland taxpayers. In the past two years, Hockridge’s remuneration has leaped from around $1 million to more than $6.8 million. The board was so concerned about poor Lance’s well-being that it adjusted its account policies to magically increase the company’s “earnings” by $51 million.

And just in case that wasn’t enough to ensure Lance got his full bonus, QR National also conducted a share buyback which increased earnings per share which meant his long-term options would almost certainly vest, even if Lance decided to take a two-year holiday through the Amazon rainforest. With friends like Prescott and the QR board, shareholders certainly don’t need enemies.

Well-Timed Profit Downgrade of the Year

To mining and construction company Macmahon, which decided to pay executives bonuses based on the company’s profit — only to downgrade the said profit a month later, leading to a 40% plunge in the company’s share price (which is now down by 85% from its 2007 peak). Former CEO Nick Bowen was sent packing, but not before the company had paid him $3 million in 2012 and $2.8 million in 2011. Macmahon’s largesse led shareholders to vote en masse against the company’s remuneration report, earning the once market darling a first strike.

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