Former Victorian Treasurer Alan Stockdale is one of those millionaires on a state-funded pension for life but one of his lucrative post-politics gigs is causing a big stink for the residents of Port Melbourne.

The man who sold off almost $40 billion worth of assets is now making millions for Macquarie Bank as chairman of its asset and infrastructure division.

More recently he and the company he is non-executive chairman of, Symex Holdings Limited, have been the darlings of the market as the 50 cent stock has climbed to $1.70 since its listing last year.

Unfortunately he and Symex are not the darlings of Port Melbourne residents near the company plant who claim it’s quite literally on the nose.

Symex is actually almost 150 years old. It’s based on the old Kitchen candle-making business established in Melbourne in the 1850s. Kitchens became Lever & Kitchen, then Unilever, then Uniqema – a subsidiary of ICI.

The Symex business was acquired from ICI in an MBO in January 2000 and subsequently listed in August 2000 after raising $10.9 million. Punters who took up the 50 cent share (and employees who took up their 45 cent offering) are well and truly in the money less than a year later.

Stockers picked up 2 million options exercisable at 50 cents so his eye-brows are probably jumping around in elation.

Now over the past 145 years Symex (and its predecessor companies) have had a problem. They made candles, rendered animal fats and now Oleo Products extracted form vegetable oils and tallow.

Like most such rendering operations, it stinks. For much of the past century nobody cared much as the stench was seen as the “smell of prosperity” and anyway it only affected the workers in Port.

But as times – and Port – changed, that smell of prosperity began to be the source of a stream of complaints to the Environment Protection Authority, chaired under the Kennett regime by none other than former ICI Australia CEO Michael Deeley.

. To avoid prosecution the company entered into an Environmental Improvement Plan supervised by the EPA through a joint committee comprising company managers and locals.

The EIP had been in place for some years but was not mentioned in Symex’s July 2000 Prospectus. Arguably the matter was not material but some investors might have thought a determined campaign by residents to close the plant or get it fined could have been a tad relevant.

The EIP committee kept things quiet for a while but shortly after listing odour complaints began to increase. The resident members of the EIP committee thought they’d been had and resigned en masse.

Since then Symex has been working with the EPA to try to set up a new committee and salvage the EIP. Meanwhile, the odour complaints have continued.

Some residents complained to ASIC that the prospectus was misleading because it didn’t mention the environmental problems even though they knew that the ploy was probably a long shot. So far no word from ASIC on the complaint suggesting they were right.

However, the EPA under Victoria’s new Labor Government is a bit more persistent in its attempts to crack down on polluters. EPA staff, not content with simply fielding and filing resident complaints, are now actively investigating the plant’s operations.

Many residents want the plant gone and simply no longer trust the company.

Port Melbourne has changed somewhat from an industrial working class area to an upmarket one experiencing a real estate boom.

Whether the boom in Symex shares will withstand a determined campaign from the angry yuppies surrounding the plant is another question?

And perhaps if annual meetings get nasty Stockers might follow the Jeff lead and ban all outsiders?

Peter Fray

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