The arch angel of competition, Graeme Samuel, has finally pulled the trigger, says Matthew Stevens in The Australian. After years of investigation and speculation, he has called Australia’s third-richest man, Richard Pratt AC, to account and “he has made it personal.” Clearly, Samuel doesn’t fear making enemies, says Stevens. But in bringing charges against Pratt – chairman of Visy Group and owner of a $4.7 billion manufacturing empire – he has embraced a huge personal challenge and the biggest case ever undertaken by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
This is a definitely a contender for the most significant litigation in the ACCC’s history, says Stephen Bartholomeusz in The Sydney Morning Herald – and its credibility is invested in the action. It’s been just over a year since investigations began after Amcor’s shock disclosure it believed its Australian business may have become involved in cartel conduct that breached competition laws in its corrugated box business. The ACCC has now launched proceedings against Amcor’s only meaningful rival, Richard Pratt’s VisyBoard, Pratt himself and two of his senior executives. And with Pratt’s reputation and quite a lot of his wealth on the line, the consequences of failure would be severe for the commission. The stakes are magnified by the fact that Samuel chose to elevate prosecution of cartels and price-fixing to a priority from the moment he became chairman of ACCC in mid-2003.
It was at a clandestine meeting at a Melbourne pub in May 2001 that Pratt was asked to confirm that he personally supported a mutually beneficial peace deal brokered almost 12 months earlier by senior executives from Visy and Amcor, says Malcolm Maiden in The Age. In making that deal and in organising further arrangements, the senior executives from Visy and Amcor adopted techniques usually found in Cold War spy novels, says Maiden. And the victims of the alleged collusion read like a who’s who of Australia’s food and beverage industry: Nestle, Foster’s, Coca-Cola Amatil, Lion Nathan and Goodman Fielder, to name a few.
The case against Visy provides a rare and startlingly graphic glimpse into how the cardboard box business is allegedly run, says TheFinancial Review. And while the charges are yet to be proven, if even a fraction of what they allege is borne out, many people will conclude that something is rotten at the very top levels of Australian business. But then the cardboard box industry has a long and colourful history in terms of cartels and price-fixing, says Ian Porter in The Age. Apparently, the combination of high capital cost and low selling prices make it especially prone to anti-competitive behaviour. The machines have to be kept turning at high speed, or else the makers of brown paper, and the converters which turn the paper into boxes, start to lose money quickly.
But it takes at least two to tango in a cartel, says Bryan Frith in The Australian, so there was never any doubt there would be fallout after Amcor last year confessed it had participated in cartel conduct in its corrugated box business. Amcor at this stage has been granted immunity because it blew the whistle. But it’s conditional to continued full cooperation in providing information to ASIC about the alleged cartel.
This might seem un-Australian, says the Fin Review, but Amcor chief Chris Roberts has lost his job. And the policy is aimed at increasing the strike rate in cartel cases – where evidence is elusive because smarties don’t take minutes – and deterring would-be future colluders. And while Roberts has showed the value of the ACCC’s immunity policy in escaping formal price fixing charges, says John Durie in the paper’sChanticleer, the extraordinary extent of the behaviour leaves Amcor open to huge damages claims and with a severely damaged reputation.
So what does this mean for “King Richard” Pratt? Well, the latest investigation may open doors Pratt has always kept closed, says James Kirby – author of Richard Pratt – Business Secrets of the Billionaire Behind Australia’s Richest Private Company – in The Smage. Billionaires rarely lead blameless lives, but as a veteran of the courts, Pratt – who is proclaiming his innocence – will not be losing sleep over what must be to him the latest hurdle in a long-distance race.
Meanwhile, the ACCC have given Carter Holt Harvey the chance of a lifetime to break into the Australian corrugated cardboard market, says Blair Speedy in The Australian. CHH has been pushing to grow its single-digit market share in the corrugated cardboard sector and was the catalyst for the investigation, and now court action, after it hired a group of Amcor executives to spearhead its push into Australia.