Kerry Packer and ANI: time for the truth
Now that Australia’s richest man has moved on and all this new information is flowing into the public arena, perhaps it is time for one of the great corporate mysteries of recent years to be solved. Does anyone remember the saga of Kerry Packer’s involvement with engineering company ANI and the Four Corners story that […]
It involved Packer's private company ConsPress selling a bleeding European waste management company called ABT to ANI for $2 million in 1991. This related party transaction was neither disclosed nor voted on by shareholders, but two weeks later, Packer sold his remaining 30% stake in ANI, crystallising a profit of $200 million.
This saga very much revolves around Packer's then CEO Al "chainsaw" Dunlap, who is now a disgraced business figure in the US. Richard Walsh noted in The Bulletin's tribute issue that ConsPress faced "an acute cashflow problem" in 1990-91, when Dunlap was brought in to clean up the mess.
Arguably the biggest disaster he faced was ABT's $150 million contract to build a waste treatment facility in Madrid which some observers reckon was more likely to cost about $400 million. Oh dear.
In 1994, Ross and Sue Palmer sold their company, Palmer Tube Mills, to ANI but made the mistake of accepting ANI shares for 90% of the proceeds at the nominal price of $1.90 a share. When ANI's European Holter-ABT division suddenly caused a $400 million write-down in 1996, the shares plunged and the Palmers found themselves seriously out of pocket.
Sue Palmer, a feisty American, subsequently spoke to Four Corners and claimed that Australians lived in such fear of Kerry Packer that he could do just about anything he wanted.
Come 1996, Ross Palmer and another director, Fred Smith, were the only two independent ANI directors who didn't approve the ABT deal, so they steamed ahead with their own two-man board investigation and got some legal advice from Mallesons suggesting ANI should sue Packer for $400 million.
At this point, ANI director Peter Joseph, the former chairman of St Vincent's hospital who publicly praised Packer's generosity after he died, proposed a special resolution and succeeded in having Palmer dumped from the board.
The board committee was immediately dissolved and Bob Ellicott QC, Malcolm Fraser's former Attorney General and counsel for the Packer-backed NRL during the Super League wars, was commissioned to do an independent inquiry. His 300-page two volume report has never been released because ANI claimed at the time it was "defamatory" and ASIC lacked the courage to make it public, in stark contrast to the report by Alan Goldberg QC into the Yannon scandal that hit Coles Myer around the same time.
Therefore, as you read this, we still don't know whether there were any misdemeanours surrounding those ANI dealings. The Packer family was clearly sensitive as they sued Four Corners for defamation after the story went to air.
It has now been almost a decade since this played out publicly and there are suggestions that the final losses from ANI's adventures into European waste management are now approaching $1 billion. Smorgon Steel bought ANI for $850 million in 1998-99 but have apparently suffered plenty of indigestion on the Holter-ABT contracts.
James Packer spoke movingly at the memorial service about being surprised by the number of people who had come forward with stories about his father's generosity, now that his death had freed them from confidentiality constraints.
Rather than having our grovelling Prime Minister commit taxpayers' funds to all this eulogising, the passing of Kerry Packer means that now is the time for ASIC to publicly release the Ellicott report to put on the record once and for all what happened during this controversial chapter in Australian corporate history.
All we want is the facts, because the dead deserve nothing more than the truth.
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