After sliding inexorably from a peak of more than $8.50 in December 2006 to yesterday’s 3-year low of $4.71, shares in ABC Learning have finally posted their first rise in 2008 with a modest 6c lift to $4.77 in morning trade.

Whilst it has not been widely recognised in the media, the world’s biggest childcare company had a debt rollover scare in December that coincided with the disaster unfolding at Centro Properties Group. After a long and difficult negotiation, ABC Learning was finally able to announce a new $1.43 billion 3-year banking facility on December 18, the same day executive director Martin Kemp raised $5 million dumping 600,000 shares. Not a good look.

So, what saved ABC Learning from the same fate of Centro? Both companies were trying to rollover large debts and had the Commonwealth Bank as a leading player on both the debt and equity site.

The CBA owns 7% of ABC Learning, stepped up for $280 million in the debt rollover and also swallowed a 30% shortfall on the $600 million unsecured convertible note issue that was offered in June as the Singaporeans came on board.

One point of difference was perhaps the appointment of the Commonwealth Bank’s head of institutional banking in Queensland, John Waugh, as ABC Learning treasurer last August, just as the debt negotiation was cranking up.

Waugh also filled in as company secretary after the long-serving Jillian Bannon departed abruptly on December 21, although the company has today landed a good replacement in former Rio Tinto executive Matthew Horton.

Another point of difference was perhaps the presence of the Singapore Government as ABC Learning’s biggest shareholder after it took a $403 million placement to buy 12% at $7.30 last June.

The irony is rich indeed that the Singaporean dictators have dropped a cool $140 million in seven months looking after kiddies in flourishing democracies such as Australia, the UK and the US where underpaid nannies are not the norm like in the island city-state.

The declining share price suggests the debt rollover has not solved ABC Learning’s growing pains. There is talk about some tension within the family of CEO Eddie Groves, which might be related to this very interesting story in The Courier Mail last September, pointing out that large related party transactions with Eddie’s brother-in-law, Frank Zullo, for construction work were no longer being disclosed and often weren’t tendered.

Hmmm, perhaps it’s time the former Liberal politicians on the board, chair Sally Anne Atkinson and Larry Anthony, stepped in to clean up ABC Learning’s poor governance.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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