As the aviation skies turn back, the bell has tolled for Virgin Blue’s major shareholder as British billionaire Sir Richard Branson today regained control of his Aussie airline without spending one dollar.

Having failed to flog his 62.7% stake in Virgin Blue to Branson or any other trade buyer over the past two years, Toll Holdings CEO Paul Little today did the only thing possible and distributed the stake to his shareholders.

Just like the US government always gave an implied guarantee to the $US6 trillion of home loans sitting inside Freddie and Fannie, so it was with Toll’s controlling stake in Virgin Blue.

If push came to shove, surely Toll — a former $10 billion-plus company that is still worth more than $4 billion today — would stand behind Virgin Blue which is now believed to be bleeding cash as soaring oil price smash aviation profits worldwide.

That implied guarantee now falls back to Branson who re-emerges from the sidelines as the controlling shareholder with 25.5% and will get to choose some new independent directors, presumably after consulting his new major shareholders, such as US institutional giant Capital, ComBank, ING and ANZ which together own 30% of Toll and will emerge with about 20% of Virgin Blue.

Paul Little will personally finish up with 37.9 million Virgin Blue shares or 3.6% of the company and has declared no “present intention” to sell out, but he has still agreed to quit the airline’s board, along with all five Toll representatives, although finance director and Virgin chairman Neil Chatfield will stick around until the October AGM.

Toll shares have been smashed from $15 to a recent low of $6 over the past year but the stock rebounded 4.23% or 27c to $6.65 in morning trade as the market breathed a sigh of relief that it was out of the volatile airline game.

Virgin Blue shares also gained 1.5c to 52c but Branson’s refusal to plough in more capital thus far isn’t a good sign and its market capitalisation of just $531 million on Friday night doesn’t augur well for a company that claims to have net assets of $744 million.

There has been some recent reckless speculation that Virgin Blue could go the way of Ansett, but it doesn’t have same debt levels, appalling work practices and prohibitive redundancy provisions that killed its predecessor Australian duopolist.

Indeed, Virgin Blue has $700 million of cash in the bank, although there is more than $800 million in debt, so it is modestly geared on a net basis but remains in far better shape than most other airlines.

As for Toll and its now separated sister company Asciano, they must be wishing they never bought control of Virgin Blue through over-priced 2006 Patrick takeover.

Former Patrick leaders Chris Corrigan and Peter Scanlon will be laughing about the $1.3 billion non-cash charge that Toll will book this year, dragging it into the red and onto this notorious list of Australian companies that have reported losses of more than $100 million in a year.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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