There is one crucial ingredient missing from the spate of corporate collapses which have occurred over the past year — public outrage at the perpetrators.

The bankruptcies of the 1980s created a nationwide set of villains with whom Main Street could easily attribute blame. From Alan Bond, Christopher Skase, John Spalvins, and even Abe Goldberg, George Herscu and Jack Elliott, those who flew high saw their once glorious reputations destroyed. Christopher Skase’s sojourn in Majorca garnered constant national headlines as current affairs cameramen desperately tried to film Australia’s once richest man relaxing in his Spanish hideaway.

However, while the collapses of the past twelve months have been no less spectacular, the perpetuators remain ensconced in virtual anonymity outside the pages of the Financial Review.

In November 2004, Babcock & Brown listed on the ASX at $5.00 per share, valuing the company at over $1 billion. Less than three years later Babcock was believed to worth more than $9 billion. Now, the company’s equity is worthless, with shareholders being wiped out through a debt-for-note swap. As recently as February 2008, Babcock CEO, Phil Green, claimed “we are confident that our high margin, low risk model and financial strength, positions us well for growth in 2008.” Over the four years it took Phil Green and his lieutenants to destroy more than a billion dollars of shareholder value, Green himself collected $50 million cash.

The outrage directed towards Green and Babcock appears muted though. BNB was Australia’s clearest case of extreme capitalism gone wild. Even more morosely, the current chair of Babcock is Elizabeth Nosworthy. Nosworthy was on Babcock’s remuneration committee throughout the time it paid its executives multi-million dollar cash bonuses which encouraged such destructive behavior.

While Babcock was Australia’s textbook case of extreme capitalism, MFS was the classic case of extreme stupidity. MFS, which was led by a pair of Gold Coast lawyers, Michael King and Phillip Adams, fancied itself as a funds manager and asset originator. MFS’ business model appeared to involve grossly overpaying for assets (usually relating to tourism or property), shifting it into a satellite fund and selling units to even bigger idiots. In a touch of irony, MFS at one stage owned the Sheraton Mirage in Port Douglas (once the jewel in Chris Skase’s Quintex empire). MFS’ funds, were recommended by financial planners (including several who were directors of MFS and MFS satellites).

MFS died in early 2008, its house of cards crashing down. Fortunately for Michael King, no one appears to be chasing after the $3 million (including a cash bonus of $1.6 million) he was paid in 2007. Nor is anyone rushing to repossess King’s polo ponies and lavish property interests.

Another of the new wave of low profile corporate villains were the Allco and Rubicon twins — David Coe and Gordon Fell. Allco, which was once capitalised at more than $4 billion, collapsed under a weight of its own debt last November. Allco’s demise was actually hastened by its purchase of property fund manager, Rubicon. At the time, Rubicon was owned by various Allco directors, and its sale netted Gordon Fell $28.7 million and David Coe more than $12 million.

Those monies were paid by Allco shareholders. Rubicon, which also slid into administration last November was believed to have paid Fell more than $50 million throughout its brief existence to manage it into oblivion. When asked whether he would consider returning some of the funds he extracted from the insolvent enterprise, Fell in turn asked the reporter, “Why would you do that?”

Finally, there was the rapid fall of the house of Oz, the mining powerhouse which was set to combine the balance sheet strength of Zinifex with the development pipeline of Oxiana. Shortly before the merger announcement, the combined value of the companies was $12 billion. Less than nine months later and Oz Minerals is on its knees, pleading with its bankers to extend credit lines as it frantically mothballed mines and sack workers in a desperate bid to conserve cash.

As for the man who caused much of the mess, former Oxiana boss and Oz Minerals non-executive director, Owen Hegarty — he was given an $8.35 million golden goodbye from the Oz Minerals board (only weeks after Oxiana shareholders rejected a $10.66 payout). In a further twist, it was reported last week that Hegarty was considering a bid (along with private equity interests) for Oz Minerals’ Martabe gold and silver project in Indonesia, possibly using the money which was paid to him by Oz shareholders for “outstanding contribution to Oxiana’s growth and success.”

Have Australians become more forgiving, or perhaps accustomed to corporate losses or do today’s fallen entrepreneurs intentionally side-step the limelight, and by implication, avoid the subsequent shame attaching to their collapse? Whatever the case, Green, King, Coe and Hegarty seem to have gotten off a lot easier than their predecessors.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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