Centro

What a difference a month makes. Just last month, crack Australian Financial Review reporter Jemima Whyte was singing the praises of insurance comparison business iSelect. The AFR roared its approval of the float, with Whyte saying the iSelect float “will probably shoot the lights out” and noting iSelect operates in “a new growing industry in its infancy in Australia that has experienced rapid growth in recent years”.

Fast forward a month, and the AFR is somewhat less glowing about the future of the clicks-and-mortar business. Ruth Liew noted iSelect had made a “dismal debut” and quoted an institutional investor who said it had been a “poorly handled IPO”. Liew then criticised the brokers who “had been spruiking iSelect as an online business with plenty of growth potential”, forgetting that iSelect’s biggest spruiker was none other than Liew’s own paper.

This column was a little more sanguine about iSelect’s prospects than the AFR, noting iSelect was being challenged by an array of competitors (led by Compare the Market), it has been experiencing somewhat tepid profit growth, and its cornerstone investor, Mi9, was happily offloading its entire stake while the going was good.

Currently iSelect shares are trading at $1.65, down from their $1.85 float price.

But iSelect’s woes are nothing compared with Centro’s. Amid the carnage of the disastrous Centro collapse (during which investors lost billions and directors were found guilty of breaching their corporate duties) lay a figure quietly operating behind the scenes. During the business’ rapid run during the debt-fuelled 2000s, CEO Andrew Scott was being closely advised by Andrew Pridham of JP Morgan. Pridham was a key figure behind Centro’s buying spree, which included the ill-fated purchase of US-based New Plan Excel Realty in 2007 for $3.7 billion.

The acquisition was a major reason for Centro’s eventual share price destruction (its market value slumped from almost $10 billion to $37 million at one point). Pridham was paid handsomely for his advice (he had earlier been poached by JP Morgan from UBS Warburg on a $25 million, five-year deal). JP Morgan billed Centro a jaw-dropping $25 million to advise it on a single capital raising and is understood to have reaped more than $100 million in fees from Centro to undertake a series of company-destroying acquisitions.

Not long after the Centro disaster, Pridham became chief executive of boutique investment bank Moelis & Co and quickly went about rebuilding his business and reputation (waylaid only by a somewhat inconvenient court case over an allegedly forged Brett Whitely paining).

It appears the Centro catastrophe didn’t damage the relationship between Pridham and Scott. Last week Moelis announced the launch of the $200 million Moelis Australia Property Visa Fund, with Pridham noting the first asset it was buying was a Victorian shopping centre, introduced by none other than Andrew Scott.

Meanwhile, it appears Pridham’s corporate resurrection is complete, with the banker anointed to take over as the president of the Sydney Swans football club from outspoken long-term president Richard Colless (who also happens to be chairman of the Moelis Australia Property Visa Fund).

Corporate Australia has a very short memory indeed.

*Adam Schwab is the author of Pigs at the Trough: Lessons from Australia’s Decade of Corporate Greed, published by John Wiley & Sons

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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