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Coal baron Nathan Tinkler’s tilt at becoming chairman of Whitehaven Coal by Christmas came to nothing at the Whitehaven Coal annual general meeting yesterday.
Whitehaven’s share price has floundered for the past few years, and Tinkler is furious with the board’s performance. Tinkler has been trying to gain control of Whitehaven, one way or another, for the past six months, initially by trying to buy it and, more recently, with his tilt at the board.
Despite owning nearly 20% of the company, Tinkler couldn’t even sway another 5% of the share registry to issue a first strike against the company’s remuneration report, which needs only 25% of shareholders to dissent. After votes were tallied, only another 4% of shareholders voted with Tinkler on remuneration and board elections, leaving Whitehaven with the support of just over 75% of shareholders.
Overwhelmingly, non-Tinkler shareholders chose to stick with the current board, despite Whitehaven’s share price falling 44% since the end of April.
It has been a year of tension between shareholders and directors, with billionaires like Gina Rinehart and James Packer throwing their weight around and publicly pressuring the boards of companies such as Fairfax and Echo Entertainment.
Here are the three reasons why Tinkler, although very rich, failed to convince in his bid for Whitehaven.
Get your own house in order
After the AGM, Whitehaven CEO Tony Haggarty used the podium to hit back at Tinker, telling him to get his “own house in order”.
Only a year ago, Tinkler was sitting pretty with an estimated wealth of $1.13 billion according to BRW magazine. A month ago, BRW estimated the 36-year-old Tinkler’s total wealth to have shrunk to $400 million.
Tinkler, who gained his shares when Whitehaven bought two companies he owned, withdrew his takeover bid for the coal miner in August over funding issues.
Since then, his personal wealth has been hit by Whitehaven’s falling share price, adding to cash-flow problems caused by his mounting debts. Tinkler, typically cool in the face of high debt, appears to be panicked: earlier this week, he flogged off more than 200 horses from his Patinack Farm on the Gold Coast. They sold for up to 98% less than he paid for them.
Whether Tinkler’s fortunes are as dire as they seem, he certainly doesn’t inspire confidence right now. You can’t blame shareholders for being reluctant to entrust their company to him.
What is it that you want, again?
Tinkler has always been willing to play it close to the edge. But his play for Whitehaven hasn’t just been risky; it looks erratic.
The day before the AGM, Tinkler published an open letter to shareholders in the Australian Financial Review outlining his problems with the way Whitehaven was being run, and revealing his goal to become chairman by Christmas. It was a new demand, and surprisingly made so close to the AGM.
Packer used the same tactic – publishing his complaints in newspapers -- to destabilise the board of Echo, where he is the largest single shareholder. However, he did this over several months, allowing time for his issues to be discussed and understood. Ultimately, the chair of Echo, John Storey, was ousted from the board.
It’s not clear whether Tinkler had canvassed his intensions with other shareholders before declaring them in the paper, but it’s clear he didn’t convince them.
City Index’s Peter Esho says many shareholders have been with Whitehaven for a long time, and would have viewed what Tinkler is trying to achieve “with a little bit of suspicion.”
“To me it wasn’t as aggressively planned or targeted like [Crown chairman] James Packer’s attack on [rival casino] Echo, for example, where he targeted it for a long time and made it very clear why the chairman should be changed.
“Tinkler’s bid seemed to lack that intensity, and didn’t make its case as clearly.”
This wasn’t helped by Tinkler not attending yesterday’s AGM, as it meant he couldn’t forcefully put his case again before shareholders.
While other magnate shareholders, like Packer and Rinehart, haven’t attended AGMs, their positions have been made public and made a lot clearer than Tinkler’s, meaning representatives were able to more easily make their arguments for them.
Experience and reputation
Tinkler’s rise has been meteoric. The former electrician became a multi-millionaire in two years after he risked everything in 2006 to acquire the Middlemount coal deposit. He raised $30 million in debt that came good when he sold his holdings to Macarthur Coal in 2008 for $441 million.
While his ascension is staggering, it’s also been marked by periods of failure. While Tinkler has bounced back in the past, his rival at Whitehaven, Tony Haggarty, is no pushover.
Haggarty is another Rich Lister, with an estimated fortune of $470 million and over 30 years’ experience in the mining industry, a fact he was happy to draw attention to at yesterday’s AGM. “I am happy to have the track record and reputation of me and the Whitehaven team compared to that of Tinkler Group at any time,” he said.
Esho says that having apparently defeated Tinkler, Whitehaven’s board have to deliver to their shareholders. “Returns over the past few years haven’t been fantastic, in fact they’ve been negative,” he says. “The onus is on the board to deliver some better news this year, and communicate that to the market.”
Only then can the board be sure shareholders won’t change their mind and vote with Tinkler, who remains the company’s biggest shareholder, in the future.