Archives - September, 2018

28 Sep 18

Australia’s most-hated bookmaker, Tom Waterhouse, sure seems to be doing well.
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His suits are nicely tailored and his shirts look made of fine cotton. His marriage took place in a picturesque Sicilian village.

And his bookmaking operation, part-owned by dad Robbie, has been splashing cash around, reportedly becoming the highest-spending advertiser in the sports betting industry. His inescapability has made him a voodoo doll for anti-punt activists, but has it paid off?

It’s difficult to say. While he’s reportedly been offered $500 million for the business, Tom Waterhouse NT, which holds his bookie ticket, doesn’t file financial accounts.

But it is possible to say that despite the advertising blitz (and free publicity due to mum Gai’s blow-up with well-seasoned adman John Singleton) he doesn’t lay claim to a huge slice of punters’ money. Totalisator giant Tabcorp still dominates the $25 billion a year wagering market, with about 44 per cent. The rest of the totes hold about 25 per cent, betting exchange Betfair has 6.3 per cent and corporate bookies, of which Tom Waterhouse is just one, hold about 24 per cent.

Industry estimates are that Waterhouse has about 10 per cent of the corporate bookie market, giving him just 2.5 per cent of the total market. This despite spending a reported $10 million – too much for his much larger rivals to spend – on the infamous marketing deal with the Nine Network that catapulted him into lounge rooms, and infamy, as a pseudo-commentator.Kingmaker role

Canny fund manager Geoff Wilson has emerged as kingmaker in a newly reignited stoush between former Ausbil Dexia workmates Paul Xiradis and Reub Hayes over undervalued investment company Emerging Leaders Investments (ELI).

Hayes, who was one of Ausbil Dexia’s owners back in the day, last month tried to turf ELI’s board, including Xiradis, but the company rejected his call for a shareholder meeting as ”invalid”.

On Monday, Hayes said he would call his own meeting at which he would ask shareholders to evict Xiradis, John Evans and John Skippen from the boardroom and replace them with himself, fellow Treasury Group director Peter Kennedy and investment banker Matthew Stubbs. Hayes, who owns 5.7 per cent of ELI through his super fund Solhurst, complained that an $8.2 million capital-raising last month was priced at 82¢, a steep discount to ELI’s net tangible asset backing of about $1.01 at the time.

Interestingly, the one-for-four share issue was partly underwritten by Ausbil, which is run by Xiradis and manages ELI’s investments. However, despite a shortfall in the capital-raising Ausbil had to lay out less than $200,000 because Xiradis generously put his hands in his own pockets and stumped up an extra $850,000, above his entitlement, to buy more shares. He now owns 4.3 per cent of ELI.

Hayes also complained that shareholders who didn’t take up their entitlement have been diluted and Ausbil given a 20 per cent rise in its base management fee.

In addition to changing the board, Hayes wants to declare a special dividend and offer shareholders a buyback at the company’s net tangible asset backing. ”I’ve had lengthy dialogue with the board over the past four months and been stonewalled,” Hayes told CBD. ”All we’re really seeking is for the board to recognise that the shareholders want value out of it.”

Given scrip is trading at about 82¢ and NTA is around 97.2¢, Hayes’ proposal would seem very attractive for Wilson’s Wilson Asset Management, which has bought as much of the stock as it can – 19.9 per cent.

Wilson was inscrutable on Monday when CBD asked his intentions. ”What I find is the best thing is to see clearly what their [Solhurst] proposition is and clearly what the ELI proposition is,” he said. Pressed, he admitted that if there was a franked special dividend, ”we’d enjoy that”, and that it would ”be tough” to resist a buyback at a premium.

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28 Sep 18

The speed and scale of Australia’s liquefied natural gas boom are big reasons for the industry’s growing cost pressures, Resources Minister Gary Gray says, while conceding that ”unreasonable” union wage demands are also contributing to the problem.
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As the oil and gas industry heaps pressure on governments to tackle rising labour and construction costs – or risk losing out on more than $100 billion of future investment – Mr Gray said the unprecedented boom, with three major gas plants being built in Gladstone, was unforeseen.

”And so some cost pressures grow because of the very large impact of what it is that companies are actually doing,” he said. ”Nowhere in the world has anyone attempted the kind of ramp-up in LNG that we have in prospect in Australia.”

But speaking to reporters at the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association conference in Brisbane on Monday, Mr Gray said militant behaviour by certain unions, including the Maritime Union in Western Australia, was ”unreasonable”.

”We do have to be conscious that unreasonable wage demands do place pressures on projects,” he said. ”My observations are not anti-union, my observations are about how prudent that behaviour is.”

But the oil and gas industry remains hell-bent on government action, not just on labour cost but other productivity issues such as the removal of perceived duplication in environmental approval processes.

ExxonMobil vice-president Mark Nolan said Australia was an attractive place to invest in but also had ”significant disadvantages in labour costs and labour productivity. I think the government has a role to help us manage labour relations, there’s no question about that, it’s a significant factor. As we consider projects around the world, those sorts of issues drive our decisions.”

ExxonMobil is operating the Scarborough gasfield in a $10 billion joint venture with BHP Billiton. Mr Nolan said it remained a ”very challenged” project owing to the dry gas and the shallow, broad nature of the field, requiring expensive horizontal drilling.

Other oil and gas industry leaders, including Chevron managing director Roy Krzywosinski and APPEA chief executive David Byers, warned that government inaction on rising costs could cost the economy $100 billion in projects.

And Royal Dutch Shell global chief executive Peter Voser told the conference ”the policy decisions made today will have a profound effect on your economy and society”.

The commentary prompted Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese to brand the energy industry as ”self-interested”.

But opposition resources spokesman Ian Macfarlane said Mr Albanese was ”on his own” if he thought Australian wages were internationally competitive.

”A cook on an oil rig gets paid more than Anthony Albanese,” Mr Macfarlane said. ”If it’s costing twice as much to do a project here as it is somewhere else in the world, we’re not being competitive.”

The government has also come under pressure from the manufacturing sector, which is concerned that soaring gas prices and a looming east coast gas crisis will exacerbate widespread job losses.

Amid claims from Manufacturing Australia that 200,000 jobs were at risk, Mr Gray outlined a ”comprehensive” government analysis of the domestic gas market.

But the government did not agree that a domestic gas reservation would keep gas prices down or put more gas into the local market. ”In our view it would create uncertainty and deter investment in new gas supply,” Mr Gray said.

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28 Sep 18

Thousands of low-paid employees of collapsed cleaning company Swan Services will miss out on unpaid entitlements because they are foreigners, administrators say.
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Swan Services collapsed last week and is likely to be liquidated. It owes $1.6 million to its 2466 employees for wages alone. Its workers were said to earn $17 an hour cleaning shopping centres and $21 an hour in office buildings.

Many have found work with different contractors, but Michael Crosby, president of the United Voice union, said they were owed two weeks’ pay, leave and leave loading, and superannuation from March onwards.

Swan Services owes a further $2.7 million to creditors such as cleaning product suppliers. The bill for government creditors, primarily the Tax Office, is yet to be determined.

Administrator Anthony Elkerton, from Pitcher Partners, said the employee entitlements comprised an ”unusually high percentage” of Swan’s debt, reflecting the labour intensity of the cleaning industry.

He estimated that only 30-35 per cent of Swan’s workers would be eligible for the Fair Entitlements Guarantee, a taxpayer-funded scheme that covers unpaid wages, annual leave and redundancy entitlements of workers whose employer has gone bankrupt or into liquidation until money can be retrieved by insolvency.

Only Australian citizens or holders of a permanent visa or a special category visa are eligible for the scheme. Mr Elkerton said it was ”too early to predict a return to creditors”.

The collapse of the 47-year-old business has been blamed on unprofitable contracts, a computer glitch and a delay in receiving payments worth an estimated $2.5 million from customers. Mr Elkerton said the payment of any employee entitlements would ”rely heavily on debtor collection rather than asset sales”.

The comments come as economists tip a rise in the national unemployment rate to 6 per cent by the end of 2013, and as the cost of the Fair Entitlements Guarantee is budgeted to cost $304 million this financial year.

Employment and Workplace Relations Minister Bill Shorten said the guarantee scheme, formerly known as GEERS when introduced by then workplace minister Tony Abbott, put the government in workers’ shoes.

Mr Shorten told Fairfax Media last week the government ”would like to see more recoveries”.

”Clearly we view recovery as an important part of GEERS. We’d like to see that number increase; we’d like to have better-run companies,” he said.

Asked whether there was evidence that companies were increasingly collapsing with little money for entitlements knowing the taxpayer would pick up the tab, he said: ”No, I talk on a regular basis to insolvency practitioners, and I’ve had no advice to that effect from the department either.”

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28 Sep 18

Woodside Petroleum chief Peter Coleman says the unproven floating LNG technology is shaping up to be the oil and gas industry’s future, all but conceding that the high-cost environment means it has no other viable alternative to developing the Browse mega-project in WA.
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But Mr Coleman said Woodside and technology provider Shell had not yet formally settled on FLNG as the way forward to Browse with the other joint-venture partners after the company scrapped the original $45 billion-plus development plans at James Price Point.

”I don’t want to have them feel like in any way that we’re negotiating outside process,” he said in a briefing with reporters on the sidelines of the APPEA conference in Brisbane on Monday. ”But I expect they’ll come to resolution soon.”

The lack of formal agreement with its joint venture partners means Woodside has not specified FLNG as the only option as it seeks to extend its retention lease. Mr Coleman said it would not delay the process, which is expected to be submitted within ”weeks”.

The spectacular rise in the original Browse development price-tag has come to typify the cost blow-outs in oil and gas out west.

But Mr Coleman said Woodside now had a target cost in mind for Browse and was designing the development plan. He said another cost blow-out rendering the project unviable was not an option.

He rejected suggestions that investors and other joint venture partners, which include BHP (which is selling its stake to PetroChina) should be wary of the as yet unproven nature of FLNG. He pointed out that Petronas, and ExxonMobil with BHP, had recently committed to FLNG for their respective projects.

Opposition energy spokesman Ian Macfarlane said floating LNG was not ”optimal” given the states would miss out on ”thousands of construction jobs” including career opportunities for local indigenous communities.

But Mr Coleman said the potential for a FLNG technology hub to be based in Perth far outweighed the construction jobs lost.

”And they’re lasting jobs because that’s a skill set you can export,” he said.

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28 Sep 18

David Jones boss Paul Zahra has vowed to push through his strategy of sacrificing loss-making stocktake sales to safeguard store profit margins, just at a time when a warm start to winter and pitiful consumer sentiment have led the upmarket department store to post its worst quarterly sales result in two years.
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Such is the impact of the recent warm weather across eastern Australia on fashion sales that, between January and April, shoppers turned their back on piles of sweaters and coats to make David Jones’ swimwear department the best performer – something that has never happened before.

Shares in David Jones, Australia’s oldest department store, which will soon celebrate its 175th birthday, fell more than 5 per cent on Monday when the fashion and discretionary retailer reported a worse than expected decline in third-quarter sales on the back of a costly pullback in discounts and promotional activity, a dive in revenue coming from its electrical department and unseasonable warm weather.

The stock ended 2¢ weaker at $2.56, a four-month low.

But Mr Zahra said in a trading environment plagued by cautious consumers, unpredictable weather and sector-wide discounting, David Jones would focus on the areas of its business it could control – gross profit margins, inventory and costs.

”We want the sales, but they have got to be profitable and that’s the fine line that we walk,” he said as he revealed that April-quarter sales had slipped 2.2 per cent to $391 million and like-for-like sales – which removes the impact of new stores – fell 3.4 per cent to $386.2 million.

”I can easily turn sales on by discounting, it’s not difficult, not complex, but we chose not to do that on … low-margin categories just to get a top-line sales number. It’s about the profit and that’s what investors will be looking for.”

This would mean a continuation of last year’s policy of retreating from discounting as well as reining in the number of high-profile clearance sales, despite David Jones taking an immediate hit to its sales momentum.

The sales fall during the third quarter reversed gains made in the second quarter and was the worst result since the first quarter of 2012. The last time David Jones was able to stich together two consecutive quarters of positive sales growth was the first quarter of 2011.

Mr Zahra said shareholders would benefit in the long run from his strategy of repairing the company’s margins and not chasing sales at any price. The store’s decision to pull back orders last year also meant it had a better inventory position going into winter, meaning it was even less reliant on loss-making sales to clear unwanted stock.

He said during the quarter David Jones cut a mid-seasonal sales promotion by one week and stripped out five ”discounting events”, including a floor stock sale worth about $10 million in sales. But this decision did hurt womenswear, a flagship category for the upmarket chain, which had declining sales growth for the first time since the global financial crisis.

Mr Zahra said lower-spending customers were ”not shopping for fashion reasons but for need”.

Electricals suffered, although it remains a low-margin business, while high-margin menswear and childrenswear categories delivered growth for the quarter.

”I’m surprised David Jones still have electrical goods,” said Shaw Stockbroking analyst Scott Marshall, ”because every retailer has identified that as a declining market, so David Jones should not be in there at all.”

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