MATTHEW CRANSTON Farm Weekly 01 July 2013
NEWS Corp shareholders and Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims are at risk of losing millions, after RM Williams Agricultural Holdings appointed receivers.
Westpac Banking Corp, which is believed to be owed about $60 million, appointed PPB Advisory partners Stephen Parbery and Mark Robinson as receivers and managers, at the request of the board.
The appointment took place on Wednesday, however, documents were only lodged with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission at the week's end, as reported by The Land at 5pm on Friday.
RM Williams Agricultural Holdings was set up by former News director Ken Cowley and the largest single shareholder is a News Corp subsidiary.
The company, famed for splashing out $72 million to buy a Northern Territory cattle station at the top of the boom in 2007, received a grant from federal Environment Minister Tony Burke to build the world's biggest carbon farm.
The Australian Financial Review revealed in 2011 that News Limited had invested $30 million in the company alongside Mr Sims, who invested more than $1 million.
"I have been registered with the company as a seller trying to sell my interest," Mr Sims told the AFR over the weekend. "However, I do not want to be making passing comments on a company that is in difficult circumstances."
A Westpac spokesman said: "We have appointed receivers who will now undertake a review of the business."
The directors of RM Williams Agricultural Holdings have been attempting to raise capital but have so far failed to attract new equity.
In a statement, Mr Parbery said the directors requested its bankers appoint PPB Advisory as receivers and managers of the parent entity.
The subsidiaries are operating as going concerns. Mr Parbery emphasised that PPB Advisory's appointment was in no way related to the RM Williams retail fashion business.
The financial problems follow a crash in cattle station values across the industry, which is loaded with debt, hampered by drought and depressed by an oversupply of cattle.
In February London Stock Exchange-listed private equity company Origo Partners, which is also a shareholder in RM Williams Agricultural, was behind a push for the company to start selling assets.
A subsidiary of RM Williams Agricultural Holdings that is not in receivership, RM Williams Agricultural Landscape Management, received a $9.1 million federal grant to build the world's biggest carbon farm at Henbury Station in the Northern Territory.
A study in 2006 found the grant program paid an average $10.61 a hectare for the properties acquired but funding for the Henbury purchase was almost 2½ times that average.
That carbon farm has struggled, with the company's recently appointed chief executive, Rory Richards, saying "carbon is not off the table but it is no longer our main focus".
Mr Richards was not available for comment when contacted on Saturday.
RM Williams Agricultural, which explored capital management opportunities with Sydney corporate adviser Moelis last year, was already trying to sell a large land and water portfolio at Inglewood, in southern Queensland. It has been trying to sell property, including the $20 million Mirage Plains in south-west Queensland, to Alpha Agricultural Investment Partners, which is backed by former Leighton Holdings chairman David Mortimer.
News Corp did not comment on Sunday.
- with John Kehoe