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2005 Review: Scandals, egos and dummy spits in the business world

By Kate Perry of NZPA

Wednesday 28th December 2005

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The business world isn't all numbers and jargon, sometimes personalities, egos and power struggles are involved and things get entertaining.

In terms of headline grabbing ability you couldn't ask for more than ex-All Black, turned television larrakin and entrepreneur Marc Ellis.

While 2005 started off well enough for Ellis, the second half was a Dickensian case of the best of times and the worst of times.

In July, Charlie's, the juice company he co-founded with Stefan Lepionka, made its debut on the share market through a back-door listing.

But the good times stopped rolling a few weeks later when Mr Ellis's name was linked to a celebrity drug ring, with Charlie's shares falling to 11c from a high of 18c.

In August, Ellis was convicted and fined $300 for possessing five pills of the Class B drug ecstasy as part of what has become known as the celebrity drug bust.

For a while his name could not be mentioned without being preceded by "disgraced television personality".

But a rehabilitation programme consisting of irreverent appearances on his regular television shows soon saw that tag replaced with "favourite male TV personality".

In November, Ellis' redemption was complete when he was nominated to rejoin Charlie's board. But he turned down the opportunity citing other commitments - of the kind that create favourite male personalities.

He will stay on as the face of Charlie's fronting its next advertising campaign, in a similar role to the one Mike Pero holds at the company he founded, Mike Pero Mortgages (MPM).

Pero, who is now an independent director of the company, is currently fighting off a takeover bid for MPM from New Zealand Finance Holdings.

He is urging shareholders not to accept NZ Finance's unconditional 82c a share, saying they would be "under-selling".

Independent advisers said NZ Finance's offer was not fair, and valued MPM's shares in a range of 96c to $1.09.

The company listed on the stock exchange in May last year, but Pero retained a stake of about 10%.

As he fended off the unwelcome advances from NZ Finance, Pero could take heart from the example set by Peter Yealands, who battled against the odds to have a takeover bid for Marlborough winemaker Oyster Bay thrown out.

Yealands showed the perseverance of a bulldog in his efforts to ensure would-be buyer Delegat's Wine Estate did not walk away with a majority stake in Oyster Bay for a price he considered too low.

Supported by fellow Oyster Bay shareholder David Rankin, Yealands raised concerns about valuations that were presented to Oyster Bay shareholders. He contended company assets could be worth up to twice the valuation presented in a target company statement sent to shareholders.

A drawn out legal saga followed, going to the Takeovers Panel, then the High Court - which eventually scrapped Delegat's $4 a share partial takeover - despite the fact Delegat's had already won acceptances that would give it a majority stake in the company.

But in a surprising turnaround, Yealands and Delegat's appear to have settled their differences just before Christmas, with the former agreeing to sell his stake to the latter if the offer was upped to $6 a share.

Another contentious takeover battle this year was Masthead's successful hostile takeover for plastics company Vertex, which ended with Vertex's ceo Paddy Boyle getting the chop.

Someone who understood the concept of moving past their use-by date when company's change hands was former Wrightson chief executive Allan Freeth.

Freeth, who was forced out in July last year after Craig Norgate's Rural Portfolio Investments bought a majority stake in Wrightson, returned to the corporate fold in March this year as TelstraClear's new chief executive.

Since taking on the role Freeth has not shied from criticising the big boys, taking out a full page ad in the nation's newspapers in November accusing Telecom of trying to back out of its commitment to open up the broadband Internet market.

Freeth was not the only run-in Telecom's chief executive Theresa Gattung had this year. In September Gattung she was struck by a car on Wellington's Oriental Parade, which left her with "a swollen knee and cuts and bruises on her legs".

Australia has also proved a little bruising for Telecom, as its subsidiary AAPT continued to struggle. The telco announced a review which will consider a range of options for AAPT including a merger, joint venture or sale.

If Telecom decided to up-sticks and leave Australia they would be following in the footsteps of discount retailer The Warehouse.

The Warehouse, under the guidance of new chief executive Ian Morrice, offloaded its Australian business in November for $A92 million ($NZ99 million).

Morrice, a Scot who joined the company in August last year, has been revamping the group with measures ranging from a new logo, to fresh product lines and de-cluttering the shop floor.

While The Warehouse has beaten a retreat from Australia and Telecom eyes up a possible withdrawal, one of New Zealand's top executives was lured across the Tasman.

Former Air New Zealand chief executive Ralph Norris left the national airline to head up the Commonwealth Bank of Australia.

As one of ours left for over there, one of theirs headed here, when Australian Graham Hodges was named to head up ANZ-National Bank, replacing Sir John Anderson.

While Anderson chose to leave to concentrate on other interests - saving TVNZ it turned out - former Feltex ceo Sam Magill was not so keen to head off into the sunset.

Magill resigned from Feltex in June after the carpet maker issued its second profit downgrade for the year. But he didn't go quietly. His contract was terminated in late September after a failure to agree on terms for his severance payout.

Magill then insisted on retaining his directorship with the company, despite being asked to step down. He stubbornly turned up at the company's annual general meeting this month and joined the other directors on stage, but failed to secure the votes to stay on board.

Shareholders Association chairman Bruce Sheppard said Magill had to respect the board's decision.

"They've done their job - you've been sacked," Sheppard said.

Magill has been replaced as chief executive by Peter Thomas, who faces the task of restoring Feltex's fortunes.

Carter Holt chief executive Peter Springford heads into the Christmas holidays facing an uncertain future. This month Springford sold his Carter Holt shares into Graeme Hart's $2.50 a share takeover offer. Hart is seeking full control of the wood products company, which would see it delisted from the stock exchange and a likely change of leadership. This is just one of three huge deals the low profile billionaire has pulled off this year. Other wheeling and dealing included selling part of New Zealand Dairy Foods (NZDF) to Fonterra in exchange for a handful of other dairy brands and a few hundred million dollars.

He then split up subsidiary Burns Philp, spinning off a new company with an old name, Goodman Fielder, into which he folded NZDF.

This new Goodman Fielder was floated on both the Australian and New Zealand bourses in December. Despite the high profile his mega-deals attracted, Hart flew determinedly under the radar, leaving most of the media talk up to others.

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