Beattie lands his Victorian electricity retailer

By Stephen Mayne
January 17, 2008

Governments taking over listed companies is very rare in Australia but all was explained when this was sent to Crikey subscribers on March 30, 2006.

With the Liberman family sitting on the sidelines and not voting their 19% stake, shareholders in electricity retailer Australian Energy this morning overwhelmingly voted in favour of selling the company to the Queensland Government-owned Ergon Energy for $103 million or $1.95 a share.

Crikey was the only shareholder to speak but chairman Alan Castleman, who was threatening to sue for defamation in our only previous encounter, declined to elaborate on any conversations or deals that had been done with the Libermans.

Based on the numbers, it looks the Libermans didn't have enough shares to vote the deal down after Ergon refused to accede to its demands and lift its offer. A total of 75% of all shares were voted and 99.3% were in favour. Even if the Liberman family had voted their 19% stake against it, the 75% approval requirement would still have been met.

Besides, voting down the deal would only have served to junk the share price and attract the sort of publicity that the super-secretive Melbourne billionaires hate.

The whole scenario is a triumph for former Victorian Treasurer Alan Stockdale who broke the vertically integrated SECV up into 15 pieces and created a world-leading competitive model complete with an active spot market.

Stockers dreamed of new players entering the game and delivering benefits to customers – Australian Energy's prices are an average 6-10% below the lumbering giants of the industry – and that is precisely what the company did when it floated five years ago after raising just $8 million.

The sale to Ergon has been a bonanza for the 100 staff who still own about 40% of the company but Ergon does desperately need their trading expertise when a full competitive market is finally opened up in Queensland on 1 July next year.

All up, this is a good corporate story which includes benefits for customers, innovation, competition and a very tasty return for Australian Energy shareholders, including the scheming Libermans who paid an average $1.50 a share for their stake, despite dropping a few hundred thousands with their botched over-the-odds purchase or an additional 9% stake to try and force the bid price up.

Peter Beattie's boys at Ergon didn't blink, the Australian Energy shareholders showed no sign of supporting the Libermans and they remained on the sidelines and embarrassed at today's EGM.