Controlling the uncontrollable
NASCAR is an American car racing sport similar to Europe’s Formula 1. Most of the racers thrive on the fast-paced sport; according to them, being able to control the uncontrollable is the name of the game. This logic can also be applied to business.
As in NASCAR, the world of business thrives on competition and ultimately winning. But instead of doing 200 laps in less than two hours, in business the competition is played out behind closed doors. Middle-aged men and women, dressed in fine Italian suits, sit around mahogany conference tables while planning their next move with regards to their fiercest competitor. Although in Istrabenz’s case, the planning is revolving around the survival of the company.
Survival has not been Istrabenz’s greatest strength, and the company seems to have lost all control over the situation. From management and shareholders to angry creditors, everyone has now turned against each other in hopes of getting out of this unpredictable and hazardous race as soon and as unscathed as possible. The banks especially want to see the finish line soon. Unfortunately, the quagmire is making the company vulnerable to takeover attempts for its enduring losses.
With some creditors wanting receivership and others opting for debt settlement, the final decision has fallen to the courts.
They have decided for the latter as being the primary course of action in hopes that by 2014 all debt could be repaid. The outcome, however, will greatly depend on how the creditors cooperate.
Hear Ye! Hear Ye!
The plan to repay all debt accumulated by Istrabenz – currently standing at EUR 800m, from which only the Holding owes EUR 350m – faces much opposition. Filed by Istrabenz’s chairman Bogdan Topič and supervisor Zoran Boškovič, the core of the plan is that Istrabenz sells most of its assets and suspends due liabilities, paying off its debt in the next five years.
Seemingly more promising than the now-failed capital injection of EUR 475m, five out of 19 banks still oppose the draft plan. Their solution is receivership – an action temporarily suspended, until the court’s debt restructuring attempt is completed.
Now the forced settlement will be led by a court-appointed administrator; in this instance Boris Dolamič, director of construction company Grosuplje. All creditors (1,381 in total) have until Aug. 10 to report their claims; then a nine-member committee of financial creditors – a healthy mix of Slovenian and foreign banks – will convene.
Approximately 60 percent of the creditors will have to agree on a restructuring plan. If a clear consensus is not reached, then the court will have to decide on receivership. Each step will take approximately eight to 30 days to execute. Each step is open to appeals. The final decision on restructuring is scheduled to be made by September or October, depending on whether the creditors will be able to reach a decision before then.
In March, everyone was still playing nice. Creditors were talking, trying to find an agreement, and basically all the energy was spent on thinking of how to get then-CEO Igor Bavčar off the executive board. As of June 22, Bavčar was officially gone.
With his resignation from the management board, Bavčar hoped that the creditors would have no reason not to unify behind one agreement. “All this time it was not about me, but about Istrabenz,” Bavčar said to STA.
However, as it stands today, no unification has been reached. Early on, Unicredit Bank seized several investments that Istrabenz staked in return for loans. The bank thus gained eight percent ownership of retailer Mercator, plus other stakes in the energy companies Petrol and Sava.
With Unicredit Bank going haywire, Nova Ljubljanska Banka seemed to be the only logical choice in trying to salvage the situation. Problems loomed on the horizon when Austrian bank Bawag and France’s SKB filed for receivership with the district court in Koper. Later, Austrian’s Volksbank and Sparkasse joined them in their decision. Ammunition for receivership has been provided by the prominent auditing firm KPMG, which announced that the creditors would not be able to get all their claims repaid through debt restructuring. However, NLB was able to round up 14 out of the 19 banks to cooperate and agree on a solution short of receivership.
Stake Your Stake
With creditors already dividing areas of interest among themselves and potential buyers making their presence known, debt settlement no longer seems impossible.
Any course of action in the Istrabenz case will greatly impact the organizational landscape of the conglomerate. Stocks of retailer Mercator and energy company Petrol (both have shares in the conglomerate) are planned to be sold off, with the proceeds to be distributed among the creditors.
Food company Droga Kolinska is planned to be sold, even though the procedure has been temporarily halted by means of Istrabenz transferring ownership rights of up to six percent to creditors Factor bank and Probanka.
Istrabenz’s energy division is also attracting major attention from foreign investors. French-owned gas company Butan Plin is interested in buying Istrabenz gas company, Plini. However, the company is 49 percent owned by the Italian gas company SIAD, which has the right of first purchase.
The company Instalacija (storing refined oil products) is also being looked at closely as a takeover candidate. It would fit in the portfolio of either Slovenia’s Petrol, but also in that of Austrian’s oil and gas conglomerate OMV. Under the new court-appointed debt settlement scheme, Istrabenz is expected to sell up to EUR 300m of its fixed assets in the next three years.