It is befitting that, at the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, we can also commiserate the demise of what had once been feted as Australia’s greatest technology stock.
Once valued by the market in the billions, ERG is at the end of its voyage, having told its 15,000 surviving shareholders a few days ago it had settled its lawsuit with the NSW government.
Although long since restructured, split in two and renamed Videlli, ERG once counted itself among the handful of great Australian technology stocks. Unlike Cochlear, ResMed or CSL, however, it could never bridge the schism between good technology and commercialisation – between the idea and the reality. Few do.
ERG was a victim of poor management. Its technology – smart cards for mass transit systems – was sound. But management rarely delivered on song, and often got hung up in costly frolics such as a failed venture in the Philippines where they unwittingly got into bed, metaphorically speaking that is, with a gay porn entrepreneur under scrutiny by authorities in the US and Canada.
Besides the critical importance of management, the other moral of the ERG story is that shareholders should never rely on the outcome of litigation.
The company, which was listed on the ASX until June 2009, has just settled its longstanding lawsuit against the NSW government over its aborted Sydney transport ticketing contract. It had been seeking up to $200 million, but settled for a payment of $5 million to the NSW government.
Each side will bear its own costs. Videlli’s last annual report showed it had spent $16 million on legal bills in three years.
It was a suitably humiliating end for a company whose only business over the past three years had been to pursue the government in the courts.
After 15 years, and now lugging accumulated losses of $700 million, this is one of the nation’s most tortuous collapses, a paradox in view of its promising technology – technology that now makes money, or at least breaks even for its new owners overseas.
In the internet chat-lands, the tongues of conspiracy are wagging. The reclusive entrepreneur Duncan Saville had ploughed more than $100 million of his own money into ERG over the years and came away, eventually, with the viable ticketing operations overseas. These remaining global assets of the old ERG Group are now owned and operated by Saville and the Bermuda-based Utilico. The shutters are down, now that the offshore operations are housed in Bermuda, but the last accounts from 2010 show a pre-tax profit of $7 million.
Had Saville, who made his fortune from the Thatcher government’s water privatisation in Britain, not injected $100 million-plus into ERG, the ship would almost certainly have sunk years before.
It is hard to begrudge Saville wanting to recoup his money either, as some do, after years of propping the group up.
Apart from the earlier management, which chronically over-promised and under-delivered while overpaying themselves, it is a fair contention that ERG was irreparably punctured by the twin icebergs of the NSW and Victorian governments.
Here is a third moral to the story: government contracts are not necessarily a foolproof meal ticket, especially when it comes to transport.
A billion dollars was wasted by the government and ERG in getting the smart card ticketing system up and running in the Victorian transport system. Finally, it made money.
In NSW, where the government congenitally flip-flops on transport – changing the goalposts like a team of groundsmen – it lost $50 million. Taxpayers will have wasted $30 million, thanks to the ERG debacle and attendant legal costs.
Instead of Victoria and NSW burning much more than a billion dollars between them in ordering their fresh proprietary ticketing systems, they could have easily have gone to London or elsewhere and licensed somebody else’s system, already proven, at one-fifth the cost.
Lest we digress, on ERG’s part there was a portfolio of other costly frolics over the years. For sheer entertainment, it was hard to beat its 2006 foray into the Philippines via a $26 million smart card venture with Versacard.
The promoter behind Versacard was the Scottish stock-spruiker and hardcore gay porn website entrepreneur James Mackay.
Mackay had attracted the attention of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Securities and Exchange Commission in the United States for his business activities – a fact ERG appears to have been aware of.
Moreover, an elementary ”due diligence” via Google would have demonstrated to the ERG management that interests associated with Mackay were not famed for the reliability of their payments.
The most obvious example was Mackay’s failure to pay contestants on his Castleboys reality porn TV show in 2002 at Chateau de Mont near Biarritz in southern France.
Around the world, commemorations are taking place to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.
Bruce Ismay, the former owner and managing director of White Star Line, who was on the fateful maiden voyage, managed to survive despite the policy of evacuating women and children first.
Ismay lived the remaining 25 years of his life in comfortable disgrace.