At age 35, Nathan Tinkler was crowned ”Australia’s youngest ever billionaire”. At age 37, his creditors are closing in. Though thanks to a US hedge fund that wants its money back, the big fellow still has some cash left. He is said to have been in New York lately, trying to drum up a bid for Whitehaven, the company that was once his.
For a bloke who came from nothing, billionaire status was quite a feat, except that he was never really a billionaire. His biographer, Paddy Manning, reckons that when Tinkler’s wealth was at its peak in late 2011 – the lead-up to the Whitehaven merger – he had debts of roughly $450 million; so his net worth was closer to $700 million.
Manning (who we ought to disclose here is a mate and former colleague) is about to release Boganaire – The Rise and Fall of Nathan Tinkler. What strikes you about the tale of Tinkler is that he made two fortunes in his lifetime but never made a profit. Loss makers all: from his companies and coal mines to the Newcastle Knights, the Newcastle Jets and the Patinack Farm horse stud.
The other thing is the sheer velocity of the man’s spending – the mansions, the cars, the planes, the bloodstock – and his unrelenting battles with creditors. Manning has totted up some 50 actions against Tinkler, mostly for not paying his creditors.
Tinkler made his first fortune scraping together $1 million and buying the unsung Middlemount coal deposit in Queensland. That was in 2006. A year later he sold it to his mentor, Ken Talbot, for $265 million worth of shares in Talbot’s rampaging Macarthur Coal.
The timing was exquisite. He cashed out of Macarthur for $442 million in May 2008, then embarked on what must be the biggest spending spree in this country’s history. By the time he came to his second ”deal of a lifetime”, he was out of cash, Manning says.
After a reckless spending spree of its own, and crippled by the global financial crisis, the mining giant Rio Tinto was dumping assets. It was early 2009 when Rio put its Maules Creek coal deposit up for sale.
Again, Tinkler saw the potential. He paid $480 million – almost all of it borrowed from US hedge fund Farallon.
All he put down was a 5 per cent deposit, but he didn’t even have that. Talbot had tipped in $15 million in a short-term loan.
Aston Resources and Farallon and their lawyers were poised to sign off on the deal in the Brisbane offices of Freehills when Tinkler sent the Aston boys a text message.
He was down at the nearest pub, the Pig ‘n’ Whistle, in his shorts and thongs. You better come down, he said. Tinkler confessed that he hadn’t been able to refinance Talbot. Farallon was about to fund Tinkler into a half a billion dollar deal when they found out his 5 per cent deposit wasn’t all his.
Farallon managed to extract a personal guarantee from the big bloke which covered all his assets. And so the deal was done. Tinkler’s Aston bought Maules Creek and six months later Aston listed on the sharemarket at $1.2 billion.
Tinkler reached the zenith of his paper wealth when, against all odds, he managed to engineer the three-way merger of Aston, Whitehaven and his private plaything Boardwalk Resources into a $5 billion juggernaut.
Manning has dug up a document from merchant bank Rothschild, which was acting for Aston in the merger negotiations and had valued Boardwalk at $2 million to $71 million net. Tinkler had sold Boardwalk into the new Whitehaven for a fancy $495 million. So, a bunch of assets for which the big bloke had paid $39 million – and which had been valued by Rothschild at close to zero – were vended into Whitehaven for close to half a billion dollars.
It might have been his third fortune. Alas, the resources boom was now in its twilight, Tinkler had spent too much and Maules Creek ran into delays.
Whitehaven is the worst-performing stock on the ASX 100 in the past year (and may be close to a rights issue). Farallon called it a day in June – after Tinkler failed to repay his $US634 million loan – and took back the stake in Whitehaven at $2.96 a share.
Everything Tinkler owns is on the market, including his jet, for which the vendor Paul Little never quite got the full $16 million.
Tinkler’s big hope is to engineer a takeover of Whitehaven. He has 34 million ”milestone shares” which vest if there is a change of control.
A takeover at $2 a share for Whitehaven would deliver him $68 million – though he still owes Farallon up to $100 million (they got $565 million from the $634 million owed when they repossessed his shares), so he needs to flog Patinack too, minus All Too Hard and a couple of other top stallions which were sold to Gerry Harvey and co.
So the Tinkler story is yet to have an ending. Word from New York, Manning says, is that he is ”having trouble getting a meeting”. Thermal coal is not in vogue these days.
Despite the tumult and the trail of creditors, Tinkler may live on sympathetically in the public psyche. Like Alan Bond, he came from nothing and he loved sport – two ingredients for public endearment. And unlike the financial engineers and other market operators, most of the money he blew was his own.