Can Branson get Northern Rock out of a pickle?
Is Sir Richard Branson the man with the plan?
It seems he could be as he moved closer to taking control of Northern Rock after a consortium led by Virgin Group was named as the preferred bidder for the stricken bank.
Branson has promised to avoid job losses, and to install “top quality” management to rebuild Northern Rock, which will then merge with Virgin Money and rebranded as “Virgin”.
Virgin’s offer, which has been backed by the Treasury, includes an immediate repayment of £11bn of the £25bn the bank owes the Bank of England (which will no doubt make them happier). However, if the bank’s shareholders block the deal it could be nationalised or be taken into administration.
And this could become a reality asone of the main investors in Northern Rock has now said that it will oppose Virgin Group’s bid for the bank because it is too low. Rab Capital, which is the second-largest shareholder in Northern Rock, said it would oppose the move as they think that Virgin’s offer was “cheeky” and that the value it put on Northern Rock was “too low”.
It sounds as if they are just unhappy about the thought of not getting lots of money out of any takeover deal, but maybe that’s just us?
However, RAB Capital’s chief executive Philip Richards had told the BBC before the Virgin announcement that he would vote against a proposed takeover of Northern Rock that would “wipe shareholders out or nearly wipe shareholders out”.
BBC business editor Robert Peston said that opposition represented “a major obstacle for Virgin and an embarrassment for the Rock board”.
In a letter to Northern Rock customers, Sir Richard Branson promised to protect their savings and put the business on a firm financial footing. He has also vowed to save jobs and continue to support the Northern Rock charitable foundation.
“At Virgin we have always seen change as a force for good and we have some exciting plans that will not only bring about a fresh start for Northern Rock but also provide real benefits to you as an existing customer,” “We will achieve all this without additional burden on the taxpayer and we will offer shareholders the opportunity to participate in the future growth of the business.”
Virgin would repay £11billion of the bank’s emergency funding immediately, and pay off the rest over time. It has also pledged to keep the bank’s headquarters in Newcastle. Their offer proposes an injection of £1.3bn of new cash into the Rock, with half of that money coming from the consortium.
The remainder would be raised through an offer to existing Rock shareholders to buy new shares for 25 pence each. On that basis, Virgin values Northern Rock at £200m, considerably less than its current market value of £362m. Virgin would end up with 55% of the new company, leaving current shareholders with 45%.
Unions welcomed the news but are seeking further details of the Virgin deal. Graham Godard, deputy general secretary of Unite said;
“At the moment it looks like they are already ticking some of the boxes including job security and a UK successor. On the surface this appears to be a positive move.”
Northern Rock chairman Bryan Sanderson, described the proposed deal as “very good news” for the bank:
“Over the last few weeks and months we have looked at the issues from the perspective of all stakeholders.I am grateful for the support that we have had from customers and employees who have stayed loyal to us during these difficult times – and pleased that a solution that firmly restores the company’s prospects has been identified.
“Furthermore our retail depositors can be fully reassured that the government has said it will ensure savers’ money is safe whatever the outcome.”
Of the ten expressions of interest from financial institutions in taking control of Northern Rock, Virgin’s was said to be preferable because it offered the best deal to their shareholders.
A group representing individuals with small holdings in the bank has also said it will need to see the details of the Virgin bid before they give their support.
Robin Ashby of the Northern Rock Small Shareholders Group said:
“If we feel that we are being entirely ripped off, ripped out, kicked out of the long term, then shareholders may not be happy to just to roll over and go along with these people who it has been reported are preferred bidders.”
BBC business editor Robert Peston said Virgin has agreed it will only pay itself “normal” dividends from Northern Rock until all public money is repaid (thus avoiding potential embarrassment for the Treasury of the group making spectacular profits with the help of the taxpayer-backed loan).
Yet he warned that if there was a severe housing market recession over the next two or three years, taxpayers may not get all of their £25bn back.
“However, the equity Sir Richard is putting into the business, including more than £200m of his own money, would be wiped out in those circumstances,” he said.
“In other words, he could not profit from our misery, even though some will doubtless accuse the Treasury of using our money to help him make spectacular potential long-term gains.”
So, is Richard Branson the right man to rescue Northern Rock, or is his offer merely the best of a bad bunch?
Why not let us know?