Grain consortium lobbying hard for Australia’s biggest wheat exporter

Sydney/Reuters – A consortium seeking to buy Australia’s biggest wheat exporter, Co-operative Bulk Handling Ltd (CBH), is stepping up lobbying for its offer amid concerns the deal may be snubbed and reports of a rival Chinese bidder.

The Australian Grains Champion (AGC), which includes farmers and some former directors of CBH, wants to acquire and list the Western Australia co-operative in a deal that analysts say would be worth up to A$3 billion ($2.2 billion).

The consortium’s drive for shareholder support comes as The Australian newspaper on Friday reported Chinese agribusiness COFCO Corp was considering a rival bid for CBH, citing no sources. CBH refused to comment.

However, a banker familiar with AGC’s bid dismissed suggestions of a rival bidder, calling the report “speculation”.

The AGC proposal has the financial backing of pension fund First State Super, as well as eastern Australian grain handler GrainCorp Ltd, which has stirred concerns among some farmers that it could eventually acquire CBH.

CBH, which has said the proposal lacks detail, is deciding whether to put the plan to its shareholders or reject it outright.

AGC was due to meet on Friday with the state’s Pastoralists and Graziers Association, a prominent industry body, to drum up support for its plan, several growers told Reuters.

AGC told Reuters that CBH is misleading its shareholders with recent comments and was attempting to set the record straight.

“The complexity of the deal is no different to a cooperative moving to being a company,” said John Corbett, director, Hassad Australia, an agriculture investment group, and a member of AGC.

“CBH is creating doubts with growers. We are also having similar conversations with them. There are concerns about the costs going up but it does not make sense. If you start raising charges, you’re letting competition in, so why would you do that?” said Corbett, referring to fees for storing and processing grain.

Although AGC is pressing for shareholder support, growers said they believed the CBH board will reject the offer by the March 18 deadline.

“I don’t believe the CBH board will allow the growers to see the proposal from AGC,” said John Snooke, a farmer and shareholder in CBH, ahead of a briefing on the proposal.

A source close to the consortium told Reuters this week the chance of a CBH board approval was seen as “50-50”.

AGC has proposed it take ownership of CBH from its 4,200 farmer owners, who will receive shares in the consortium, along with a A$600 million sweetener.

GrainCorp would commit up to A$600 million, which would be transferred to an equity stake in CBH once it was listed. This investment would give GrainCorp a 20 per cent stake in CBH if it was valued at A$3 billion.

($1 = 1.3598 Australian dollars)

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