A battle is brewing over the future of Tasmanian salmon giant Huon Aquaculture, after mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest significantly increased his stake in the company just days after a takeover offer from Brazilian meat-processing giant JBS.
- Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest has increased his stake to become Huon’s second-largest shareholder
- It comes just days after meat processor JBS made its takeover offer
- Mr Forrest wants the company to focus on the environment and animal husbandry
Mr Forrest’s investment vehicle, Tattarang, has announced to the Australian Securities Exchange that it has increased its stake in the company to 18.51 per cent, after initially buying 7.33 per cent in June.
It makes Tattarang the second-largest shareholder in Huon behind JBS, which now holds a 40.53 per cent stake, acquired from founders Peter and Frances Bender this week under the takeover offer.
Tattarang’s move is not yet a takeover bid, but financial analyst Sam Baker said it would mean Mr Forrest could use his shares to vote in favour of or against any takeover proposal.
“It certainly appears as if this move by Andrew Forrest is designed to extract some influence on the company,” Mr Baker said.
Mr Baker said Australian Super was another major shareholder, with a 12 per cent stake.
“Potentially with those two parties voting against this [JBS] proposal, it may well be that it does not proceed.”
Mr Forrest would not say whether he was considering making a counter takeover offer.
He said he took issue with the the document outlining the JBS takeover offer as it did not mention animal husbandry or the environment.
“The environment and animal welfare should be the two top priorities of both JBS and Huon as we go forward,” he said.
“It’s about stating to JBS and to Huon … that animal husbandry needs to be at the top of their list and we will need to be fully convinced that globally, in their massive animal-processing operations, that it is that.”
Mr Forrest said the response from JBS and Huon to Tattarang would dictate the next move.
“We are investing to ensure that Huon goes forward under the banner of deep offshore practices — not shallow onshore practices like in Macquarie Harbour — land-based fish farming and full environmental neutrality,” he said
“Stocking densities in pens must be humane and achieve full carbon neutrality.
Mr Forrest, who has a PhD in marine biology, has expressed growing interest in aquaculture and already has two operations in Western Australia.
Tasmanian Primary Industries Minister Guy Barnett welcomed Tattarang’s increased stake.
“This is a vote of confidence in the salmon industry in Tasmania that we have special interest in further investment in the industry, so that is absolutely welcome,” Mr Barnett said.
JBS new to aquaculture
Huon Aquaculture Group delivered a loss of just over $95 million in the six months to December 31 last year, citing COVID-19 as having a significant impact.
Tattarang’s increased holding comes less than a week after JBS reached its deal with Huon to purchase the company, which is Tasmania’s second-largest salmon producer.
Sam Baker, from financial services group Shadforth, said that JBS was worth about $21 billion, had an annual revenue of $40 billion and about 80,000 employees around the globe.
The company is the world’s largest meat-packing processor and counts the Longford beef processing unit among its holdings.
JBS’s bid is subject to Foreign Investment Review Board approval and values Huon Aquaculture at about $550 million.
Taking over Huon Aquaculture would be JBS’s first foray into aquaculture.
The company has had a colourful history.
In 2017, its parent company J&F Investimentos was embroiled in a Brazilian corruption scandal when its then-chief executive Joesley Batista secretly recorded a conversation with then Brazilian president Michel Temer endorsing payments to a corrupt politician.
The recording was released as part of a plea deal to avoid a corruption investigation into Mr Batista and his brother Wesley and sparked a plunge in the Brazilian stock market.
The company paid a fine in Brazil of 10.3 billion Brazilian reals ($2.7 billion), and a fine in the United States of $US128 million, for its role in the corruption scandals
J&F’s top executives admitted to bribing more than 1,900 Brazilian politicians to advance their business interests.
In June, the company paid the equivalent of $US11 million to a criminal gang to end a five-day cyber-attack that halted its global operations.
As well as the Longford unit, JBS previously ran the Devonport City Abattoir, which it closed in 2018, and the King Island abattoir, which ceased operations in 2012.
In a statement, JBS Australia chief executive Brent Eastwood said ensuring the wellbeing of animals under its care was the company’s “uncompromising commitment”.
“We are confident that a partnership with JBS will extend and improve upon Huon’s legacy of high standards for superior quality, fish health, welfare and sustainable farming practices,” he said.
Mr Eastwood said JBS shared Mr Forrest and Tattarang’s views that “good business must also be good for the environment”.
“Earlier this year, we became the first global meat and poultry company to publicly commit to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions across our entire value chain by 2040,” he said.
Huon’s founders, Peter and Frances Bender, had a controlling 53 per cent stake in the company until this week, and told the Australian Securities Exchange last week that they were in favour of the deal with JBS.
In a statement, Mr Bender said the acquisition would be “an excellent outcome” for Huon’s shareholders, partners and staff.
On Wednesday, Mr Bender called Mr Forrest’s claims about Huon “unfounded” and said the company “was the first and only seafood producer in Australia to hold RSPCA certification”.
“Huon does not believe there is any higher animal husbandry goal to achieve than RSPCA certification, and we call upon Mr Forrest to outline which program he believes is better than RSPCA certification,” he said.
Multiple environmental campaigners voiced concerns about JBS acquiring Huon, fearful that the sale to a foreign company would lead to a lack of transparency around the company’s dealings.
Award-winning author Richard Flanagan, who recently published a scathing book about Tasmania’s salmon industry, has blasted the potential sale to JBS, while federal independent member for Clark Andrew Wilkie said the company was a “huge multinational corporation with a bad reputation”.
Premier Peter Gutwein said JBS had been in the state for a long time, and he was confident it would be a “responsible corporate citizen” going forward.
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