Brookfield, BGH Capital and Bain Capital are favourites to lead the final group of bidders into the next stage of the race to buy Virgin Australia as Friday’s deadline for initial offers approaches, sources close to the bidding say.
Bidders are due to hand indicative non-binding proposals to Deloitte and lead administrator Vaughan Strawbridge on Friday. A possible fourth bidder could emerge from among iron ore magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest, billionaire Virgin Group founder Richard Branson and the governments of Victoria, NSW and Queensland which are all vying to host a reborn Virgin Australia’s headquarters.
This fourth player is expected to quickly fold into one of the consortiums led by the three leading bidders, sources said, as the Melbourne Cup field of about 20 interested parties sorts itself out over the coming days for the serious number crunching and bidding to get under way next week.
The bidders will have to grapple with the threat of fresh competition from rural carrier Regional Express Holdings, which is expected to raise $200 million in new capital to fund the addition of flights between major capital cities to its network early in 2020. Virgin’s big rival Qantas also plans a baptism of fire for a reborn Virgin, with flights priced as low as $19 between Sydney and Melbourne to kickstart domestic aviation after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The federal government – represented by ex-Macquarie Group chief Nicholas Moore – also has a major role to play in the sale process. Mr Strawbridge revealed he was in daily conversations with officials last week.
“The chairperson [Mr Strawbridge] also confirmed the administrators are working with the government daily to explore all options for restructuring the business,” meeting minutes for last week’s creditor meeting, filed to the corporate regulator on Tuesday, say.
Still, Mr Moore’s role beyond ensuring the outcome achieved is in the national interest remains largely undefined. He is only charging taxpayers $1 for his services, and is operating without formal terms of reference.
“[Mr Strawbridge] noted that while the [Virgin] board and government have a view around the future of Virgin, the administrators are bound by their statutory duties to act in the interests of all creditors,” the meeting minutes say.
Mr Strawbridge has imposed a tight deadline on Virgin’s sale, hoping to finalise the process by the end of June after only taking control of the airline and its nearly $7 billion in debt late in April.
Bidders in flux
The state of many potential bidders are currently in flux. Street Talk reported on Tuesday that Macquarie had dropped out of a partnership with Canadian asset manager Brookfield for a tilt at Virgin Australia, and earlier this week that Indian low cost carrier IndiGo had gained entry to the data room.
Bain Capital’s interest has also become clearer, with the appointment of consultants KordaMentha and law firm Herbert Smith Freehills as advisors. Bain has recruited former Bain & Co consultant Jane Hrdlicka to its bid. Ms Hrdlicka ran Qantas’ budget offshoot Jetstar from 2012 to 2018 and was most recently the chief executive of A2 Milk until late last year.
BGH, meanwhile, is believed to be working with the nation’s largest superannuation fund AustralianSuper on a bid, with high-profile Melbourne lawyer Leon Zwier and outgoing PwC chief Luke Sayers in tow.
The Victorian private equity firm is playing up its “Team Australia” advantage as a locally-run and headquartered outfit with workers’ best interests at heart.
State governments out of NSW, Victoria and Queensland will have a part to play in the sale as well. All three have expressed interest in propping up the airline to lure its headquarters into their respective domains.
Queensland, keen to keep Virgin at its current offices in Brisbane, has instructed its investment arm QIC to get cracking on a bid with capital earmarked from the state’s Future Fund, which Street Talk revealed last week.
Street Talk also reported Victoria’s bid is taking shape through the Invest Victoria agency to draw the airline to Melbourne Airport.
NSW has appointed ex-Macquarie banker Michael Carapiet to head a “deals team” aimed at lobbing an offer so good it will convince Virgin to base itself out of the under-construction Western Sydney Airport due for completion in 2026.
This story originally appeared in the Australian Financial Review. Read the original story here.
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