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Article by Matthew Cranston
Australian buyers are sharpening their pencils again in a bid to buy part of Australia's largest landholder S.Kidman & Co. after the federal government officially ruled out the company ever being sold in its entirety to a foreign buyer.
"My preference always is that the Australian asset be owned by the Australian people," federal Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce said on Friday, echoing his views on the sale of Australia's largest cotton irrigator Cubbie Station to the Chinese in 2012 under a Labor government.
The company, which covers almost 11 million hectares of cattle stations – including the world's largest, Anna Creek – was founded by the original "Cattle King" Sir Sidney Kidman 116 years ago and is now owned by 58 shareholders, some of which are privately against the sale of such an iconic brand.
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce says there is hope yet that Australians will buy part of S.Kidman & Co.
Bids by Chinese groups, including Shanghai Pengxin, which sources said was the preferred bidder although at a lower price point, and Genius Link Asset Management have been knocked back in part because they include the purchase of Anna Creek, which falls in the special green zone of the Woomera rocket testing range.
Lawyers including Ashurst, which represents Shanghai Pengxin, are now back at the drawing board with plan B. Shanghai Pengxin representatives refuse to comment about their plans but Barnaby Joyce expects any new plan will "not include buying 2.5 per cent of our agricultural land mass". A new deal is expected by all parties before Christmas.
One idea is that the South Australian Anna Creek, which has strong emotional connections to the Adelaide based S. Kidman & Co. shareholders, may be retained. Others have suggested it could be used for conservation.
S.Kidman & Co. managing director Greg Cambell has poured cold water on that idea, suggesting the removal of Anna Creek would be a "considerable compromise" to the functionality of the overall business.
A new foreign investor proposal could allow for several of the properties to be sold off to Australian groups. Some say that "the more parties the more protracted" but others believe a sell-off of other properties could attract a higher overall price.
Emanate Legal's Barry Taylor, who presided over the Menegazzo family's $490 million purchase of AMP's Stanbroke Pastoral Company in 2003 (the largest cattle transaction in Australian history) said selling off separate stations would likely attract a higher overall price.
"I think you would get more for it piecemeal," Mr Taylor said. "They would be silly to break it up given it's so iconic, but doing so is potentially more commercially lucrative."
After Stanbroke sold to the Menegazzo family for $490 million, many of the assets were onsold, realising more than $750 million. It started a bull market for cattle stations.
Bids for S.Kidman & Co. have come in as much as $370 million, well above the $325 million expected.
While the government's decision may seem like a major jolt to the S.Kidman & Co. selling process, there is actually a calmness in the background. Barnaby Joyce said if anyone was to blame for the process falling over it was the parties who are looking to buy.
"I think the only people who are really annoyed about this are those sitting in Martin Place. They should have read the tea leaves a bit more."
He also suggests Australia's superannuation funds should have the same vision as Chinese buyers.
"I wish the domestic super funds would come into this space."
He may get his wish if the $70 billion Queensland Investment Corporation finds the opportunity it has long been looking for.