Tracing a fall from grace as Gunns baron fined for insider trading

Tasmanian timber baron John Gay was last week fined $50,000 for insider trading in a Launceston court. It’s been a serious fall from grace for a businessman who was once highly influential and seemed poised to build a controversial pulp mill in northern Tasmania.

Gay is the former chairman and managing director of failed Tasmanian timber company Gunns Limited. His cavalier disregard for conventions and processes culminated with the insider trading charge; he changed his plea to guilty at the 11th hour and admitted he sold 3.4 million Gunns shares based on inside information which he ought to have known would affect the share price. Gunns, once a top 100 ASX company, is the highest profile insider trader snared by the Australian Securities and Investments Corporation. And it’s not as if Gay was a back-office clerk.

It’s worth noting that Gay did escape a prison term. The judge told the court the offending was not in the serious category of insider trading. The judge found Gay had been motivated to sell up shares because of a cancer diagnosis more than the receipt of sensitive financial information.

So what went wrong for Gay? Gunns, established in 1875, was a proud Tasmanian native timber sawmiller. It became a publicly listed company in 1986 with Gay as managing director and a board member. The appointment of former Tasmanian premier Robin Gray to the board in 1996 strengthened the links between Gunns and Tas Inc. Gay may have stretched orthodox corporate governance arrangements when as CEO he was appointed as chairman of the board in 2002. Gay and Gray became a formidable team, a duo of corporate hard-heads with impeccable political connections.

At the turn of the century Gunns was still a small company. In 1998 the turnover was $97 million and after-tax profits $3 million. Profits peaked in 2004 at $105 million on turnover of $674 million. Gunns joined the ASX100 and Gay was the darling of institutional investors, providing capital growth and healthy dividends return, at first from woodchipping but increasingly from managed investment schemes (MIS).

Under Gay’s chairmanship, native forest woodchipping and MIS contributed over 90% of Gunns’ profits and cash flow. In profit terms woodchipping peaked in 2004 and MIS in 2006.

Gunns’ political connections reaped rewards as the state-owned Forestry Tasmania allowed what some saw as the overcutting of State Forests for inadequate consideration. Gunns’ pulp mill plans were hatched with then-premier Paul Lennon of the ALP, and eventually required a special act of Parliament to bypass planning procedures when Gunns was found to be critically non-compliant. Dotting the “i”s and crossing the “t”s never seemed to be Gay’s strongest suit.

Gunns was an old fashioned conglomerate. Apart from forest assets, it owned hardware stores, a wine business, pubs, managed grape and walnut schemes, a heritage property and a building operation.

“Gay’s sentencing today means little will change. It will signify the end of a chapter, not the end of an era.”

As soon as the act to facilitate the pulp mill been arranged, Gunns acquired Auspine, a South Australian-based softwood business with Tasmanian assets. Over $600 million of assets were added to the balance sheet. Gunns was now Australia’s largest hardwood and softwood company?—?and the most indebted. At June 2008, bank borrowings were $1,058 million. At a time when operating cash flows were declining and assets ageing, funds to build a pulp mill had to be borrowed. Did Gay think he was invincible?

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