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Quiet clean-out of Solid Energy board begins

Quiet clean-out of Solid Energy board begins

By Pattrick Smellie

Nov. 9 (BusinessDesk) - A quiet clean-out of the Solid Energy board has begun, with two resignations by directors filed with the Companies Office this week and the appointment of an experienced Australian mining expert, Neville Sneddon, to the board.

Deputy chairman John Fletcher, who has served on the Solid Energy board since May 2007, has resigned with six months still to run on his directorship, which was scheduled to expire next April, while Michelle Smith has left a year early after serving on the Solid Energy board since November 2010.

The resignations and appointments have yet to be announced publicly by State-Owned Enterprises Minister Tony Ryall, who has released a swag of other state-owned enterprise board appointments this week.

The moves follow the scheduled departure of Solid Energy's long-serving chairman John Palmer earlier this year, coinciding with a massive restructuring as the company announced it was facing a $200 million revenue shortfall in the current financial year.

It has moved to cut 25 percent of its workforce, has put the Spring Creek underground coal mine in "care and maintenance", has put expansion of the Huntly East coal mine on hold, and announced writedowns and disposals on several failed initiatives to diversify beyond coal mining into renewable energy and bio-fuels.

The company reported a $40.2 million loss after writedowns in the year to June 30, with chief executive Don Elder describing the deterioration in global coking coal prices as an "extreme" and sudden downturn which caught the company by surprise.

Solid Energy was to have been one of the four state-owned energy companies to be partially privatised, but has now been taken off the "for sale" list pending a commercial turnaround.

In a statement to BusinessDesk, State-Owned Enterprises Minister Tony Ryall said "a new chair has recently been appointed to Solid Energy and the company is moving into a new phase."

"As has been previously indicated, there would be some changes at Solid Energy, and a number of directors' terms were coming to an end in the next few months."

Auckland's Watercare Services chief executive, Mark Ford, who led the government's Auckland super-city merger, was appointed to replace Palmer.

Other Solid Energy directors have served for longer than Fletcher and Smith, but sources say their early resignations indicate dissatisfaction with the state-owned company's expansion into areas that did not produce significant new earnings.

Sources pointed to basic metrics such as the fact that Solid Energy had produced around 4 million tonnes of coal annually for some years, but that its workforce had expanded from around 400 to nearer 1,500.

It is unclear whether other sitting directors are also in the gun. They are David Patterson, a Wellington solicitor with National Party links whose first term on the Solid Energy board expires next April; Australian metallurgist Alan Broome, who has been a director since May 2006 and whose term expires in April 2014; Air New Zealand director and former Fletcher Challenge stalwart John McDonald, whose term expires next April; and Auckland-based business broker and former china clays industry executive Simon Marsters, who joined the board in 2008 and whose current term runs to April 2014.

Departing deputy chairman Fletcher is a professional director with a background in the oil industry, while Smith's background is in financial services. She is also a director of Heartland, the NZX-listed building society seeking to become a registered bank.

The newly appointed director, Neville Sneddon, is a mining engineer listed as non-executive chairman of Sydney-based CSM Energy, a specialist firm consulting to mining companies seeking to reduce costs, improve profitability and manage mines over their full life cycle.

Sneddon's career includes senior management of the mines inspectorate in New South Wales, chief operating officer of Shell Coal, later the Australian coal arm of Anglo American, and adviser to state and federal governments on mine safety.


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