Finablr, the cross-border payments business, has barely had time to float let alone sink. But it is sinking and within little more than a year of being listed. On Tuesday, its board announced it was giving the nod to flogging off its remaining assets after a jeremiad of woes. It is typically back-to-front.
This is the Abu Dhabi-headquartered group that was listed on the London market in 2019 by BR Shetty, the tycoon who also brought to us the muddle that was NMC Health.
In the past year or so, Finablr has found more than $1bn of debt it did not know about, has put its flagship asset Travelex in the UK into administration, appointed legal eagles to probe possible malfeasance and misappropriation of assets, missed its accounting deadlines, lost its auditor and suspended its shares. How much better it would have been to know more before the group hit the public markets.
Now the board has approved an offer to settle its debts and bring in some needed working capital. Other companies might establish deal terms before going ahead. Not Finablr. All it has told shareholders, who must vote the sale through, is the name of the bidder — Prism Advance Solutions, a recently formed UK registered group fronted by Guy Rothschild, a multilingual Belgian residing in Zug. Mr Rothschild — a former finance chief of Maclaren UK, the baby buggy business, and sundry others — said the acquisition is the “first major UAE-Israeli commercial transaction”. We have to take his word for it. The Israeli connections are as hazy as the terms of the pact.
Finablr’s board under Michael Tomalin, a City veteran and chairman since April 2019, talks of completing a deal within four weeks “subject to all legal approvals being obtained”. The company has barely begun talking to regulators about approval. Aside from UAE Exchange in Abu Dhabi, which has been taken into care by the UAE central bank, Finablr has many overseers. It transfers cash all over the world.
Shareholders will no doubt get more details but they must be given time to consider the numbers and the nitty-gritty. They have had almost nothing to work on so far.
Finablr is sure to be a byword for playing by different rules. Shareholders may have learnt not to expect much, but they should have been able to hope for more.
If a private equity firm can master its timing it can master the universe. Take their exits from Saga, the AA, Debenhams and Conviviality. It took roughly three years from when their private equity owners floated them for Saga and AA to start coming unstuck. They are now worth roughly a tenth of what they were when they listed six years ago. The other two have since gone under. In Debenhams case, more than once.
With the UK equity markets in near hibernation, last year’s private equity-backed floats of retailer Watches of Switzerland and transport booking app Trainline look all the more timely.
Harder to list now than then. And neither comes from the kind of timeless industry immune to wider economic trends. Watches of Switzerland is a luxury retailer and the UK’s largest seller of Rolexes. It could not simply shift online when coronavirus shut stores; Rolex does not allow that sort of thing. Trainline’s business depends on people taking public transport. They have not been, and might not do so again in the same numbers for some time.
But despite the coronavirus crisis, both companies have held up remarkably well. After an upbeat trading update on Tuesday, shares in Watches are 50 per cent above their May 2019 IPO price. Trainline’s are 13 per cent ahead of their June 2019 listing price.
Both have benefited from sensible debt levels. IPO proceeds were used to reduce leverage. That proved helpful when balance sheets came under strain in March and April.
Watches has proved its operational resilience too. Britons have filled the gaps left by tourists and airport shoppers, and a three-year old foray into the US is delivering good growth.
Trainline is trickier. Bulls are betting that the crisis has spurred a permanent shift towards buying digital tickets and that Trainline has an insurmountable lead. But its shares will falter if instead the shift is towards permanently lower passenger numbers and revenues, or if regulatory change on the railways undermines its business model.
The shares are volatile already. It is a binary bet. But if it flops, it won’t be because of its private equity ownership
Co-Op chief cuts loose
Turning round the Co-Operative Bank has been a real team effort. It has had five chief executives in nine years and is now searching for a sixth after Andrew Bester quit only 18 months into a five-year turnround plan. Mr Bester has fixed the basics, says chairman Bob Dench. How many more chief executives will it take to fix the rest?
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