activist investors, Alan Walsh, grey market share, National Toll Roads, Nick Furlong, NTR plc, One Fifty One plc, Pageant Holdings, Rosheen McGuckian, Tom Roche, Wind Capital Group, wind energy, Yieldcos
NTR is a strange beast, neither fish nor fowl. Of course, regular readers will recognise that tends to intrigue me – the best opportunities often arise from misunderstanding & neglect. And NTR’s balance sheet intrigues me even more… But whoa Nellie, we’re getting ahead of ourselves here! Let’s back up:
We should begin with the Roche family dynasty – here’s a good potted history. Tom Roche Senior founded National Toll Roads – its first venture, the East-Link toll bridge, opened in 1984. The company slowly expanded, completing the West-Link bridge in 1990 & adding a second span in 2003. With the advent of the Celtic Tiger in the late ’90s & the completion of the M50, traffic volumes & revenues exploded, and the company became a goldmine. The government, in its wisdom, then decided to buy the West-Link in mid-2007 – just ahead of the credit crisis! NTR subsequently monetised the NRA’s index-linked payments of EUR 50 million pa (from Aug-2008 to Mar-2020) for an up-front consideration of EUR 0.5 billion. This was a great deal (followed shortly thereafter by an even larger sale of its Airtricity stake), but unfortunately the company was also in full Celtic Tiger mode at this point. With Tom Roche Junior taking the helm after his father passed away in 1999, NTR had ambitiously transformed itself into a developer & operator in renewable energy (solar, wind & corn-based ethanol) and sustainable waste management – in Ireland, the UK & across the US.
By Mar-2007, in just 3 years, the balance sheet more than quintupled to EUR 2.0 billion (funded by 1.5 billion of total liabilities)! Accompanied by a share price which managed much the same feat – I specifically recall the brokers hailing NTR as a new Irish blue chip to every last punter with a pulse & a wallet. [When I mention the company's listing 'status', you'll realise this pitch was even more dangerous than it sounds...] But investors eventually started getting cold feet – the shares peaked at EUR 7.00 in Jan-2007, well ahead of the crisis. Because of the West-Link & Airtricity sales, the company was sitting on a large cash pile as it entered 2008 – but it was also burning close to EUR 0.7 billion pa of free cash flow at the time. And despite the financial crisis, the spending never stopped… In Apr-2008, management actually embarked on a brand new investment folly (solar energy) with an initial USD 100 million deal to purchase a controlling interest in Stirling Energy Systems. Well, you know what came next…
I’ll spare you most of the blood & guts, let me just highlight total equity (exc. NCI) bottomed this year at EUR 117 million, down nearly 90% from a Mar-2008 peak of EUR 1.1 billion. [NTR's real annus horribilis came in FY-2011, with a loss of EUR 381 million - one of the largest non-banking losses in Irish corporate history]. And the share price suffered even more horribly – reaching a EUR 0.25 low in Aug-2012, down 96% from its peak: