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CBD

1 Mar 2010 SYDNEY MORNING HERALD - SCOTT ROCHFORT



King of Crown keeps cards close

Crown Limited's chief executive, Rowen "Cool Hand" Craigie, appears to use his time patrolling casino gambling floors to help fine-tune his poker face.

Craigie kept financial reporters busy reading his body language and second-guessing his feelings on the casino group's prospects on Friday when he fronted Crown's half-year results in Melbourne.

After a couple of questions failed to elicit a sufficiently telling response, one scribe speculated:

"It sounds like you're feeling fairly positive but cautious?"

"I'm sure I'll read it," Craigie

replied.

Another reporter tried a different approach: "So today, if you were to rate your mood from one to 10, where would it be?"

Craigie replied: "I'm not sure what your scale is."

At another stage in the conference, while discussing win rates and the like, Craigie spelt it out for the group: "On average, the house wins."

Then, quickly covering, he said: "That isn't to say that you won't win if you go down there now."

DEBT AND TAXES

The cash-strapped drilling company AJ Lucas has offered some reassuring comments to shareholders who have been deprived of an interim dividend.

"The days of bonuses are over," the company secretary, Nicholas Swan, told CBD on the question of whether the group's sale of its stake in a gas field in Queensland could help line the pockets of Lucas executives as well as pay down its crippling bank debts.

Swan said no bonuses would arise from the $98.5 million sale. The proceeds will pay down a debt to the ANZ Bank that has been in breach of its covenants since last year. Hopefully, this should settle the nerves of investors.

When the debt-crippled Lucas offloaded another gas deposit for $215.8 million last financial year, it diverted about $16 million of the proceeds in bonus payments to its executives. Swan himself scored a $1.9 million windfall, while his chief executive, Allan Campbell,

pocketed $6.5 million on top of his $505,000 salary.

At last year's annual meeting, Campbell said Lucas was "unapologetically a company which rewards success".

On Friday, he still seemed upbeat about the company, which reported a 96.3 per cent dive in half-year

profits. He said he had started to detect "encouraging signs of a pick-up in business confidence".

It is unclear if this pick-up in confidence related partly to the cash-strapped Lucas entering into a "deferred instalment arrangement" with the Tax Office last Thursday to pay off its $69.8 million tax bill over three years.

In its half-year accounts, the company also said there was a "trigger event" on its convertible preference shares. It was triggered when it failed to pay a half-yearly interest payment on time.

THE BIG MEN FLY

It seems the rivalry between the Sydney Swans and Sydney's second AFL team, Greater Western Sydney, has got off to an overly friendly start - at least in the corporate sphere.

After being named the chairman of GWS on Friday, Tony Shepherd, who sits on the board of Transfield Services, noted he had already had a friendly chat with the Swans and ING Real Estate chairman Richard Colless. "I think we're one plus one equals three," Shepherd told CBD.

A Geelong fan before he relocated to Sydney in 1979, Shepherd said his recruitment drive might start with Transfield Services' AFL-mad chief executive and Adelaide native, Peter Goode. "He was really excited about me taking the position," he said.

It is suspected the person who recommended Shepherd for the job was his old friend, the AFL commissioner, former Carlton player and Hastings Funds Management founder, Mike Fitzpatrick.

ANTSY SEMANTICS

ANZ Bank's boss, Mike "007" Smith, has left the investment and banking community reeling after he stole a key phrase from a rival.

Expectations were riding high last week that Smith was about to unveil a new term. After all, this is the banking executive who had already termed dull market presentations "Seinfeld updates" and who once warned we were facing financial Armageddon.

But raising fears he could be suffering from terminology block, Smith in his four-month trading update on Friday bandied a term already flogged to death by Westpac's chief executive, Gail Kelly: the New Normal.

"Globally, the new 'normal' is going to be characterised by lower economic growth ..." he said in a statement. Appearing to realise this lack of originality in a phone hook-up, Smith frantically scrambled for a new term. He wheeled out his already well-used "pig in the python" term for describing the state of the New Zealand economy and then came up with the stale old "seas are choppy" metaphor.

Smith then drew on his reserves and managed to find this explanation: "We're operating a business that at least represents a dreadnought rather than a leaky freighter." Let's hope he does not revert to using bananas to describe the fundamentals of the wholesale lending market.

MERRILL FLING

The Merrill Lynch hiring rampage continues. The company last week announced it had hired Deutsche Bank's London-based analyst, Mark Bryan, as its new head of small cap research. Bryan was hired by his old work colleague and now Merrill's local head of equities, the surf-loving Matt Unsworth, who returned to Australia last year. Bryan is also married to an Australian, which will help him understand the local language.

Anna Chen, who was poached recently when Merrill lured the bulk of Bell Potter's real estate team, will be working alongside Bryan. They will also fill the hole left when Morgan Stanley poached the bank's small caps team last year. "It gave us an ability to rebuild," Unsworth explained to CBD. Other recent Merrill hires include the Goldies banker Peter Phillips, the former Swans player Leo Barry and the Macquarie equities strategist Tim Rocks. One hire to fall through was CommSec's former head of equities, Justin Cameron, who decided instead to work full-time for his surf retailing business. Asked if the hiring war between the banks was leading to higher pay packets, Unsworth explained: "It's not something that we want to get involved in. We have a very specific strategy."

TIGER'S TALE

Tiger Airways' chief executive, Tony Davis, has not let the public listing of his airline make him more forthcoming on the performance of its Australian operations.

Davis refused to go into detail about the financial performance of the Australian Tiger when the airline reported its third-quarter results. Apparently it was, ahem, for competitive reasons.

Davis said he was "not prepared to be completely transparent" until some later date. He said Tiger had "no incentive to do it any earlier than we have to".

Davis would say only that Tiger Australia was profitable over the last two quarters (though he didn't reveal whether this was NPAT, EBIT or EBITDA). Or even EBITDA before fuel and staff costs.

Tiger's prospectus revealed late last year that the airline had racked up $79.3 million of losses in two years.

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