Carnegie consortium takes tidy profit from Qantas foray

IN THE end, the bold talk of shaking up an underperforming Qantas under the guise of shareholder activism ended with little fanfare but a tidy $18 million profit.

IN THE end, the bold talk of shaking up an underperforming Qantas under the guise of shareholder activism ended with little fanfare but a tidy $18 million profit.

Led by investor Mark Carnegie, the consortium - which features prominent business identities including the former Qantas chief executive and present Tourism Australia boss Geoff Dixon, and the former Qantas chief financial officer Peter Gregg - had hoped for support from large institutional shareholders, such as Mr Carnegie enjoys in two of his other plays, Brickworks and Fairfax Media.

But it is understood the support did not materialise, and last week the group sold off their 1.5 per cent stake, putting to bed their push for an alternative strategy, including a more aggressive expansion into Asia.

The Emirates tie-up with Qantas was also a factor.

But the quiet exit from Qantas has left some in the market scratching their heads, sceptical whether the consortium - which also has ties to the ad man John Singleton and retailer Gerry Harvey - genuinely held hopes of garnering enough support to effect change, or if it simply wanted to generate enough momentum to sell the stake at a profit.

The consortium bought in as Qantas shares flirted with a record low of 97¢ last June. Shares in Qantas closed 1.5¢, or 1 per cent, lower at $1.50 on Wednesday.

Mr Carnegie has positioned his $130 million Companion Fund as a potential agitator for change at underperforming companies.

While he was unable to attract sufficient support when it came to Qantas, he at least demonstrated the potential profitability of his operating model.

"Carnegie is definitely keen on building an image of someone who can shake things up and make a change, there's no doubt about that," one institutional Qantas shareholder said.

One of the major shareholders Mr Carnegie and his associates failed to win over was Balanced Equity, whose managing director, Andrew Sisson, famously stared down an $11 billion private equity bid for Qantas back in 2007.

"I don't understand why it got as much publicity as it did," Mr Sisson said. "End of the day, they've gone in, bought some stock and made a bit of money. That's what we're all trying to do, isn't it?"

Mr Carnegie and old mate Singleton have also bought a 0.15 per cent stake in Fairfax Media. Their investment vehicle Gutenberg Investments has formed an alliance with the media group's largest shareholder, Gina Rinehart's Hancock Prospecting.

Mr Carnegie is also pushing for the break-up of the cross-shareholding between the building materials concern Brickworks and the investment house Washington Soul Pattinson.

Mr Carnegie declined to comment when contacted by Fairfax Media for this story.

However, in an interview with Fairfax Media earlier this month, he said too much money was at stake for institutions to stand by and watch underperforming or poorly managed companies squander shareholder wealth.

His mode of operation is straight out of the US playbook for shareholder activism and he says it will be entrenched here within five years.

"Your readers want activism to come to Australia because their super funds will earn a better return from the high returns on capital it will deliver," he said.

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