Graeme Hart and Eric Watson have little in common except that they are both extremely rich and have made recent takeover offers for their listed vehicles.
As the accompanying table shows, the 21st century has been particularly prosperous for both individuals with Hart's net worth leaping from $200 million to $2.75 billion, while Watson has jumped from $110 million to $500 million (the latter figure has recently been revised up from $350 million).
But the two businessmen have travelled different paths to achieve their wealth. Hart has been hands-on, focused and has built a team of extremely competent associates while Watson has been a relatively passive investor with little focus and has failed to build a competent support team.
In addition, Hart has created wealth for minority shareholders in his listed companies whereas a large percentage of individuals who invested in Watson's numerous stock exchange vehicles have lost money.
This is the reason why investors will be hoping that Hart returns to the sharemarket if his bid for Burns Philp is successful. It is highly unlikely, though, that the NZX will see Watson again after he completes the PRG Group acquisition.
There was only the faintest sign of Hart's impending success at the Whitcoulls annual meeting in the Kupe Room, Aotea Centre, on October 25, 1995. No more than 20 or 30 shareholders attended, the meeting was over in a flash and the highlight was Hart's young son making happy noises at the back of the room.
Whitcoulls had just reported a 16 per cent reduction in net earnings to $20.2 million, mainly due to the disappointing performance of the Australian acquisition Angus & Robertson. Hart's 64.5 per cent Whitcoulls stake had a sharemarket value of $170 million at the time (the listed entity was called Rank Group until Whitcoulls was acquired from Brierley Investments in 1991).
The next year, Hart made a successful bid for Whitcoulls, valuing it at $282 million and, shortly afterwards, onsold it to Blue Star for $320 million. Eric Watson was running Blue Star and Maurice Kidd, his long-time business associate, was its financial controller.
In mid-1997, Hart purchased 19.9 per cent of Australian food conglomerate Burns Philp for A$260 million or A$2.50 a share. Three months later, Burns Philp's share price had fallen below A$1 after a poor result and Hart's investment was worth less than A$50 million.
The National Business Review's Rich List estimated that Hart's net wealth had plunged from $200 million in 1997 to a mere $25 million in 1998.
But Hart's true qualities came to the fore during this difficult period. He played a major role in Burns Philp's turnaround, which included the acquisition and subsequent 80 per cent sale of Goodman Fielder.
The country's richest individual has gone from strength to strength and, this year, completed the takeover of Carter Holt Harvey for $3.3 billion. His offer for the remaining 42.6 per cent of Burns Philp, which values the company at A$3.1 billion ($3.7 billion), will cost Hart A$1.3 billion.
As Hart's shareholding in Burns Philp is worth more than A$1.7 billion, the Sydney-based company represents a large proportion of his wealth. If the Burns Philp offer is successful, Hart will obtain full control of nearly A$2.5 billion of cash, a 20 per cent Goodman Fielder stake worth in excess of A$500 million and NZ Snacks, which has an estimated value of nearly A$200 million.
The deal makes sense for Hart and his bankers as he will get full access to almost A$2.5 billion of cash for an outlay of only A$1.3 billion. Hart may also believe the huge amount of private equity money has inflated asset prices and there are limited attractive opportunities for Burns Philp to utilise its cash.
This contrarian approach is an important part of Hart's success, as is his ability to execute deals, make these acquisitions work and attract and keep top-quality executives.
By contrast, Watson is a deal-maker with limited operational abilities and, most importantly, an inability to attract and retain top-quality executives. A notable exception is Stefan Preston, who runs Bendon for PRG.
Watson first became involved in PRG (then called Pacific Retail Group) in 1998 when he made a takeover offer at $1.30 a share. This valued the target company at $59 million. Watson ended up with 73.7 per cent after the two major shareholders, Murray International (58 per cent) and Roger Bhatnagar/Greg Lancaster (12 per cent), sold to him.
Watson made another unsuccessful offer in 2001 at $1.76 a share. This valued the target company at $89 million.
The next year, he made a third bid at $2.25 a share. This valued PRG at $116 million, but Grant Samuel produced a strong negative response after assessing the company was worth between $223 million and $248 million ($4.31 to $4.80 a share).
Watson then turned PRG into an investment company and one of his first investments was a stake in Burns Philp.
Meanwhile, he became involved in several listed companies including RMG (in receivership), Strathmore (now Media Technology), Eldercare (Abano), Advantage (Provenco), Metlifecare and AQL (Certified Organic).
PRG made the ill-conceived PowerHouse acquisition in 2003 and as a result has had to sell Noel Leeming, Bond & Bond and PRG Finance Group. PowerHouse has been a disaster for PRG and the company hasn't paid a dividend under Watson's stewardship.
Watson's fourth offer for PRG at $1.22 a share values the company at only $76 million compared with Grant Samuel's mid-point valuation of $235 million four years ago.
This offer will be successful because the bidder started with 81.3 per cent, AXA has accepted in respect of its 12.3 per cent (AXA effectively stymied Watson's earlier offers) and Grant Samuel now values the company at between $66 million and $107 million ($1.06 and $1.72 a share).
It will cost Watson $14.2 million to acquire the outstanding 18.7 per cent and, in return, he will obtain full control of Bendon, Living & Giving and an unknown amount of cash.
It is difficult to ascertain PRG's true financial position because PowerHouse was placed in administration in the UK this month, the company has not released its March 2006 year annual report and is delisted from the NZX.
The huge spread in Grant Samuel's valuation range indicates that PRG is in a mess and there is much uncertainty over the true value of the company.
By contrast, Burns Philp is in great shape and is relatively easy to value.
Watson's stewardship of PRG has been a disaster yet his net wealth has risen from $275 million to $500 million since the PowerHouse acquisition. The main reason for this is his relatively passive holding in the unlisted Hanover Group. The true value of this holding can only be ascertained when he sells his stake through a trade sale, IPO or to the other Hanover shareholder.
The capitulation of AXA to the PRG offer clearly indicates that sharemarket investors have had enough of Watson. His PowerHouse acquisition was the last straw and he seems to have limited ability to extract himself from difficult situations, unlike Hart with Angus & Robertson and Burns Philp in the 1990s.