Bumi: Coal miner's fate sealed after shareholder vote

A boardroom battle for the control of an Indonesia coal firm is heating up ahead of a crucial shareholders' meeting.

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It was a financial battle that pitted one of Asia's most powerful families against one of Europe's oldest financial dynasties.

But it came to a close on Thursday when shareholders in Bumi decided in favour of the Bakrie family, part of Jakarta's political and business elite, to control the London-listed coal mining firm.

Their main rival, Nat Rothschild, whose family have been in banking for centuries, was defeated in his attempt to oust Bumi's board of directors, including the chairman and chief executive, and rejoin a company he had helped found.

The battle for Bumi, which controls coal mining assets in Indonesia, was played out across two continents, seen allegations of fraud and internet espionage, and cost shareholders and investors millions of dollars in lost returns.

For those of you who do not know the Bakries, their name is synonymous with power in Indonesia.

Aburizal Bakrie Aburizal Bakrie is running for president of Indonesia next year

The family-run company has some 200 holdings in businesses ranging from mining to media.

The current patriarch of the Bakrie clan, Aburzial Bakrie, is running for president in 2014 and has served in previous government cabinets. He is also the head of one of the biggest political parties in the country, Golkar, which former President Suharto also belonged to.

But while they wield significant influence, the Bakries have also had their fair share of controversy to deal with.

In recent weeks, the company has been criticised for the time it has taken to pay compensation to victims of a mud-flow disaster in Lapindo, East Java.

The group has also had to fight off allegations of tax evasion, and during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, there was even speculation that the group could collapse.

But each time, the Bakries have managed to emerge from their difficult times.

The beginning

The Bumi saga started in 2010 when Mr Rothschild saw an opportunity to create a company which would offer international investors the chance to buy into natural resources assets in emerging markets, but also ensure they were protected by UK market rules.

The terms of the deal were simple - the Bakries would hand over a stake in their coal assets in Indonesia, Mr Rothschild would roll them into a cash shell called Vallar, now known as Bumi Plc, and list the firm on the London Stock Exchange.

However, some were sceptical about the move right from the beginning.

Start Quote

If we had done something wrong we would have been afraid of it coming out. We're not afraid”

End Quote Chris Fong Bakrie Group

"A lot of analysts and politicians actually saw it as an attempt by the Bakries to sell their assets to foreigners," says Rendi Witular, the managing editor of the Jakarta Post who has covered the various twists and turns of story.

"And there was suspicion that a foreign entity might be able to take over Indonesia's valuable resources."

The turning points

When the deal was struck, Mr Rothschild or the Bakries congratulated each other on pulling together such a sophisticated, and what they thought, would be an immensely lucrative arrangement.

But then three things happened that changed everything.

First, coal prices slumped dramatically as a result of the global slowdown.

Second, it became increasingly apparent that the two sides had very different ways of conducting business.

And third, arguably the most damaging of the factors, Mr Rothschild issued a public letter late in 2011 in which he made damning allegations about "financial irregularities" in PT Bumi Resources, the Indonesian coal asset of the Bakries in which Bumi Plc owns a stake.

He called for a radical clean-up of the firm, something his Indonesian partners said was not necessary.

Bumi's Nathaniel Rothschild and Bakrie Brothers Chief Executive Officer Bobby Gafur Umar Relations between Mr Rothschild and the Bakrie group have soured since the deal was signed in 2010

"We didn't do anything wrong," Chris Fong, spokesman for the Bakrie group, tells the BBC.

"We knew London had a certain standard before we went into business with him [Mr Rothschild]. If we had done something wrong we would have been afraid of it coming out. We're not afraid."

Mr Fong also said that Nat Rothschild was playing games and trying to get publicity so as to oust the Bakries.

"He was making accusations about us and he knows who we are in Indonesia," said Mr Fong. "He knows that this was going to get a lot of publicity, and that is what he wanted."

The allegations Mr Rothschild made were that around a billion dollars worth of funds had gone unaccounted for at the Indonesian coal miner.

The Bakries have denied that there were any such financial irregularities.

Bumi was also keen to point out that "the unwillingness of key parties to be interviewed and provide information" meant it could not prove the allegations.

The way Mr Rothschild claimed to have learnt about the alleged irregularities was also significant.

Mr Rothschild said he had received the information from a whistleblower, but did not disclose the name of his source.

However, Bumi said that an investigation carried out on its behalf by London law firm Macfarlanes revealed that the information had been "obtained illegally by email hacking".

Mr Rothschild, who stepped down from the Bumi board late last year, has denied any suggestions he acted illegally or unethically.

The final episode?
Protestors hold banners against the Bakrie group outside their office The Bakrie group has seen its fair share of controversies over the past years

The saga has cast a shadow over Indonesia's corporate image.

"It has made Indonesia look like a hostile place to do business in," says Mr Witular of the Jakarta Post.

Mr Witular says that over the past few years, Indonesia has done a lot to eradicate the practice of cronyism that was rife during the reign of former Indonesian President Suharto, who ruled the country with an iron fist for more than three decades.

However, critics say that although Indonesia is now a vibrant and flourishing democracy, some big business tycoons still operate with a remarkable lack of transparency.

The fear is that the Bakrie saga may make some foreign investors nervous about doing business in Indonesia.

And that is something that does not bode well for any of the parties involved.

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