LonrhoZim at the centre of asset-stripping allegations
LONDON – Set in the beautiful Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe and boasting one of Africa's finest golf courses and a private game park, Leopard Rock Hotel has been a refuge for many VIP guests, including Diana, Princess of Wales and the Queen.
But now the tranquillity of the luxury hotel nestling in the Vumba Mountains has been shattered.
Leopard Rock and other assets in Zimbabwe owned by Aim-quoted company LonZim are at the centre of a corporate battle involving allegations of asset-stripping, a High Court legal action and an attempted boardroom coup.
On one side is Lonrho – still an iconic name in Africa after the late Tiny Rowland built the London and Rhodesian Mining and Land Company, which he joined in 1962, into a mighty business empire.
Lonrho, chaired by Australian dealmaker David Lenigas, has a 24.25 per cent stake in LonZim, which it floated in 2007 to make investments in Zimbabwe, the former Rhodesia.
Into Africa: David Lenigas says the luxury Leopard Rock Hotel will be restored to its former glory
Lenigas chairs LonZim and Lonrho chief executive Geoff White sits on the board. Lonrho itself has a contract to manage LonZim worth an annual $500,000 (£304,000) or two per cent of the company’s invested funds, whichever is the greater.
The Lonrho of today retains nearly 20,000 small investors, but is an Aim-listed rump of the former pan-African conglomerate. However, under Lenigas it is again expanding across Africa in transport, agribusiness, support services and hotels.
And Zimbabwe is seen as a major prize, now that its Government of National Unity promises a break from its recent past under the control of Robert Mugabe and its associated economic instability and hyper inflation.
That is what is believed to have drawn legendary investor George Soros to take a stake in LonZim, although the value of his holding plummeted as the share price slipped from 100p at its flotation. He sold out earlier this year and two new investors came on to the register –South African bank AMB, which through its Dublin-based arm holds 22.12 per cent acquired at about 16p a share, and Swiss group Damille Partners with 6.46 per cent.
Although the pair, which say they are wholly independent of each other, have seen a big jump in the value of their holdings as LonZim’s share price has doubled in recent months to 35p on Friday, they think there is more value and believe that the company’s directors cannot deliver it.
AMB, headed by chief executive Andrew Sprague, has called an extraordinary general meeting to oust the LonZim board and put new directors – Sprague and his fellow director Chris Vosloo plus Damille partners Brett Miller and Rhys Davies – in their place.
The EGM resolution also proposes selling LonZim’s assets, from Leopard Rock to printing and IT group Celsys and hotel sites in Beira, Mozambique, by the end of next year and returning cash to shareholders.
Lenigas says the proposals are unnecessary since LonZim’s directors have only just been re-elected by shareholders at April’s annual meeting and that a fire sale of assets proposedby AMB will destroy, not create-value.
Lenigas, along with White and LonZim, are suing Sprague for defamation over remarks made during a break at LonZim’s annual meeting in London in April and allegations reported in a business magazine in South Africa.
AMB said last week the action was an attempt by the executive directors of LonZim to silence any bona fide concerns raised by shareholders and to deprive them of their democratic right to speak.
Vosloo said AMB had identified LonZim as a turnround business and the bank believed there was great investment potential in Zimbabwe. ‘We believe that we can create value and will review the assets, but there will not be a fire sale,’ he said. ‘We would also like the EGM to be held as soon as possible and we will consider our options if a date is not fixed soon.’
Lenigas says part of the delay setting the EGM is that the proposed new directors had first to be vetted by LonZim’s advisers.
‘Once that has been done we will be able to get on with it,’ he said, although he questioned the logic of AMB’s proposal to sell assets, describing it as a short-sighted strategy that would deprive shareholders of significant value.
HE added: ‘As well as being a backward step for the company, to walk away from Zimbabwe as a country at this critical juncture is to abandon the country and its people at the worst possible time.’
Lenigas also suggested that AMB, in contrast to Lonrho, was only after quick returns. ‘Lonrho has been around for a hundred years, we have a long-term view of Africa,’ he said.
Part of that is a £1 million-plus planned refurbishment of Leopard Rock to help restore it to its former glory and expand the hotel. This is committed money, according to Lenigas – whatever happens with AMB.