Virgin Australia keeps a bare-bones service in the air as it searches for a buyer
Running an airline with no money and few planes in the air has been “gruelling”, the Virgin Australia administrator Vaughan Strawbridge admits.
Strawbridge and three other partners at big four accounting firm Deloitte were appointed as administrators by the airline’s board on the afternoon of 20 April, after the failure that morning of the group’s latest, and final, attempt to get a bailout from the federal government.
Since then, he has been dealing with nervous creditors owed a staggering $6.8bn, anxious union leaders keen to preserve the jobs of as many of the airline’s 10,000 workers as possible, and a swarm of potential buyers, while at the same time keeping a bare-bones service in the air.
To do this, Strawbridge and the other administrators have also had to convince the federal court judge John Middleton to make extraordinary orders on Friday that allow them to avoid personal liability for the vast bulk of debts the airline continues to incur on their watch.
They’ve also taken legal action in the US to protect the airline’s assets from creditors there.
Illustrating the difficulty of the high-wire act, on the day they took over Virgin Australia Strawbridge and his team didn’t have any access to the company’s cash.
Strawbridge told Guardian Australia he and his team now have their hands on more than $100m in cash, enough to see the airline through a breakneck sales process that he aims to have done and dusted by the end of next month.
But it’s a far cry from the $1.1bn in “cash and cash equivalents” that the company told the stock exchange it had on 31 December, before the coronavirus crisis shut the skies and ravaged the economy.
“It has been relentless, no doubt,” Strawbridge says.
He says he has been supported by the rest of the Deloitte team, as well as the investment banks he has hired to sell and restructure Virgin – Morgan Stanley and Houlihan Lokey – and the airline’s management, led by the chief executive, Paul Scurrah, who has kept his job for the time being.
“It’s been a pretty gruelling time, but I am well supported,” he says.
He says he has “sufficient liquidity to run the airline through the sales process”.
“I’ve got in excess of $100m today.”
Asked how much was in the bank when he took the reins, he says this is a “good question”.
“There was definitely cash sitting in bank accounts but you had financial institutions with a claim against that cash,” he says.
“We’ve had to work through that to enable that cash to be freed up so that we could actually get access to it to start trading the business.
“As you know there’s been a limited number of operations, so the business is not generating large amounts of revenue like it normally would.”
Strawbridge says relations with the Transport Workers Union and other unions have been constructive, and plays down talk of a revolt by bondholders owed about $2bn who are exceptionally vulnerable to getting little return because they have no security over any of the airline’s assets.
How many staff can keep their jobs and how many cents in the dollar bondholders and other creditors will get depends on how much Strawbridge can get for the airline.
He won’t say how much he expects.
“The purpose of getting the bids is to get the bidders to tell us what they believe the value is,” he says.
Potential bidders include investment giant Brookfield Asset Management, a consortium led by the mining magnate Andrew “Twiggy” Forrest and another led by BGH Capital, a private equity firm run by Ben Gray, the son of former Tasmanian premier Robin Gray.
Bids were due by 6pm on Friday; asked at 3pm how many he’d received, Strawbridge declined to answer.
“I haven’t gone through that at this stage,” he says.
While 19 parties have expressed interest, Strawbridge says he expects eight by the end of the day.
He dismisses complaints by at least one bidder that he is asking for too much information, which led to the Australian Financial Review columnist Tony Boyd calling the sales process “loopy”.
“Some of the parties who haven’t had access to the detailed information, who weren’t in the data room, probably find that quite difficult,” he says.
This isn’t an issue for “most parties”, he says.
“We did speak to a list of companies yesterday to understand will they be putting in a bid, do they have information. That was a really good conversation and we do expect there to be a good number of bids that come in today.”
Now, he has to get a deal across the line. He thinks he can do it.
“We had interested parties from day one,” he says.
Over the next four weeks he will “work closely with a small number of parties to get them the information they need for the final bid by mid-June”.
“It is intense, but we’re here to run a competitive process and get this business out of administration as soon as possible.
“Is it doable? Absolutely.”