Is there a Penfolds curse at work? A succession of six corporate owners of Australia's most famous wine brand over the past three decades have either been taken over or run into financial strife, and the prospect of it happening again remains high.
It's as if the ghosts of the founders Dr Christopher and Mary Penfold, who started Penfolds in 1844, are wreaking their revenge because the wine brand has strayed so far from its original purpose of being a medicinal benefit for patients of Christopher's medical practice.
The latest custodians, Treasury Wine Estates, have earned the wrath of investment markets and the credibility of the board and management is in tatters, as they battle to try and restore some confidence in the company's direction after a run of disasters. Much depends on the reception received by Treasury chairman Paul Rayner and his stand-in chief executive Warwick Every-Burns, who stepped out of the Treasury boardroom to run the company last September. They will attempt to defend their strategy on Thursday when they outline the full details of the $40 million full-year profit downgrade announced three weeks ago, as Treasury officially unveils its first-half profit results. But how long will Treasury be around in its current form?
The irony is that Penfolds itself is a highly-profitable business and the jewel in the crown of Treasury. Penfolds is estimated to make around $180 million in profits annually, which is about three quarters of the total profits of Treasury's sprawling wine business which also includes the Beringer brands in the United States, and Wolf Blass, Rosemount, Seppelt, Lindemans and Wynns in Australia.
Penfolds' earnings potential in the next two years is vast, as a treasure trove of up to $280 million worth of high-quality red wines currently maturing in barrel halls will hit the market.
This is why potential suitors are closely eyeing the corporate mess that Treasury has found itself in and the potential upside for a new owner. Speculation centres on Chinese firms and private equity buyers as those most interested.
The Penfolds brand, with a 170-year-old history, has proven very resilient over three decades of corporate ructions with the brand having passed through six different sets of corporate owners since the early 1980s. The prestige of the flagship Penfold's Grange, the latest release of which the company was selling for $785 per bottle, is a huge strength and the halo effect down through the range is a winner in the marketplace.
Bruce Kemp was chief executive of Southcorp Wines, a forerunner of Treasury, for most of the 1990s and is today chairman of Tasmanian wine company Pipers Brook. He says Penfolds has enormous cache in the marketplace.
"It still stands out,'' Mr Kemp says. Penfolds Grange and the higher-quality Penfolds range that sits underneath it were big profit drivers in the 1990s, and two decades on, the "halo" effect is still intact. "There's a pretty big halo, and a big shadow down the line,'' Mr Kemp says.
Bank of America Merrill Lynch analyst David Errington has all but given up on Treasury's current board and management and says ''if the board's focus turns to maximising shareholder returns, it will need to consider breaking the company up''.
A break-up would result in a scramble for the best assets, with Penfolds at the top of the tree. The one possible saviour in the ongoing Treasury saga is the prospect of a new, highly-respected chief executive being appointed soon. There are persistent rumours about the long-time boss of Coca-Cola Amatil's Australian operations, Warwick White, having been approached to take the job. Outgoing CCA chief executive Terry Davis, who had been the subject of speculation that he has being courted, says he has not interest in taking another chief executive role at a public company.
But Penfolds has been through a lot. It's had six owners in just over three decades. In the mid-1970s, Penfolds was acquired by then NSW brewer Tooth & Co, and then in the 1980s became part of corporate raider John Spalvins, Adelaide Steamship Company, which also owned Woolworths, David Jones and a host of big-name food brands including Peters ice-cream and Four'N'Twenty pies.
A potential predator of Treasury will be closely eyeing the red wine inventory sitting in barrel halls at Penfolds
Mr Spalvin's empire fell apart after the 1987 sharemarket crash under the weight of $7 billion in debts, and Penfolds was sold off to another beer company, SA Brewing, in 1990. SA Brewing, an ASX-listed company, changed its name to Southcorp in 1993, sold off packaging and water heaters businesses, and Southcorp Wines became a stand-alone wine business. It then merged with privately-owned Rosemount Wines in 2001 in what was effectively a reverse takeover, to become the world's largest wine company. But things went awry under new management and in 2005 it was taken over by Foster's Group. But plans by Foster's to extract efficiencies from selling beer and wine into the same liquor retailers didn't work properly, and after further management changes, Foster's was split into two companies in 2011. The wine company was re-badged Treasury Wine Estates and in May, 2011 set sail on his new voyage as an ASX-listed debt-free wine group, with Penfolds as the biggest brand.
Chief executive David Dearie lasted a little over two years but was then punted by the board in September, 2013, taking the blame for $160 million in writedowns connected with the United States wine operations.
A potential predator of Treasury will be closely eyeing the red wine inventory sitting in barrel halls at Penfolds. Bank of America Merrill Lynch believes the profit increase from the Penfolds business over the next two to three years is substantial, with Penfolds having increased inventory levels of its higher-priced wines from $50 million worth in 2011, to $280 million in 2013. The stockbroking firm estimates that Penfolds currently contributes 75 per cent of Treasury's total depressed earnings before interest and tax, and given the difficulties Treasury has faced with under $10 bottled wines in Australia with its other commercial brands, that proportion of profits may be even higher.