Liberty Steel plans to sell Yorkshire plant to stay afloat

Sale of aerospace supplier proposed as lenders try to claw back cash after Greensill collapse

Sanjeev Gupta’s Liberty Steel has announced plans to sell its aerospace steel business in Yorkshire as part of a restructuring deal as it tries to ensure its survival.

The under-pressure steel firm said on Monday it was in talks with Credit Suisse, a large creditor, over agreements that would give it time to repay its debts. Gupta met Credit Suisse representatives in Dubai, where he is currently based.

The talks with Credit Suisse include a plan to sell its aerospace and special alloys steel business in Stocksbridge, South Yorkshire, plus an associated facility nearby and another in the West Midlands. It would also give Gupta time to refinance a separate plant in nearby Rotherham. About 750 people work at Stocksbridge and 650 at Rotherham.

A deal with Credit Suisse would help Gupta to allay fears for the future of the company and its 3,000 UK workers. Gupta’s broader grouping of companies, GFG Alliance, employs about 35,000 people in operations across Europe, Asia, the US and Australia.

Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, said there was “significant” uncertainty over jobs at the sites that are up for sale. “While I cautiously welcome progress being made to secure the future of Liberty Steel’s site in Rotherham, significant uncertainty remains for workers at those sites up for sale. I am monitoring developments closely and remain in regular contact with Liberty + trade unions,” he wrote on Twitter.

Liberty has been in crisis since March after the collapse of its key lender, Greensill Capital. Since then it has faced a host of threats, including legal claims by Credit Suisse to reclaim money, low demand from the stricken aerospace industry, and the revelation of a months-long fraud and money-laundering investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.

Credit Suisse was one of the largest backers of Greensill and it has been pursuing legal action to try to recoup its money from Liberty businesses in the UK and Australia.

Liberty said it was in “advanced discussions” over a standstill agreement with Credit Suisse in relation to an Australian business that would see the bank repaid in full. Talks over the UK business have not progressed as far.

Bankers at Credit Suisse have described the talks as helpful, but are cautiously waiting to see whether Gupta can deliver on the proposal, which could help return billions of pounds to its investors.

Credit Suisse has been trying to reclaim money for customers who invested in Greensill loans that were packaged up as investments and sold off via a series of Credit Suisse funds. Those investment funds were worth nearly $10bn (£7bn) before they were closed in March.

The bank has petitioned to wind up various Liberty Steel companies in the UK and Australia as it tries to claw back investor cash. Credit Suisse declined to comment on Liberty’s announcement.

Liberty’s legal difficulties have complicated Gupta’s efforts to find new lenders.

This month the metals magnate reached agreements with White Oak Global Advisers, a San Francisco-based investor, to lend to his profitable Australian business as well as to the struggling UK businesses. However, White Oak immediately withdrew its offer after the Serious Fraud Office revealed its investigation. GFG has denied any wrongdoing.

The opaque structure of Gupta’s sprawling metals empire has also aroused concerns. In March the UK government rejected a request for a £170m loan in part because of fears the money would flow to companies abroad. However, officials have prepared a plan to keep Liberty running if it is forced into liquidation.

Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow business secretary, called for the government and Liberty to secure legal assurances that Stocksbridge and Liberty’s other plants will remain open and no jobs will be cut if it is taken over.

“The government must show it has a plan B to protect the long-term future of our steel industry, including at Liberty – and public ownership must remain an option on the table,” Miliband said.

Liberty said it wanted to forge ahead with plans to make steel with lower carbon emissions at Rotherham, but said the aerospace business at Stocksbridge was not “core” to this ambition. Liberty said the Stocksbridge site was a “unique, high-quality business servicing marquee customers in aerospace, auto and other highly engineered applications”.

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A spokesperson for the steelworkers’ unions Community, GMB and Unite welcomed the apparent progress in talks, but added: “We urgently need a solution to inject cash into the UK [arm of Liberty].”

Gupta must live up to a previous promise that no steel plants would close on his watch, the spokesperson added.

The spokesperson said: “Liberty must act as a responsible seller and run a transparent sales process which fully engages the trade unions. We will expect to meet any potential buyer to scrutinise their plans and test their commitment to the workforce and our industry.”


Jasper Jolly and Kalyeena Makortoff

The GuardianTramp

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