Haggarty calls it quits at Whitehaven

RESIGNING: Tony Haggarty. Picture: Jim Rice
RESIGNING: Tony Haggarty. Picture: Jim Rice

WHITEHAVEN Coal’s respected managing director Tony Haggarty will retire in March after an ‘‘annus horribilis’’ since the company merged with Nathan Tinkler’s Aston Resources.

Mr Haggarty, a veteran of the coal industry who built up Excel Coal before selling it to Peabody for $2 billion then joined Whitehaven to mine coal in NSW Gunnedah Basin, will be replaced by non-executive director Paul Flynn, who was appointed to the board last May as a Tinkler Group representative.

But Mr Flynn, an accountant, quickly ‘‘went native’’ on the Whitehaven board and was regarded as independent by the time of the company’s annual meeting in October - when Mr Tinkler campaigned to spill the board.

At that meeting Mr Flynn said there had been a ‘‘parting of the ways" between himself and Mr Tinkler which was a "natural thing".

Whitehaven chairman Mark Vaile would not comment today on whether Mr Flynn’s appointment heralded a rapprochement with Mr Tinkler, who remains the largest shareholder with a 19.4 per cent stake.

‘‘Paul made a very clear statement at the AGM last year with regard to his independence,’’ Mr Vaile said. ‘‘This appointment is about his strategic leadership skills.’’

On the possibility of a new takeover bid from the Tinkler Group Mr Vaile said.

‘‘I don’t know that Paul’s appointment as CEO of Whitehaven adds any extra opportunity or not to that. We’ve continued to state we’re open to any proposals that are in the interests of all shareholders’’.

Mr Vaile said Whitehaven’s last direct engagement with the Tinkler Group was late last year and since then there had been ‘‘no approaches, or otherwise we would have alerted the market to that’’.

Mr Flynn’s succession follows a series of new management appointments at Whitehaven in recent months, including Jamie Frankcombe as executive general manager of operations, Brian Cole as executive general manager of projects delivery and Jonathan Vandervoort as executive general manager of infrastructure.

Mr Vaile said these appointments would complement Mr Flynn’s own skill set which, notwithstanding a lack of direct operational experience, were needed to manage an ASX100 business like Whitehaven.

‘‘Most (of Mr Flynn’s) experience at Ernst and Young was working with and advising clients in the resource sector,’’ Mr Vaile said. ‘‘He was involved right through the merger process. He has an intimate knowledge of the assets we own and operate.’’

Whitehaven has been on a roller-coaster ride since the Aston merger, partly because of uncertainty created by Mr Tinkler himself - with his unsuccessful privatisation bid last July - and partly due to weak coal markets, ramp-up troubles at the Narrabri underground, a train derailment, the activist Jonathan Moylan's hoax press release, speculation of a merger with China's Shenhua and uncertainty over the approval of the Maules Creek open-cut.

Whitehaven shares were down 13.5 cents or 4.3 per cent this morning to $2.995.