Last summer in Melbourne, a group of politicians descended on a hotel overlooking Melbourne's botanic gardens.
There was John Brumby, Victoria's former premier, who is now chairman of a business council linking Australia to China. There was Ted Baillieu, another Victoria premier, who took 600 Australian executives on a trip to China in 2012, pulling together the largest trade delegation ever to land in Beijing. There was also Richard Alston, an Australian senator who served as High Commissioner to the UK, plus the Consul General for Indonesia and the Consul General for Chile. Business bigwigs in attendance “were too numerous to mention”, one account of the evening said.
The man behind the invites was Owen Hegarty, an aristocrat on Melbourne's mining scene, whose private equity firm, EMR Capital, had just closed its second fund, pushing its assets through $2bn.
As other private equity firms have failed to gain any traction in the mining industry, EMR has
rattled through deals, pulling-in capital from China and the US, whilst pulling the strings behind dozens of mining assets in gold, copper, potash and coking coal.
“I'd have to describe myself as very lucky really,” Hegarty says, speaking from an investor meeting in Los Angeles. “But you tend to make your own luck by going very hard at it.”
Hegarty led Rio Tinto's copper business in Australia, running mines, smelters and concentrate trading. He had joined from university and worked his way up, but after 25 years, jumped “to the small end of town”, founding Oxiana Limited, a micro-cap mining stock. By building-out mines in Laos, Australia and Indonesia, Hegarty grew Oxiana into a multi-billion dollar copper-gold company, which he now refers to as “the mighty Ox”. But by 2009, Hegarty had decided that he wanted his own capital pool.
The market can be “hard yards”, he says. “Inside the Ox, I spent 100 per cent of my time raising capital, 100 per cent of my time telling
people about the company in the public markets, and 100 per cent of my time doing my day-job. One of the most frustrating things was that you're beholden to the market. It doesn't matter how good your people and your projects are, if the market's not open, you're dead in the water, you can't raise the money.”
Around the same time, Hegarty bumped into Jason Chang, a lawyer and tax specialist running the Asia desk at accountancy KPMG. Hegarty was on the board of iron ore giant Fortescue and KPMG had helped broker a A$1.2bn investment in Fortescue's stock by a steel group in southern China. “I was not in the ruck of the detail, but KPMG was somewhere in there as an advisor and Jason was somewhere inside KPMG.”
Whilst Hegarty was plugged into every mine-build run out of Australia, Jason Chang was dealing daily with Asian firms wanting to buy into mining assets. The pair teamed-up and EMR was founded.
As metal prices tanked in the years that followed, several private equity groups...