Grocery background to Senegal dispute

THE Woodside Petroleum v FAR v ConocoPhillips situation over the SNE oilfield in Senegal is effectively shaping up as a marital spat or some other family law dispute.
Grocery background to Senegal dispute Grocery background to Senegal dispute Grocery background to Senegal dispute Grocery background to Senegal dispute Grocery background to Senegal dispute

Slugcatcher

Over time, and with suitable counselling or a legally binding ruling from a court of some sort, most such matters are resolved, for better or for worse.
 
What's happening in Senegal has the hallmarks of a squabble between companies which ought to be friends because their common objective: the development of potentially valuable oilfield is good for everyone involved, including the government of Senegal.
 
Unfortunately FAR, the corporate minnow in this situation, is far from happy because it is convinced that it had a pre-emptive right to acquire the stake in SNE reportedly sold by ConocoPhillips to Woodside for around $US430 million ($A571.13 million) last year.
 
Woodside disagrees. It reckons the deal is done and anyway, if there is a dispute, it's between FAR and ConocoPhillips.
 
Until last week this tricky situation had been lying doggo only to return when Woodside told the Australian stock exchange last week that FAR would not support a change in Development Leader from another partner in the project, Britain's Cairn Energy, to Woodside.
 
Both Woodside and FAR are strongly pursuing their respective positions in what has the makings of a David v Goliath stand-off given Woodside's stock-market value of $25.5 billion and FAR's $415 million; a 60-to-1 weight advantage.
 
A date with an international arbitrator, probably in France, seems the likely outcome of the matter which is rather annoying for Woodside which wants to get on with the SNE development as quickly as possible.
 
FAR is less rushed and says it is open to finding an amicable solution with ConocoPhillips, the company which undoubtedly wishes it was not caught up in a situation having struck a deal with Woodside the best part of a year ago.
 
Arbitration is seen as a likely way of resolving a three-way quarrel but there is a wild card about to enter the game with Woodside getting a new chairman on August 1.
 
Normally, a new head of a company's board would not be such a big event because most day-to-day matters in a company's affairs rest on the desk of the chief executive, but when Richard Goyder joins the Woodside board and replaces Michael Chaney there is an interesting piece of history from another industry to consider.
 
Goyder, a new boy in the oil patch, is a highly regarded director and remains in his position of chief executive at the diversified industrial company Wesfarmers until later this year.
 
The reason that role should be interesting in the complex Senegal dispute is that Goyder has first-hand experience of how disagreements between big companies and small companies can sometimes take an unexpected twist.
 
Three years ago Wesfarmers, which owns one of Australia's biggest supermarket chains, Coles, was wrapped over the knuckles by Australia's competition regulator because of the way it had been dealing with some of the small suppliers of the groceries it sells.
 
It was a very unsightly matter because it boiled down to a big company appearing to be dealing harshly with small companies.
 
In the words of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commissioner, Coles had engaged in "unconscionable conduct in relation to its Active Retail Collaboration program, in contravention of Australian Consumer Law".
 
A year after that sharply-word statement from the ACCC Coles agreed to the recommendation of an independent arbitrator and refunded $A12 million to suppliers and allowed them to exit the ARC without penalty.
 
The ARC, for anyone interested, was designed to provide Coles with "better trading terms from its suppliers" with rebates from suppliers to Coles on goods provided.
 
More than 200 small suppliers received refunds from Coles as a result of the arbitration which was overseen by a former Premier of Victoria, Jeff Kennett.
 
It might be The Slug's over-active imagination but he finds it hard to picture Goyder walking into a situation which, while different in structure and scope, has the look of a big v small wrangle which was what Coles v suppliers boiled down to.
 
Goyder will leave the day-to-day FAR situation with Woodside chief executive, Peter Coleman, but he will also be keen to not see it fester for another 12-months which is possible because of the nature of arbitrations, and close to what the Coles v suppliers arbitration took.
 
A more appealing resolution would be commercially based that avoided appearing before an arbitrator, and all the management time that would consume when the real business of Woodside in pumping gas and oil.
 
What next?
 
Well, past experience has taught The Slug to not get too close to companies (and people) locked in a dispute over the terms of an agreement, especially when different sides are reading the agreement in different ways.
 
There is, however, a sneaking suspicion that Goyder will be keen to see the paperwork underpinning Woodside's Senegal ambitions cleared away as soon as possible, a position he is likely to explain to Coleman on the first day of his new gig as the company's chairman.
 
 

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