The government is seeking a buyer for the UK’s second-largest steelmaker. Sanjeev Gupta, an Indian-born tycoon with form as a saviour of troubled firms, is circling – but can he find the cash?
The business secretary, Greg Clark, has been scouring India and China to drum up potential bidders for British Steel – the UK’s second-largest steelmaker, which collapsed into insolvency in May. One firm reportedly “monitoring the situation” is Liberty House, the industrial conglomerate led by Sanjeev Gupta – one of a string of Indian-born tycoons who have been sizing up the ailing industry for the past decade.
Dubbed the “Man of Steel” by fans, Gupta, 47, has form as a rescuer. In 2013, he salvaged a troubled steel mill in South Wales and three years later became “one of Britain’s biggest private landlords” when he bought Scotland’s Lochaber aluminium smelter, together with two hydroelectric dams and more than 100,000 acres on the slopes of Ben Nevis, as The Sunday Times reported.
Scottish politicians couldn’t have been more accommodating. In fact, politicians globally have been showering Gupta’s operations with subsidies – seduced by his “vision” of a new type of manufacturing called “green steel” (marrying metal production with renewable power). The purchase of seven more European plants from ArcelorMittal last week has made his umbrella Gupta Family Group (GFG) one of the world’s biggest steelmakers, with an empire spanning 30 countries. The troubling question is whether an edifice built so speedily on the “risky alchemy” of “state handouts and clever financing” could just as easily evaporate.
The “world’s most ambitious industrialist” has always been in a hurry, says Forbes. Born into a prominent Punjabi commercial family – his grandfather owned steel mills; his father built a successful bicycle business – Gupta arrived in Britain, aged 12, to board at St Edmund’s College, Canterbury. He got to Cambridge to study economics at Trinity College, but had little time for academia, notes the Financial Times. He spent all his time trading. Liberty House began life in 1992, headquartered in Trinity, and developed a line selling ICI chemical products to Nigeria. By the time the college authorities wised up to his activities, Gupta claims “to have been turning over £1m a day with the help of various relatives”. Fearing a breach of its charitable status, Trinity slung him out. “Tellingly, it wasn’t the loss of accommodation that Gupta minded,” but the fiscal advantage. “I wanted to use the college address because it meant the telex machine was exempt from VAT.”
Roulette with public money
Two individuals have played key roles in Gupta’s journey. The first, says The Sunday Times, is Australian financier Alexander “Lex” Greensill, whose reputation for “financial wizardry” centres on his expertise “in turning IOUs into tradeable financial instruments”. The second is Tim Haywood, formerly a fund manager at the Swiss asset manager GAM, who bought up much of GFG’s debt. The pair fuelled Gupta’s dealmaking for years by “playing roulette with public funds”. But “a big crack emerged last summer” when GAM revealed that Haywood, head of its £8.5bn absolute-return bond funds, had been suspended. As investors rushed to pull cash from the funds, GAM’s shares collapsed.
Steel is a brutal business, but “Gupta scents opportunity where everyone since the bewhiskered Victorian steel masters has failed”, said the FT in 2016. Warming to the part, he and his wife Nicola have bought a large country-house estate near Chepstow – a stone’s throw from his Newport plant. Finance could be a little tight this summer: GAM “has demanded repayment of the bonds” and Gupta needs to raise about £600m fast. The ongoing question is whether he can “keep up his alchemy” now that GAM’s door is “firmly shut”.