Christopher Niesche: Pokies king's retirement plans take a hit

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At the age of 92, "poker-machine king" Ainsworth wants to retire.
At the age of 92, "poker-machine king" Ainsworth wants to retire.

Len Ainsworth started making poker machines more than 60 years ago to subsidise his dental equipment business.

At the age of 92, "poker-machine king" Ainsworth wants to retire.

But Australia's corporate watchdog is standing in his way.

Ainsworth is the founder and 53 per cent owner of poker machine manufacturer Ainsworth Game Technology and he wants to sell his stake - worth about half a billion dollars - to Austrian gaming company Novomatic.

But to do so, he needs approval from half of the other shareholders in the company at its annual meeting next month.

This is where his problem lies.

The Ainsworth family are believed to control as much as 10 per cent of the company, including an 8.9 per cent stake owned by Ainsworth's wife, Gretel.

The corporate regulator is arguing family members "have a relevant agreement or are acting in concert in connection with the share sale transaction and accordingly Mrs Ainsworth is an associate of Mr Ainsworth and should be excluded from voting in favour of the share sale transaction".

This would be a blow to Ainsworth's retirement plans, because those 10 per cent of votes will be crucial if the deal is to have any chance of securing a majority.

Many other shareholders are already opposed to the deal. They are aggrieved that Ainsworth will be able to cash in his shares at and receive a 33 per cent premium on the price the shares were selling for before the offer. But other shareholders won't be able to get the same premium for control that Ainsworth is getting. They want the Austrians to launch a full takeover bid so they can get the same deal.

This isn't Ainsworth's first attempt to retire.

He got his start in pokies while running a dental manufacturing business in Sydney, when the chief engineer asked him if he'd ever thought of making a poker machine.

"What's that?" asked Ainsworth, who decided to proceed with the plan to help raise funds for the dental business once he learned what pokie machines were.

But the poker-machine business took off, with Ainsworth spending his evenings after work travelling around licensed clubs in New South Wales selling the machines.

Aristocrat Leisure, as the company became, grew steadily and when Ainsworth was diagnosed with prostate cancer in his early 70s he decided to retire.

He divided Aristocrat into nine equal shares, which he handed to his wife, his ex-wife and his seven sons. Each of them pocketed about half a billion dollars from Len's largesse.

As it happened, the doctor's prognosis was wrong (in fact, the doctor died six months later of his own prostate cancer) and Ainsworth changed his retirement plans.

A year after the health scare, aged 72, he founded Ainsworth Game Technology, to compete with his former company Aristocrat.

Two decades later, he's ready to retire again, but his plans to cash in his company may be thwarted.

This is a pity for a nonagenarian who has donated millions of dollars to medical research, though he'll still have a few hundred million to retire on even if the deal doesn't go through.

But it is no bad things for minority shareholders, both in Ainsworth Game Technology and further afield.

Minority shareholders need to be protected from bigger shareholders who might sometimes pursue their own interests ahead of others', particularly in family businesses where related shareholders can work in concert. There is no suggestion that Ainsworth and his family are attempting to do anything wrong. However, minority shareholders need to be given the same rights as the family.

Retail success

Fridges and dishwashers have helped electronics retailer JB Hi-Fi go from strength to strength in a difficult market.

The price of electronic goods is tumbling in the face of tough competition and better technology; a lot of sales have gone to online retailers; and consumers are increasingly fickle about what they want and when.

The collapse of Dick Smith this year showed what can happen when retailers get it wrong.

JB Hi-Fi has not only weathered the storms buffeting electronics retailing but has thrived, through a clever rethink of the merchandise it stocks.

It still sells electronic goods, but has made a push into white goods over the past few years, particularly through its JB Hi-Fi Home stores.

On the back of this, the company's shares are up more than 20 per cent this year and hit an all-time high of A$24.50 ($26.15) after it provided a bullish trading update.

Now it's about to take an even bigger punt on the home appliances market, with the potential acquisition of competitor the Good Guys.

Based on its earnings, the 100-store Good Guys white-goods chain is expected to sell for between A$800 and A$900 million.

That's a hefty price for JB Hi-Fi, whose own market capitalisation is only about A$2.3 billion, so the company will probably have to sell more shares to investors to fund the acquisition.

A transaction like this carries significant risk, but it could also ensure that JB Hi-Fi's impressive growth continues.

- NZ Herald

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